Audrey did not dare to laugh, Cyril was so evidently in earnest; her nice tact guarded her from making such a grievous mistake.
'Your question is a little vague, Mr. Blake; I hardly know what I am to understand by it. Do you mean evening dress for one dinner-party or a succession of dinner-parties? You know they are perpetual in Rutherford; every house invites every other house to dinner. In Rutherford we are terribly given to dining out.'
'Oh, I see; and relays of gowns would be required,' returned Cyril in a dejected voice. 'I am afraid I must give it up, then. My mother would certainly not be able to afford that for the present.'
'But when one wears black, a change of dress is not so necessary,' interrupted Audrey eagerly. 'If I were poor, I should not allow poverty to debar me from the society of my fellow-creatures, just because I could not make as great a display as other people. No, indeed; I would not be the slave of my clothes.'
'I can believe that,' with an admiring glance.
'I would have one good black dress—and it should be as nice as my means would allow—and I would wear it everywhere, and I would not care a bit if people looked as though they recognised it. "You are noticing my gown!" I would say to them. "Yes, it is an old friend. Old friends are better than new, and I mean to cling to mine. By and by, when I am a little richer, I will buy another."'
'Miss Ross, if my mother could but hear you!'
'Tell her what I say, and bid her do the same. Black suits her so perfectly, too.'
'Oh, she never means to wear anything else but black,' he returned gravely.
'Let her get a soft silk—a Surah, for example—and if it be made prettily and in the newest fashion, it will look well for a long time. Yes'—reflectively—'Mrs. Blake would look well in Surah.'
'Would she? Do you mind telling me how to spell it?' and Cyril produced his pocket-book.
'Thank you a thousand times, Miss Ross! And about the cost—would five pounds do?' looking at her anxiously.
'Oh yes, I should say that would do,' replied Audrey, who in reality knew very little about it.
Mr. Blake would have done better to have consulted Geraldine, she thought. Geraldine would have told him the price to a fraction of a shilling; she would have directed him to the best shop for making an excellent bargain. Geraldine had a genius for these practical things, whereas she—Audrey—was liable to make mistakes.
'I am sure five pounds will do,' she repeated, by way of encouragement; and again Cyril thanked her fervently.
There was no more opportunity for carrying on this interesting discussion, for the others were now standing quite still in the shrubbery walk, waiting for them to join them.
'My dearest boy, everyone has gone!' exclaimed Mrs. Blake, in a tone of dismay. 'The tennis-lawn is empty!'
'What does that matter?' replied Audrey, hastening up to her with a heightened colour, as she noticed a quick, observant look on Michael's part. 'We have no rule for our Mondays; people come when they like, and stay as long as they like.'
'But, still, to be the last to go, and this my first visit to Woodcote!' rejoined Mrs. Blake uneasily. 'Cyril, you ought to have taken me away long ago.'
'We will make our adieux now,' he returned carelessly, and not at all affected by his mother's discomposure. 'Come, mother, I see Mrs. Ross standing in the drawing-room window; she is evidently waiting for us.' And Cyril drew his mother's hand through his arm.
Audrey and Michael followed them to the gate. Mrs. Blake kissed Audrey with some effusion. Audrey, who, in spite of her large heart and wide sympathies, was not a demonstrative person, would willingly have dispensed with this little attention before the gentlemen. Mrs. Blake had never offered to embrace her before. She had an idea, too, that Cyril was not quite pleased.
'Come, come, mother,' he said impatiently, 'we are detaining Miss Ross;' and he hurried her away.
Audrey would have returned to the house at once, but Michael asked her to take another turn in the shrubbery.
'For I have not seen you for a whole week,' he grumbled; 'and it is hardly possible to get a word with you now.'
'Well, you have me now,' she returned with assumed gaiety; but all the time she wanted to be alone and think what Mr. Blake's parting look meant. 'It was so—so——' Audrey could not quite find the word. 'And now, Michael, I am ready.' Audrey was going to say, 'I am ready to hear your opinion of Mrs. Blake;' but just at that moment she saw her father coming to meet them.
Two is company, but three is none, as both Michael and Audrey felt at that moment. Dr. Ross, on the contrary, joined them with the air of a man who knows himself to be an acquisition. He tucked his daughter's hand under his arm, and began questioning Michael about his week in town.
As it happened, Michael had seen and done a good deal, and Audrey was soon interested in what he had to tell them. She knew all Michael's friends by name, and in this way could claim acquaintance with a large circle. She was soon busily questioning him in her turn. Had he seen that pretty little Mrs. Maddox? and was the baby christened? and who was the second godfather? and so on, until the gong warned them to disperse.
The conversation at dinner ran on the same topics, but just before they rose from the table Mrs. Ross asked Michael if he did not admire Mrs. Blake.
'Very much, indeed,' he returned, without a moment's hesitation. 'She has three very excellent points for a woman: she is pretty, lively, and amusing. I had quite a long talk with her.' And then he changed the subject—whether intentionally or unintentionally Audrey could not tell—and began telling them about a picture one of his friends was painting for the next Exhibition.
Michael was very much engaged the next few days. He had told Kester to come to him every morning that week, to make up for the lessons he had lost, and as a succession of garden-parties occupied Audrey's afternoons, she did not find time for one of those confidential chats with Michael which they both so much enjoyed. When Thursday came Michael escorted her to the Charringtons' garden-party. Mrs. Ross and her husband were to come later.
Audrey was amongst the tennis-players, but, as she passed to and fro with her various partners, she saw Michael more than once talking to Mrs. Blake. The first time he gave her a nod and a smile, but when she passed them again he seemed too much engrossed with Mrs. Blake's lively conversation to notice her.
Audrey had just finished her second game with Mr. Blake, and he was taking her to the house in search of refreshments. As Audrey ate her strawberries, she wondered a little over Michael's abstraction.
'He certainly seems to admire her,' she said to herself.
Michael and she were to dine at Hillside that evening, and as they walked home together in the summer moonlight Audrey bethought herself at last of asking that question.
'Michael, I want you to tell me what you think of Mrs. Blake? I am quite sure you like her very much indeed.'
'You are wrong, then. I wonder what put such a notion in your head—because I was talking to her so much this afternoon? That was more her fault than mine. No, Audrey; I am sorry to say it, but I do not like Mrs. Blake at all.'
'Michael!' and Audrey stood still in the road. This was a shock indeed! She was prepared for criticism: Michael always criticised her friends; he felt it a part of his duty; but this utter disapprobation was so unexpected; it was crushing—absolutely crushing! Michael, too, whose opinion she trusted so entirely! 'Oh, I hope you don't mean it—that you are only joking,' she said, so earnestly that he felt a little sorry for his abruptness; but it was too late to retract; besides, Michael never retracted.
'I am sorry you asked me the question; but I am bound to tell you the truth, you know.'
'And is it really the truth?' she asked a little piteously. 'It is very soon for you to have made up your mind that you do not like her; why, you have only spoken to her twice.'
'Yes; but I have had plenty of time to form my opinion of her. Look here, Audrey, you must not be vexed with me. I would not have found fault with your fair friend if you had not asked my opinion. Of course I admire her; one has seldom seen a prettier woman, and her style is so uncommon, too.'
'Don't, Michael; you will be praising her hair and complexion next, as Gertrude Fortescue did the other afternoon. It is the woman, Mrs. Blake herself, I want you to like.'
'Ah, just so!'
'And now I am so disappointed. Somehow I never enjoy my friends quite so much if you do not care for them. I thought we always liked the same people, but now——' Here Audrey stopped. She felt vexed and mortified; she did want Michael to share her interest in the Blakes.
'And now you will look on me as a broken reed; but, after all, I am not so bad. I like Kester—he is a fine fellow; and I like your little friend Mollie—she is true as steel; and,' after a moment's pause, 'I like Mr. Blake.'
'Are you quite sure of that, Michael?'
'Yes, I am quite sure of it. If I know anything of human nature, Mr. Blake is worthy of my esteem: as far as any man is good, he is good. And then he has such splendid capabilities.'
Audrey felt vaguely that this was generous on Michael's part; and yet she could not have told herself why it was generous. If she had had an idea of the truth! But as yet she was only dimly conscious of the nobility of Michael's nature.
'Mr. Blake is clever,' he continued, 'but he does not think much of himself; it is rare to find such modesty in a young man of the present day. Still, he is very young; one can hardly tell what he may become.'
'Father says he is three-and-twenty, Michael.'
'Still, Audrey, a man's character is not always fully developed at three-and-twenty; at that age I was a conceited cub. I am seven-and-thirty now, and I feel my opinions are as settled as Dr. Ross's are.'
'I wish you would not always talk as though you were father's contemporary; it is so absurd, Michael, when everyone else thinks you a young man!'
'I am a very old young man,' he returned with a whimsical smile; 'I have aged prematurely, and my wisdom has developed at the same rapid rate. Amongst my other gifts I have that of second-sight.'
'Indeed!' with incredulous scorn. 'You are not very humble in your own estimation.'
'My dear, old young men are never humble. Well, my gift of second-sight has put me up to a thing or two. Do you know,' turning away and switching the hedgerows carelessly as he spoke, 'I should be very sorry if any girl in whom I took a deep interest were to be thrown too much into Mr. Blake's company.'
Audrey faced round on her cousin in extreme surprise.
'You are very incomprehensible to-night, Michael: at one moment you praise Mr. Blake, and say nice things about him, and the next minute you are warning people against becoming intimate with him—that is surely very inconsistent.'
'Oh, there is method in my madness,' he returned quietly. 'I have nothing to say against the young man himself. As far as I can tell, there is no harm in him; but he is so young, and is such a devoted son, that he is likely to be influenced by his mother.'
'And it is on her account that you would dislike any such intimacy? Oh, Michael,' very sorrowfully, 'I had no idea you would dislike her so!'
'It seems rather unreasonable—such a pretty woman, too. On the whole, I think I do like talking to her, she is so amusing. But, Audrey, I must say one thing: you are always talking about her frankness. Now, I do not agree with you.'
'I don't understand you, Michael. I have never known anyone so outspoken.'
'Outspoken—yes. Well, I will explain myself. You are frank, Audrey; you hide nothing, because there is nothing to hide; and if there were, you would not hide it. Now, Mrs. Blake has her reserves; with all her impulsiveness, she has thorough self-command, and would never say a word more than suited her own purposes. It is her pleasure to indulge in a wild, picturesque sort of talk; it is effective, and pleases people; and Mrs. Blake, in common with other pretty women, likes to please. There is no positive harm in it—perhaps not, but it detracts from reality.'
'But, Michael, I like to please people too.'
'Certainly you do. Have I not often called you a little hypocrite for pretending to like what other people like! How often have we fallen out on that point! But you and Mrs. Blake are very different people, my dear; with all your faults, your friends would not wish to see you changed.'
But the dark shade of the shrubbery walk they were just entering hid the strangely tender look that was in Michael's eyes as he said the last words.
MRS. BLAKE HAS HER NEW GOWN
'Thou art a girl of noble nature's crowning: A smile of thine is like an act of grace; Thou hast no noisome looks, no pretty frowning, Like daily beauties of a vulgar race. When thou dost smile, a light is on thy face, A clear, cool kindliness, a lunar beam Of peaceful radiance, silvering o'er the stream Of human thought with beauteous glory, Not quite a waking truth, nor quite a dream: A visitation—bright though transitory.'
Audrey was much disappointed by the result of her conversation with her cousin. It was true that Michael had tried to efface the severity of his own words by remarking that a third interview might somewhat alter his opinion of the fascinating widow—that he might even grow to like her in time. Audrey knew better. Michael had a certain genius of intuition; he made up his mind about people at once, and she had never known him to reverse his decision. As far as regarded the younger members of the Blake family, they would still be able to work happily together. Michael was certainly much interested in Kester; he had adopted him in the same manner as she had adopted Mollie. It was a comfort also that he approved of Mr. Blake. Michael had spoken of him with decided approval, and without any stint or limit of praise; nevertheless she was well aware that Michael would willingly have restricted their intimacy, and that he saw with some reluctance her father's growing partiality for the young master.
Audrey had only spoken the simple truth when she owned that Michael's approval was necessary to her perfect enjoyment of her friend. She might still maintain her own opinions of Mrs. Blake. Nevertheless, the first fine flavour of her pleasure had been destroyed by Michael's severe criticism; the delicate bloom had been impaired. She would hold fast to her new friend; she would even be kinder to her, as though to make up for other people's hard speeches; but much of her enthusiasm must be locked in her own breast.
'What is the use of talking on a subject on which we should only disagree?' she said to him a week or two afterwards, when he had rebuked her playfully for not telling him something. 'It was only a trifling matter connected with Mrs. Blake.'
And when he heard that, Michael held his peace. He had been thrown constantly into Mrs. Blake's company since their first meeting, but as yet he had not seen fit to change his opinions.
But in spite of this little rift in her perfect harmony, Audrey thoroughly enjoyed the next month; she was almost sorry that the vacation was so near. It had been a very gay month. Relays of visitors—distant relations or mere friends—had been invited to Woodcote and Hillside. Mrs. Ross's garden-party had rivalled Mrs. Charrington's, and there had been a succession of picnics, driving parties, and small select dinners at all the Hill houses. But in spite of her many engagements—her afternoons on the cricket-field, the tennis tournament, in which she and Cyril Blake won, and various other gaieties—Audrey had not neglected Mollie. Twice a week she devoted an hour and a half to her pupil. When the music-lesson was over, Audrey would read French with her or correct her exercises. She was a very conscientious mistress, and would not allow Mollie to waste any of her time in idle gossip. When she was putting away her books, Mollie's voluble tongue would make amends for the enforced silence.
'Oh, Miss Ross,' she exclaimed one day, 'do you know, Cyril has given mamma such a beautiful present! You will never guess what it is!'
Audrey prudently refrained from any guesses; besides, she was still correcting Mollie's translation.
'It is a black silk dress—a real beauty, as mamma says. She has borrowed Miss Marshall's last copy of the Queen, and she means to make it up herself. Mamma is so clever! It is to have a long train; at least, a moderately long train, and an open bodice—open in front, you know—with tulle folds. Oh, I forget exactly; but mamma explained it to me so nicely!'
'It was very kind of your brother,' observed Audrey gravely.
For once Mollie was not checked.
'Yes; isn't he a darling for thinking of it? He went to Attenborough himself and chose it, and mamma thought he was on the cricket-field all the time. He got her a pair of long gloves, too. Cyril always thinks of everything. Mamma cried when she opened the parcel, she was so pleased; and then Cyril laughed at her. The worst of it is'—and here Mollie's face lengthened a little—'Kester will have to wait for his new suit, and the poor boy is so shabby! Cyril went up to his room to tell him so; because his leg was so painful, he had gone to bed early. Of course, Kester said he did not mind a bit, and he would much rather that mamma had her new gown and could go out and enjoy herself; but, all the same, it is a little hard for Kester, is it not?'
'I don't think boys care about their clothes quite so much as girls do.'
'Oh, but Kester does; he is almost as particular as Cyril. He does love to have everything nice, and I know he is ashamed of that old jacket. He has outgrown it, too, and the sleeves are so short; and now he is so much with Captain Burnett, he feels it all the more. Oh, do you know, Miss Ross'—interrupting herself—'Captain Burnett is going to drive Kester to Brail in his dogcart!'
'That will be very nice. But, Mollie, you really must leave off chattering; you have translated this sentence quite wrongly. This is not one bit the sense.' And Mollie did at last consent to hold her tongue.
Audrey took her mother into her confidence that afternoon as they were dining together, and told her the whole story about the black silk dress. Mrs. Ross was much interested.
'How very nice of him!' she said, in just the sympathetic tone that Audrey expected to hear. 'I said from the first that I liked Mr. Blake; I told your father so. He is a good son. I am not a bit surprised that his mother dotes on him. I am sure I should if he were my son;' and Mrs. Ross heaved a gentle little sigh under her lace mantle.
She knew her husband had ardently desired a son, and, until Michael's troubles had made him almost an inmate of the house, there had been a certain void and unfulfilled longing in Dr. Ross's breast. Not that he ever spoke of such things; but his wife knew him so well.
'Perhaps one day he will have a grandson,' she thought; for her motherly imagination loved to stretch itself into the future.
'Don't you think we might ask Mrs. Blake to dinner next week, when your cousin Rose is here?' she observed presently. 'Rosie will be charmed with her; and we could get the Cardells to meet her, and perhaps the Vicar and Mrs. Boyle. You know they have not been to dine with us for a long time.'
'Very well, mother. I have not the slightest objection,' returned Audrey, who had in fact been leading up to this. 'I suppose you will ask Gage too?'
'Oh, of course!' for Mrs. Ross never considered any party complete without the presence of her eldest daughter. 'We must find out which day will suit her best.'
'I do not believe Percival will let her come,' returned Audrey calmly. 'He says she is going out too much, and tiring herself dreadfully. I heard him tell her that he meant to be more strict with her for the future.'
'Dear Percival, how good he is to her! I always told your father that he would make her an excellent husband. Your father was not a bit enthusiastic at first—he liked Percival, and thought him an exceedingly able man; but he never did think anyone good enough for his girls. You will find him hard to please when your turn comes, Audrey.'
'My turn will be long in coming,' she replied lightly. 'Well, if Percival prove himself a tyrant, whom do you mean to have in Gage's place?' And then they resumed the subject of the dinner-party.
Things turned out as Audrey predicted: Mr. Harcourt would not allow his wife to accept her mother's invitation.
'She has been over-exerting herself, and must keep quiet,' he said to his mother-in-law when he next saw her at Hillside. 'I tell her that unless she is prudent, and takes things more quietly, she will not be fit for her journey to Scotland—and then all our plans will be upset.'
For a charming arrangement had been made for the summer vacation. Dr. Ross had taken a cottage in the Highlands for his family, and Mr. Harcourt had secured a smaller one, about half a mile off, for himself and his wife. Michael was to form part of the Ross household, and during the last week or two he and Audrey had been putting their heads together over a benevolent scheme for taking Kester. There was a spare room in their cottage, and Mrs. Ross had asked Audrey if she would like one of her cousins to accompany them. Audrey had hesitated for the moment. Mollie had been in her thoughts, but when she had hinted at this to Michael, he had said somewhat decidedly that, in his opinion, Kester ought to be the one to have the treat.
'He would be company for me, too,' he added, 'when you and your father go on your fishing expeditions. And he will not be a bad third, either, when you honour us with your company.'
Audrey had a great wish to take Mollie. She thought how the girl would enjoy those long rambles across the purple moors, but she was open to reason: as Michael had pointed out to her, Kester certainly needed the change more than Mollie. It would be good for Michael to have a companion when she and her father and Percival went on one of their long expeditions. The boy had been drooping sadly of late—the heat tried him—and, as Audrey knew, Biddy's homely dishes seldom tempted his sickly appetite.
Mr. Harcourt was not aware of this little plan. When he uttered his marital protest Geraldine looked at her mother with a sort of resigned despair.
'You hear what Percy says, mother. I suppose you must ask someone else in my place.'
'But I am not going without you,' returned her husband good-naturedly. 'Your mother would not want me, my dear, under those circumstances. We will stay at home, like Darby and Joan, by our own ingle-side.'
'Oh, then you can ask the Drummonds,' went on Geraldine, in a relieved voice. 'Audrey ought to have reminded you of them, but she seems to think only of the Blakes. I suppose you will be obliged to ask Mr. Blake, too, mother?'
'Yes, certainly, my dear. Mrs. Blake would not like to come without her son. It will be a large party, but——'
'Well, it cannot be helped, I suppose; but Percy and I think it is rather a pity——' Here Geraldine gave a slight cough, warned by a look from her husband.
'What is a pity, my dear?'
'Oh, it does not matter—at least, Percy does not wish me to speak.'
'Geraldine is rather like the dog in the manger,' interrupted Mr. Harcourt. 'Because I will not let her come to your dinner-party, she would rather you did not have one at all. That is it, isn't it, Jerry?'
Mrs. Ross smiled benevolently at this little sally. She liked to hear her son-in-law's jokes. She never joked Geraldine herself, and so she seldom saw that girlish blush that was so becoming.
When she had taken her leave, Geraldine said to her husband:
'Why did you stop me just now when I was dropping that hint about Mr. Blake?'
'Because I thought the hint premature, my dear,' he returned drily, 'and because it is not our place to warn Mr. Blake off the premises; he is not the first young man, and I do not expect he will be the last, to admire Audrey.'
'But, Percy, I am quite sure that Mr. Blake is too handsome and too attractive altogether to be a harmless admirer.'
'Pooh! nonsense, my love. Don't let your imagination run away with you. Audrey is too sensible a girl to let herself fall in love with a young fellow like Blake. Now shall I go on with our book?' For that day Geraldine was considered an invalid, and as her husband thought fit to indulge and make much of her, she was not so sure she disliked her passing indisposition, any more than Mr. Harcourt disliked playing Darby to his handsome Joan.
The dinner-party passed off well, and Mrs. Blake looked so lovely in her new gown that she made quite a sensation, and the Vicar observed to his wife afterwards 'that she was the nicest and most agreeable woman he had met for a long time.'
Mrs. Boyle received this eulogium a little coldly. She was a fat, dumpy little person, with a round, good-natured face that had once been pretty. 'Bernard might admire Mrs. Blake,' she said to herself,—'she was the sort of woman men always raved about; but for her part she was not sure she admired her style,' but she had the rare magnanimity to keep her opinions to herself. Mrs. Boyle never contradicted her husband after the peevish manner of some wives.
The term was drawing to a close now, and Mollie's face lengthened a little every day. Audrey had mooted the scheme to her father during a walk they had together, and Dr. Ross, who was one of the most benevolent and kindly of men, had at once given his consent, and had promised to speak to Michael, who carried it through with a high hand.
Great was the rejoicing in the Blake household. Poor Kester had turned red and white by turns, and could hardly speak a word, so intense was his surprise; but Audrey, who saw the lad's agony of embarrassment, assured him that there was no need for him to speak, and that everything was settled.
Cyril was almost as embarrassed when he came in to thank them that evening.
'I have never heard of such kindness in my life,' he said eagerly, when he found Audrey alone; for the others were all in the garden, as she told him. 'I will go to them directly. Of course I must speak to Captain Burnett. I hear it is his thought. Am I interrupting you?' looking at her open desk. 'May I stay a moment?'
'Certainly, if you like.'
But Audrey did not resume her seat. She stood by the lamp, its crimson shade casting ruddy gleams over her white dress. She had coiled her hair loosely—Audrey was given to dressing herself hurriedly—and one long plait had become unfastened. It looked so smooth and brown against her white neck. At such moments Audrey certainly looked pretty. Perhaps Cyril thought so, for he looked at her long and earnestly.
'I hardly know how to thank you all,' he went on almost abruptly. 'My mother feels the same. It is such a weight off my mind. You know, I am going to Cornwall myself; one of our Keble men has invited me. His father has a nice place near Truro.'
'That will be a pleasant change for you,' she observed sympathetically.
'Oh, I always turn up trumps,' he replied brightly. 'Last Christmas, and again at Easter, I had heaps of invitations. I was only bothering myself about Kester: he looked so seedy, you know, and it seemed such hard lines for him, poor boy! to see me go off and enjoy myself.'
'Well, you see, Kester means to enjoy himself too.'
'Don't I know that? He is a lucky fellow!' and Cyril sighed—a good honest sigh it was, too, for Audrey heard it. 'Just fancy seven weeks in paradise!'
'Well, it is very lovely there,' she answered demurely; and then she discovered the stray lock, and pinned it up hastily.
'Oh, I was not meaning the place—though, of course, everyone knows Braemar has its advantages. I think one's happiness depends more on the society one has. Don't you think so too, Miss Ross?'
'I daresay you are right. Well, we shall have my sister and her husband, and Kester and Captain Burnett; so we shall be a nice party.'
'Oh yes, of course Captain Burnett is going?' returned Cyril, in a dubious tone.
'Yes; and I suppose you think he is lucky too?' and there was a gleam of fun in Audrey's eyes.
'Not more so than usual; the gate of paradise is never shut on Captain Burnett.'
But though Cyril laughed as he made this little speech, there was no expression of mirth in his eyes. But Audrey chose to consider it a joke.
'If you talk in this manner, I shall think you envy Kester his treat.'
'I am afraid I do envy him, Miss Ross. If Kester and I could only change places——'
He checked himself as though he had said too much, and turned to the window.
'You will find them all on the circular bench,' she said, sitting down to her desk again. 'When I have finished my letter I will join you.' And Cyril took the hint.
'I wish he would not say such things; but, of course, he is only joking,' thought Audrey. But in her heart she knew he was not joking. Could she be ignorant that on all possible occasions Mr. Blake followed her like a shadow—a very quiet, unobtrusive shadow; but, nevertheless, he seemed always near. Could she be blind to the wistful looks that seemed to watch her on all occasions, and that interpreted her every wish? Perhaps no one else noticed them—Audrey fervently hoped not—unless it were his mother. And here Audrey reddened at the remembrance of certain vague hints and innuendoes that had latterly made her uncomfortable, and hindered her from going to the Gray Cottage.
'Perhaps I am too friendly with him. I do not check him sufficiently,' she thought. 'But he has never said such things before. He ought not; I must not allow it. What would Gage or Michael say? Dear old Michael! how excited he is about our Scotch trip! He says he shall be so pleased to have my undivided attention again. I wonder, have I been less nice to Michael lately? He has certainly seemed more dull than usual. I will make up for it—I will indeed! Michael shall never be dull if I can help it, I mean to devote myself to him.' And then Audrey took up her pen with a sigh. Was she really glad the term was so nearly over? It had been such a nice summer. Of course she would enjoy Scotland, with all her own people round her, and there would be Kester. Kester would write to his brother sometimes, and, of course, there would be letters in reply. That would be pleasant. Oh yes, everything was delightful! And with this final thought Audrey set herself resolutely to work, and finished her letter just in time to see Cyril take his leave. He had waited for her with the utmost impatience, but when Mrs. Ross complained of chilliness, and proposed to return to the house, he had no excuse for lingering any longer, and Michael, with some alacrity, had accompanied him to the gate.
MOLLIE LETS THE CAT OUT OF THE BAG
'Nothing is true but love, nor aught of worth; Love is the incense which doth sweeten earth.'
'Oh dear, Miss Ross, what shall I do without you for seven whole weeks?' was Mollie's piteous lament one morning. Audrey was on her knees packing a huge travelling box, and Mollie, seated on the edge of a chair, was regarding her with round, melancholy eyes. It was the first day of the vacation, and Rutherford looked as empty and deserted as some forsaken city. Utter silence reigned in the lower school, from which the fifty boys had departed; and Mrs. Draper, the matron, had uttered more than once her usual formula of parting benediction as the last urchin drove off: 'There, bless them! they are all packed off, bag and baggage, thank Heaven! and not a missing collar or sock among them'—an ejaculation that Michael once declared was a homely Te Deum, sacred and peculiar to the race of Rutherford matrons.
Audrey straightened herself when she heard Mollie's plaintive lament.
'Now, Mollie, I thought you promised me that you would make yourself as happy as possible.'
'I said I would try,' returned Mollie, her eyes filling with tears; 'but how can I help missing you? I do mean to do my very best—I do indeed, Miss Ross.'
'Come, that is bravely said. I know it is hard upon you, my dear, taking Kester away.' But Mollie would not let her finish her sentence.
'Oh no; you must not say that. I am so glad for Kester to go. Do you know, he is so pleased and excited that he can hardly sleep when he goes to bed; and he wakes in the night to think about it. I do believe he loves Captain Burnett as much as I love you; he is always talking about him. After all'—here Mollie dried her eyes—'it is not so bad for me as it is for mamma: she is always wretched without Cyril; you can't think how restless and unlike herself she is when he is away from her; she spends half her time writing to him or reading his letters. Cyril always writes such nice long letters.'
'And Kester and I will write to you; you will be glad of letters, too, Mollie.'
Evidently this charming idea had not occurred to Mollie, for she darted from her place and gave Audrey a grateful hug.
'Do you mean it? will you really write to me? Oh, you dear thing! how I do love you!' with another hug. 'But you must not tire yourself, you know, or Kester either; they need not be long letters, but just nice little notes, that won't trouble you.'
'Oh, we will see about that,' returned Audrey, smiling. She was touched by this thoughtfulness; it was so like Mollie's sweet unselfishness: she never did seem to think of herself. 'You have no idea how quickly the time will pass. Think of all the things you have promised to do for me!' for Audrey had already made all sorts of nice little plans for her favourite. Mollie was to have the run of the house and grounds; she was to bring her mother to sit in the garden every afternoon if she liked—Mrs. Blake would enjoy it; she was so fond of flowers—and Mollie could amuse herself with the canoe. Then there was Audrey's piano: Mollie must promise to practise her scales and exercises on it every day; and there was a pile of delightfully interesting books set apart for her use. She must see, too, that her pet bullfinch was not neglected, and that her flowers were watered; for Audrey had a pretty sitting-room of her own. Molly soon cheered up as Audrey recapitulated these privileges; she was young enough to be soon consoled. She readily agreed with Audrey that her mother would enjoy wandering about the Woodcote gardens; they would bring their books and work, and sit under the trees on fine afternoons.
'Cyril has been making mamma promise to begin Roman history with me,' continued Mollie; 'he was so shocked when he found out I knew nothing about Romulus and Remus. Was it quite true about the wolf, Miss Ross? I thought it sounded like a fable. Oh, do you know,' interrupting herself eagerly, 'I want to tell you something—Kester said I might if I liked: he has got two new suits of clothes.'
Audrey left off packing, and looked at Mollie in some surprise.
'Did you say two suits, my dear?'
'Yes. Is it not nice, Miss Ross? But Cyril said he positively could not do with less than two—a rough suit for every day, and a better one for Sundays. I don't think Kester ever had two whole suits before. Mamma was pleased, but she thought it a little extravagant of Cyril. And he bought him boots and ties, oh, and other things beside!'
'How very good of him!' and Audrey felt a warm glow of pleasure. She longed to question Mollie, but she prudently forebore: it was no business of hers if Mr. Blake chose to get into debt; for where could he have got the money? But her curiosity was soon to be satisfied; Mollie was dying to tell the whole story.
'You would say so if you knew all,' she returned, with a mysterious air; 'mamma does not know yet. I am afraid when she finds out she will be terribly vexed: she does so hate Cyril to go without things. I think she would almost rather let Kester be shabby than see Cyril without——Oh, I was just going to bring it out!'
Audrey took no notice. She was folding a dress, and the sleeves were giving her some trouble.
'Kester never said I was not to tell,' went on Mollie, as though arguing with herself. 'I don't know why I stopped just now. Miss Ross, have you ever noticed what a beautiful watch and chain Cyril wears?'
This was too much for Audrey.
'You don't mean to say that your brother has sold his watch?' she asked, so abruptly that Mollie stared at her.
'No, not his watch; he could not do without one; but he said the chain did not matter—a steel guard would answer the purpose quite as well. But it was such a lovely chain, and he was so proud of it! An old gentleman, General Fawcett, gave them to him. He was very grateful to Cyril for saving his grandson's life—Cyril jumped into the river, you know—and then the General, who was very rich, sent him the watch and chain, with such a beautiful letter. When Cyril saw them he was almost ashamed to accept them, he said they must have cost so much.'
'What a pity to part with such a gift!' murmured Audrey, busying herself over another dress.
'Yes; but, you see, Cyril had so little money, not half enough to pay for all Kester wanted—and he had bought that silk dress, too. Mamma would have had him get the clothes on credit, but Cyril has such a horror of debt. At first he would not let us know anything about it—he took Kester to the shop and had him fitted—but at last he was obliged to tell, because Kester missed Cyril's gold Albert chain. Kester looked ready to cry when he heard it was sold. He did think it such a pity, and he knew mamma would be so vexed. But Cyril only laughed at us both, and said he did not care about jewellery—he would be very much ashamed if Kester went to Scotland in his shabby old clothes; and then he begged us both to say nothing to mamma unless she missed the chain—she will not yet, because Cyril has sent his watch to be cleaned.'
'Mollie, I am really afraid that you ought not to have told me this,' returned Audrey gravely; but there was a wonderful brightness in her eyes, as though the story pleased her. 'I think you ought to have kept your brother's secret.'
'But he never said it was a secret, except from mamma,' pleaded Mollie in self-defence; 'and I wanted you to know, because it was so dear of Cyril. But he is just like that; he will do anything for Kester.'
'But, all the same, I hope you will not tell anyone else;' and as Mollie looked disturbed at this, she went on: 'it will be quite safe with me, you know. People so often tell me their little secrets, and your brother need not know that you have told me.
'Why, do you think he will mind? Oh no, Miss Ross! I am sure you are wrong about that. I was talking to him one evening about you, and I remember I said that I could not help telling you things, because you were so nice and kind; and Cyril answered, quite seriously, "You could never have a better friend than Miss Ross. You will learn nothing but good from her—tell her all you like. There is no one of whom I think more highly." And then he kissed me quite affectionately.'
'But all the same, Mollie, I think you had better not let him know that you have told me—I mean it would only embarrass him;' and here Audrey got up in a hurry and went to her wardrobe for something she had forgotten, and when she came back, it was to remind Mollie of the lateness of the hour.
'But this is not good-bye, you know. We shall stop at the Gray Cottage to-morrow morning, to pick up Kester and his portmanteau.' And then, with some little difficulty, she dismissed Mollie.
Audrey intended to pay a parting visit to her friend, Mr. O'Brien, that evening. Dr. Ross and Michael had gone up to London for the day, and had arranged to sleep in town, and Mr. Harcourt would escort the ladies and look after their luggage until they joined them.
Audrey had arranged with her mother that an informal meal should be served in the place of the ordinary late dinner, and that even this should be postponed until nine. It was impossible to walk to Brail in the heat of the afternoon—the weather was sultry, even at Rutherford, and Audrey proposed not to start until after an early tea.
When she was ready she went in search of Booty, who had been left under her guardianship. She knew exactly where she should find him—lying on Michael's bed. Booty was always a spectacle of woe during his master's brief absences. At the sound of a footstep or an opening door below, his short legs would be heard pattering downstairs; there would be an eager search in every room, then, with a whine of disappointment and a heart-broken expression in his brown eyes, Booty would slink back again to Michael's room to lie on his pillow, or mount guard over some relic—a tie, a glove, or even an old shoe—something that he could identify as his master's property.
Audrey was the only one who could comfort Booty for the loss of that loved presence; but even with her, Booty was still a most unhappy dog. He plucked up a little spirit, however, at the sight of her hat, and jumped off the bed. His master was clearly not in the house; perhaps the road his temporary mistress meant to take would lead to him—even a dog wearies of moping, and Booty's short legs needed their usual exercise. He followed her, therefore, without reluctance, and even lapped a little water out of his special dish; but there was no joyous bark, no unrestrained gambols, as he trotted after her with his soft eyes looking out for that worshipped form that was to Booty the one aim and object of life, for whose special delectation and delight he had been created. Mrs. Ross always said it made her quite miserable to see Booty when Michael was away, and, indeed, Michael never dared to leave him for many days together. If anything had happened to his master the little animal would have pined and fretted himself to death.
'I suppose no one will ever love me as that creature does,' Michael once observed to Audrey; 'he has simply no will or life of his own. What a faithful friend a dog is! I believe Booty understands me better than most people. We have long conversations together sometimes—I talk, and Booty answers by signs.'
Audrey enjoyed her walk, but she was afraid Booty was tired and would need a long rest. When they reached Vineyard Cottage she found Mrs. Baxter mending stockings in the porch.
'Father has gone out for a little stroll, Miss Ross,' she said, rising, with her usual subdued smile. 'He will be back directly. Will you come into the parlour and rest?'
'I would rather stay here,' returned Audrey. 'I am so fond of this pretty old porch, and this bench is so comfortable. Booty is tired, Mrs. Baxter; he has been fretting because his master chose to go up to London to-day, and his low spirits have made him languid. Look at him when I say Michael—there!' as the dog started and sat up eagerly; 'he knows his name, you see.'
'Poor thing! He is as intelligent as a Christian—more intelligent than some Christians I know. The ways of Providence are strange, Miss Ross, putting a loving heart into an animal like that, and leaving some human beings without one—unless it be a heart of stone;' and here Mrs. Baxter sighed heavily and snapped her thread.
'I hope things have been quiet lately,' observed Audrey, taking off her hat.
'You mean, if Joe has been behaving himself?—which is a question I can thankfully answer at present. Joe has not been troubling me again, Miss Ross. I think father frightened him that time. Joe was always a coward; it is an evil conscience that makes him a coward. There is nothing else so frights a man. Joe couldn't treat a woman as he has treated me without feeling his conscience prick him sometimes.'
'No, indeed, Mrs. Baxter. Let us hope that he will repent some day.'
'I tell father his repentance will come too late. We can't sow tares and reap wheat in this world, Miss Ross. "The wicked flee when no man pursueth." I always think of Joe when I read that verse. Oh, there is always comfort to be found in the Scriptures. "A woman forsaken and grieved in spirit"—do you remember those words, Miss Ross? I came upon them quite suddenly one evening as I was sitting in this very porch, and I said out loud to myself, as one does sometimes, "Those words just fit you, Priscilla Baxter; they might be written for you."'
'That makes the Bible such a wonderful book,' returned Audrey thoughtfully. 'Every form of grief finds expression and comfort there; there is food for every mind, every age, every nationality.'
'I never saw anyone to beat father in reading the Bible, Miss Ross. You would be surprised to see how kindly he takes to it. I have known him read the Prodigal Son to Hannah and me on Sunday evening with the tears running down his face, and he not knowing it more than a baby, for all Hannah's sniffs. It is his favourite reading—it is, indeed, Miss Ross, though his voice does get choky sometimes.'
'He is thinking of his poor brother Mat.'
'Begging your pardon, Miss Ross, I would rather not mention Uncle Mat,' returned Mrs. Baxter stiffly. 'Joe has been a thorn in my side, heaven knows! and his wickedness has reduced me, his wedded wife, to skin and bone; but even Joe, with all his villainies, has not made himself a felon, and I can still bear his name without blushing—and so I have told father a score of times when he wants to make out that Joe is the blacker of the two.'
'Oh, I would not hurt him by speaking against his brother! Do you know, Mrs. Baxter, he loves him so dearly still.'
'Yes; but that is father's craze, Miss Ross,' she replied coldly. 'Even a good man has his little weakness, and, being a Churchwoman, and I trust humbly a believer, I would not deny that Providence has given me as good a father as ever breathed this mortal air; but we are all human, Miss Ross, and human nature has its frailties, and father would be a wiser and a happier man if he did not set such store by an ungrateful and good-for-nothing brother, who is a shame to his own flesh and blood, and whom it is a bitterness to me to own as my Uncle Mat.'
'Priscilla!' ejaculated a grieved voice near them; and, looking round, the two women saw Mr. O'Brien standing within a few paces of them. No one had heard his footsteps except Booty, whose instincts were always gentlemanly, and who, in spite of his deep dejection, had given him a friendly greeting.
Mr. O'Brien's good-natured face looked unusually grave.
'Good-evening, Miss Ross. I thought we should see you before your flitting. I am sorry I stepped out for a bit, and so lost your company. Prissy, my girl, I don't want to find fault with you, but I'll not deny that it hurts me to hear you speak against Mat, poor old chap! when he is not here to answer for himself. It is woman-like, but it is not fair'—looking at them with mild reproach—'and it cuts me to hear it. It is not what your mother, my blessed Susan, would have done. She was never hard upon Mat—never!'
Mrs. Baxter gave a penitent little sniff, and a faint flush came to her sallow face; with all her faults, she was devoted to her father. But she was a true daughter of Eve, and this well-deserved reproach only moved her to feeble recrimination.
'Well, father, I was always taught that listeners never heard any good of themselves. Not that the proverb holds strictly true in this case; but if Uncle Mat were standing in your place, and heard what I said to Miss Ross, he would not deny I was speaking the truth—being always praised for my truthfulness and shaming the devil as much as possible; and if you are for saying that Uncle Mat was a kind brother to one who acted as his own father, I am bound to say that I do not agree with you.'
'No, my lass; I am free to confess that Mat might have been kinder, and that as far as that goes you are speaking Gospel truth; but my Susan and I have been used to say the Lord's Prayer together every night; and Susan—that's your mother, Prissy—would sometimes whisper as we knelt down, "Tom, are we sure we have quite forgiven everybody? I was put out this afternoon with Mat;" and sometimes her voice would tremble a bit when she came to the words, "Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us."' And Mr. O'Brien took off his straw hat with old-fashioned reverence.
Mrs. Baxter gave a little choke.
'I wish I had left it unsaid, father, if you are going to take on like this,' she observed remorsefully. 'Sooner than grieve you, I would hold my tongue about Uncle Mat for the remainder of my natural life. There is nothing I would do sooner than have my mother quoted to me like a Scripture saint, as though I were not worthy to tie her shoe-string.'
'Nay, nay, my lass, you are misunderstanding my meaning.'
'No, father, begging your pardon, I am not; and, as I have often told Miss Ross, I never feel worthy to be the offspring of such parents. Miss Ross'—turning to her—'my father is a little low this evening, and I have put him out of his usual way. I will leave you to talk to him a bit while I open a bottle of our white currant wine to hearten you for your walk home.'
'Poor Prissy!' observed Mr. O'Brien, shaking his gray head; 'she is a worrier, as Susan used to say; but her bark is worse than her bite. She is a good soul, and I would not change her for one of the lively sort.'
'She is really very sorry for having pained you.'
'Sorry! Bless my heart, you don't know Prissy. She will be that contrite for showing the sharp edge of her tongue that there will be nothing she will not do to make amends. It will be, "Father, what will you have?" and, "Father, do you think you could enjoy that?" from morning to night, as though I were a new-born babe to be tended. No, no, you are not up to Prissy. She has not got her mother's sweet, charitable nature—my Susan, bless her dear heart! always thought the best of everybody—but Prissy is a good girl, for all that.'
Audrey smiled as she drew down a tendril of jasmine to inhale its honeyed fragrance. There was not much girlhood left in the faded, sorrowful woman who had left them just now; but in the father's fond eyes Priscilla would always be a girl. Then, in her serious, sweet way, she began to talk to her old friend—drawing him out, and listening to those vague, far old memories that seemed dearer to him day by day, until he had grown soothed and comforted.
Mrs. Baxter joined them by and by, but she did not interrupt them, except to press another slice of the home-made cake on Audrey.
When she rose to go, father and daughter accompanied her to the gate, and wished her a hearty God-speed.
'Good-bye, my dear old friends,' she returned cheerfully; 'in seven weeks I shall hope to see you again. Take care of Mr. O'Brien, Mrs. Baxter.'
'Oh yes, Miss Ross, I will take care of him. It is not as if one could have a second parent. Father, put on your hat; the dews are falling, and you are not as young as you used to be.'
AMONG THE BRAIL LANES
'Discreet reserve in a woman, like the distances kept by royal personages, contributes to maintain the proper reverence. Most of our pleasures are prized in proportion to the difficulty with which they are obtained.'—FORDYCE.
'A very slight spark will kindle a flame when everything lies open to catch it.'—SIR WALTER SCOTT.
While Audrey was talking to her old friend in the jasmine-covered porch of Vineyard Cottage, Cyril Blake was sitting on a stile in one of the Brail lanes, trying to solve a difficult problem.
A domestic matter had come under his notice that very afternoon—a very ordinary occurrence, if he had only known it—and had caused him much vexation. Not being more clear-sighted than other young men of his age, it is extremely doubtful whether he would have noticed it at all but for a few words spoken by Miss Ross.
A week or two ago he had observed casually to her, as they were standing together on the cricket-field, that he thought Mollie was growing very fast.
'I suppose she is strong,' he added doubtfully; 'but she has certainly seemed very tired lately'—this reflection being forced upon him by a remark of Kester's, 'that Mollie had such a lot of headaches now.'
'I am afraid Mollie is very often tired,' returned Audrey rather gravely.
Now, there was nothing in this simple remark to arrest Cyril's attention; but somehow Audrey's tone implied a good deal, and, though no further word passed between them on the subject, Cyril was left with an uncomfortable impression, though it was too vague and intangible to be understood by him.
But on this afternoon in question he was rummaging among his possessions for some studs he had mislaid, and, thinking Mollie would help him in the search, he went in quest of her. He found her in the close little kitchen, ironing a pile of handkerchiefs and starched things. The place felt like an oven that hot summer's afternoon, and poor Mollie's face was sadly flushed; she looked worried and overheated, and it was then that Audrey's words flashed on him with a sort of electrical illumination—'I am afraid Mollie is very often tired.'
'Did you want me, Cyril?' asked Mollie, a little wearily, as she tested another iron and then put it down again.
'Yes—no, it does not matter,' rather absently. 'Mollie, is there no one else who can do that work? This place is like a brick-kiln.'
'Well, there is only Biddy, you know, and she does get up the things so badly. You remember how you grumbled about your handkerchiefs—and no wonder, for they looked as though they were rough-dried—and so mamma said I had better do them for the future, because I could iron so nicely;' and Mollie gave a look of pride at the snowy pile beside her.
But Cyril was not so easily mollified.
'I would rather have my things badly done than see you slave in this fashion,' he returned, with unwonted irritation. 'Mollie, does Miss Ross know you do this sort of thing?'
'Oh yes, of course; I always tell Miss Ross everything.'
'She must have a pretty good opinion of us by this time,' in a vexed voice.
'She knows it cannot be helped,' returned Mollie simply. 'She did say one day that she was very sorry for me, when she saw how tired I was—oh, she was so dear and sweet that day!—and once when I told her how my back ached, and I could not help crying a little, she said she would like to speak to mamma about me, but that she knew it was no business of hers.'
'Anyhow, I shall make it my business,' returned her brother decidedly; and he marched off to the drawing-room.
Mrs. Blake was sitting in the window, marking some of Kester's new socks. She looked very cool and comfortable; the room was sweet with the scent of flowers. The contrast between her and Mollie struck Cyril very forcibly, and when his mother looked up at him with one of her caressing smiles, he did not respond with his customary brightness.
'Mother, I want to talk to you about Mollie,' he said with unusual abruptness, as he threw himself down in a cushioned chair opposite his mother's little work-table.
'Yes, dear,' she returned tranquilly, pausing to admire an exquisitely-worked initial.
'I found her in the kitchen just now, with her face the colour of a peony, ironing out a lot of things. The place was like a furnace; I could not have stood it for a quarter of an hour. Surely, mother, there is no need for Mollie to slave in this way.'
'Do you call ironing a few fine things slavery?' replied Mrs. Blake in an amused voice. 'In our great-grandmothers' time girls did more than that. Mollie is not overworked, I assure you.'
'Then what makes her look so done up?'
'Oh, that is nothing! She is growing so fast, you know; and growing girls have that look. Mollie is as strong as a horse, really—at her age I was far weaker. Mollie is a good child, but she is a little given to grumbling and making a fuss about trifles.'
'Oh, I don't agree with you there.'
'That is because you do not understand girls,' returned his mother composedly. 'But you may safely leave Mollie to me. Am I likely to overwork one of my own children? Should I be worthy of the name of mother?'
'Yes, but you might not see your way to help it—that is, as long as you persist in your ridiculous resolution of keeping Biddy. Why, she ought to have been shelved long ago.'
'That is my affair, Cyril,' replied Mrs. Blake with unusual dignity.
She hardly ever spoke to him in that voice, and he looked up a little surprised.
'I hope we are not going to quarrel, motherling,' his pet name for her.
'Do we ever quarrel, darling? No, you only vex me when you talk of sending poor old Biddy away. I could not do it, Cyril. I am not naturally a hard-hearted woman, and it would be sheer cruelty to turn off my old nurse. Where would she go, poor old thing? And you know yourself we cannot afford another servant.'
'Not at present, certainly.'
'Perhaps we may in the future—who knows?' returned Mrs. Blake with restored gaiety; 'and until then a little work will not hurt Mollie. Do you know, when I was a girl, my mother always insisted on my sister Dora and myself making our own beds—she said it would straighten our backs—and she liked us to run up and down stairs and make ourselves useful, because the exercise would improve our carriage and complexion. Dora had such a pretty figure, poor girl! and I think mine is passable,' drawing herself up to give effect to her words.
'You, mother? You are as slim and as graceful as a girl now!' returned Cyril admiringly. Then, recurring to his subject with a man's persistence, 'I don't believe you did half so much as poor Mollie does.'
'And what does she do?' asked Mrs. Blake, still mildly obstinate. 'She only supplements poor old Biddy. A little dusting, a little bed-making; now and then, perhaps, a trifle of ironing. What is that for a strong, healthy girl like Mollie?'
'Yes; but Mollie has to be educated,' replied Cyril, only half convinced by this plausible statement. 'These things may be only trifles, as you say, but they take up a good deal of time. You know, mother dear, how often I complain of the desultory way Mollie's lessons are carried on.'
'That is because Mollie and I are such wretched managers,' she returned eagerly. 'I am a feckless body, I know; and Mollie takes after me—we both hate running in grooves.'
'Mollie is young enough to learn better ways,' was Cyril's grave answer. 'As for you, mother, you are hopeless,' with a shake of his head.
'Yes, you will never mend or alter me,' she rejoined with a light laugh. 'I am Irish to the backbone. Now, my boy, you really must not keep me any longer with all this nonsense about Mollie. I have to go up to Rosendale, you know; Mrs. Cardell begged me to sit with her a little, and I am late now. Mollie will give you your tea. Come—have you forgiven your mother?' passing her white taper fingers over his dark hair as she spoke.
Cyril's only answer was to draw her face down to his.
Mrs. Blake smiled happily at him as she left the room—what did she care if only everything were right between her and her idolised boy? But Cyril was not so satisfied. With all his love for his mother, he was by no means blind to her many faults. He knew she was far too partial in her treatment of her children—that she was often thoughtless of Kester's comfort, and a little hard in her judgment of him; and she was not always judicious with respect to Mollie. At times she was lax, and left the girl to her own devices; but in certain moods, when Cyril had been speaking to her, perhaps, there would be nothing right. It was then that Mollie was accused of untidiness and feckless ways, when hints of idleness were dropped, and strict rules, never to be carried out, were made. Mollie must do a copy every day; she wrote worse than a child of ten. Her ignorance of geography was disgraceful; she had no idea where the Tigris was, and she could not name half the counties in Scotland, and so on. For four-and-twenty hours Mollie would be drilled, put through her facings, lectured, and made generally miserable; but by the next morning or so the educational cleaning would be over. 'Mother wasn't in a mood for teaching,' Mollie would say in her artless fashion as she carried away her books.
'No; he could not alter his mother's nature,' Cyril thought sadly. He could only do the best he could for them all. He was clever enough to see that his mother was wilfully shutting her eyes to her own mismanagement of Mollie, and that she preferred drifting on in this happy-go-lucky fashion. With all her energy and fits of industry, she was extremely indolent, and never liked taking trouble about anything. No; it was no use talking to her any more about Mollie, unless he had some definite suggestion to make—and then it was that he wondered if Miss Ross would help him; she always helped everyone, and he knew that she was in full possession of the facts.
'I am not a bit ashamed of our poverty,' thought Cyril, as he plunged down the sweet, dewy lanes. 'One day I shall get on, and be any man's equal; but the only thing that troubles me is the idea that she thinks us too hard on Mollie. She has never said so, of course; but somehow it is so easy to read her thoughts—she is more transparent than other people.' And Cyril heaved a deep sigh. 'I wonder what she will think when she sees me. I do not want her to know that I am looking out for her. Everyone has a right to take an evening walk if he likes; and, of course, the roads are open to all. Even without this excuse I meant to do it; for after this evening——' And then Cyril groaned to himself as he thought of the seven long blank weeks that stretched before him, when a certain sweet face would be missing; and at that moment he espied the gleam of a white dress between the hedgerows.
Now, Audrey was right in saying Booty was a spoilt dog. He was as full of whimsies this evening as spoilt children generally are. He had testified extreme delight when Audrey had closed the gate of Vineyard Cottage behind her. By some curious canine train of reasoning he had arrived at the conviction that his master was at Woodcote—had probably arrived there during their absence; and with this pleasing notion he pattered cheerfully after Audrey down the long grass lanes. But Audrey walked fast, and being rather late, she walked all the faster; and Booty, who was used to Michael's leisurely pace, began to lag behind and to hold out signals of distress. 'Oh, Booty, Booty!' exclaimed Audrey, regarding the little animal indulgently; 'and so I am to carry you, just because your legs are so absurdly short that they tire easily.' Evidently this was what Booty wished, for he sat up and waved his paws in an irresistible way. 'Very well, I will carry you, old fellow; but you are dreadfully spoilt, you know.'
'Indeed, you shall do nothing of the kind, Miss Ross;' and Cyril jumped off the stile. 'I will carry him for you;' and Cyril hoisted him up on his arm, being rewarded by an affectionate dab on his nose from Booty's busy tongue.
Audrey had coloured slightly when she first caught sight of Cyril's tall figure; but she suppressed her surprise.
'Is this a favourite walk of yours?' she asked carelessly, as though it were a usual thing to meet Mr. Blake wandering about the Brail lanes.
Cyril was quite equal to the occasion. He hardly knew which was his favourite walk; he was trying them all by turns. He had taken his mother to Brail once, and she had been much pleased with the village. There was one cottage she thought very pretty—indeed, they had both fallen in love with it; it had a quaint old porch, smothered in jasmine.
'That is Vineyard Cottage, where my friends the O'Briens live,' replied Audrey, only half deceived by this smooth account.
It was clear that Mr. Blake wished her to think that only purest accident had guided his feet in the direction of Brail; but Audrey was sharp-witted, and she knew Mollie had a tongue; it would be so natural for her to say, 'Miss Ross is going to see some old friends at Brail—she told me so; but it is so hot that she will not go until after tea.' Once before she had been sure that Mollie's chattering had set Mr. Blake on her track. She must be more careful how she talked to Mollie for the future.
But here Cyril, who was somewhat alarmed at her gravity, and who half guessed at her thoughts, began to speak about Mollie in an anxious, brotherly manner that restored Audrey at once to ease.
'So you see all the difficulty,' he continued after he had briefly stated the facts; 'and I should be so grateful if you could help me to any solution. I ought to apologise for troubling you, but I know you take such an interest in Mollie.'
'I do indeed,' she returned cordially, and in a moment every trace of constraint vanished from her manner; 'and, to tell you the truth, Mr. Blake, I have felt rather anxious about her lately. Even my mother has noticed how far from strong she looks.'
'But that is because she is growing so fast,' he replied, unconsciously repeating Mrs. Blake's words. 'You see, Miss Ross, my mother absolutely refuses to part with Biddy. I have argued with her again and again, but nothing will induce her to send the old woman away. She also declares that she cannot afford another servant, so what is to be done?' and Cyril sighed as though he had all the labours of Hercules before him.
Audrey looked at him very kindly; she was much touched by this confidence. How few young men, she thought, would have been so simple and straightforward! There was no false pride in the way he mentioned their small means and homely contrivances; he spoke to her quite frankly, as though he knew she was their friend, and as though he trusted her. It was the purest flattery, the most delicious homage he could have offered her. Audrey felt her sympathy quicken as she listened.
'I would not trouble about it just now,' she observed cheerfully—'not until the vacation is over. Mollie will have very little to do while you and Kester are away.'
'That is true,' he returned, in a relieved tone; for he had not thought of that.
'When we all come back we might hit upon some plan. Do you think your mother would object to having in a woman two or three times a week to help Biddy? I think I know a person who would just do—Rebecca Armstrong. She does not want to leave home; but she is a strong, capable girl, and could easily do all the rough work—and she is very moderate in her charges. I could inquire about her, if you like.'
'It is an excellent idea,' he replied, inwardly wondering why it had not occurred to his mother. 'I am so grateful to you for suggesting it. I am quite sure my mother will not object; so by all means let us have this Rebecca.'
'Shall I tell your mother about her?'
'Perhaps I had better speak to her first; there is no hurry, as you say. Really, Miss Ross, you have lifted a burden off my mind.'
'I am so glad!' with a smile. 'You see, Mr. Blake, it will be so nice for Mollie to have her mornings to herself. She has told me two or three times that she finds it impossible to work in the afternoon, there are so many interruptions; and by that time she is generally so tired—or stupid, as she calls it—that she cannot even add up her sums.'
'Oh, we will alter all that!' replied Cyril lightly.
He had discharged his duty, and now he did not want to talk about Mollie any more. From the first he had always felt conscious of a feeling of well-being, of utter contentment, when he was in the presence of this girl; it made him happy only to be with her. But this evening they were so utterly alone; the whole world was shut out by those barriers of grassy lanes and still green meadows, with their groups of slowly-feeding cattle.
The evening air was full of dewy freshness, and only the twittering of birds broke the stillness. A subtle sweetness seemed to distil through the young man's veins as he glanced at his companion; involuntarily, his voice softened.
'I wonder where you will be this time to-morrow?' he said, rather abruptly.
'We are to sleep at York, you know. Geraldine wants to see the Minster.'
'Oh yes, I remember; Captain Burnett told me;' and then he began questioning her about Braemar. Could she describe it to him? He had never been in Scotland, and he would like to picture the place to himself. He should ask Kester to send him a photograph or two.
Audrey was quite willing to satisfy him. She had been there already, and had seen their cottage. She could tell him all about their two parlours, and the little garden running down to the beck. But Cyril's curiosity was insatiable; he wanted to know presently how she would employ herself and what books she would read.
'For you will have wet days,' he added—'saft days, I think they call them—and then time will hang heavily on your hands unless you have plenty of books.'
'Oh, Michael has seen to that,' she replied brightly.
Somehow, Michael's name was perpetually cropping up. 'My cousin and I mean to do that,' or 'Michael means to help me with that,' until Cyril's face grew slightly lugubrious.
True, he tried to console himself with the remembrance of Audrey's words that she and Geraldine looked upon Michael as a sort of brother; still, he never did quite approve of this sort of adopted relationship. It was always a mistake, he thought; and in time people found it out for themselves.
Of course he was Miss Ross's cousin—or, rather, her father's cousin—but even that did not explain matters comfortably to his mind; and when a man has a Victoria Cross, and is looked upon in the light of a hero, it is a little difficult for other men not to envy him.
Cyril began to feel less happy. The walk was nearly at an end, too. Some of the light and cheerfulness seemed to fade out of the landscape; a chill breath permeated the summer air.
But Audrey went on talking in her lively, girlish way. She was quite unconscious of the sombre tinge that had stolen over Cyril's thoughts.
'Yes, to-morrow we shall be more than a hundred miles away; and the next day you will be en route for Cornwall.'
'I suppose so.'
'You will have a very pleasant time, I hope.'
'Oh, I daresay it will be pleasant enough; the house will be full of company—at least, Hackett says so. His people are very hospitable.'
'Are there any daughters?'
'Oh yes; there are three girls—the three Graces, as they were called when they came up to Commemoration.'
'Indeed; were they so handsome?'
'Some of our men thought so,' with a fine air of indifference. 'I know Baker was smitten with one of them; it is going to be a match, I believe. That is Henrietta, the eldest.'
'I suppose she was the handsomest?'
'Oh dear no! Miss Laura is far better looking; and so is the youngest, Miss Frances. In my opinion Miss Frances is far more taking than either of her sisters.'
'Oh, indeed! I think you will have a pleasant time, Mr. Blake.'
'Well, I cannot say I am looking forward to it. I am afraid it will be rather a bore than otherwise. I would much rather go on working.'
'I don't think you would find Rutherford very lively.'
'Oh, I did not mean that!' with a reproachful glance at her that Audrey found rather embarrassing. 'You surely could not have thought I wished to remain here now'—a dangerous emphasis on 'now.' 'Why, it would be the abomination of desolation, a howling wilderness.'
'I thought you were fond of Rutherford.'
Audrey was not particularly brilliant in her remarks just now; she was not good at this sort of fencing. She had a dim idea that she ought to discourage this sort of thing; but she did so hate snubbing anyone, and, in spite of his youth, Mr. Blake was rather formidable.
'So I do—I love Rutherford!' he returned, with such vehemence that Audrey was startled, and Booty tried anxiously to lick him again. 'It was a blessed day that brought us all here—I wonder how often I say that to myself—but all the same——' he paused, seemed to recollect himself, and went on—'it must be very dull in vacation time.'
'Oh yes, of course,' she said quickly. It was rather a tame conclusion to his sentence; but Audrey breathed more freely. She was almost glad they had reached Rutherford, and that in a few minutes Woodcote would be in view.
They were both a little silent after this, and by and by Cyril put Booty down.
'Good-bye,' observed Audrey very gently, as she extended her hand. 'Thank you so much for being so good to Booty; and please give my love to your mother and Mollie.'
'Good-bye,' murmured Cyril; and for a moment he held her hand very tightly. If his eyes said a little too eloquently that he knew he should not see her again for a long time, Audrey did not see it, for her own were downcast. That strong, warm pressure of Cyril's hand had been a revelation, and a quick, sensitive blush rose to her face as she turned silently away.
'That is over,' thought Cyril to himself, as he strode through the silent street in the summer twilight; 'and now for seven long blank weeks. Am I mad to-night? would it ever be possible? It is like the new heaven and the new earth only to think of it!' finished the young man, delirious with this sweet intoxication of possible and impossible dreams.
ON A SCOTCH MOOR
'Time, so complained of, Who to no one man Shows partiality, Brings round to all men Some undimm'd hours.'
In future days Audrey always looked back upon those seven weeks at Braemar with the same feelings with which one recalls the memory of some lake embosomed in hills, that one has seen sleeping in the sunlight, and in which only tranquil images were reflected—the branch of some drooping sapling, or some bird's wing as it skimmed across the glassy surface.
Just so one day after another glided away in smooth enjoyment and untroubled serenity, and not a discordant breath ruffled the two households.
The house that Dr. Ross had taken had originally been two good-sized cottages, and though the rooms were small, there were plenty of them; and a little careful adjustment of the scanty furniture, and a few additional nicknacks, transformed the parlour into a pleasant sitting-room. Geraldine wondered and admired when she came across, the first morning after their arrival. Audrey had arranged her own and Michael's books on the empty shelves; the little mirror, and indeed the whole mantelpiece, was festooned and half hidden with branches laden with deep crimson rowan-berries, mixed with heather and silvery-leafed honesty; a basket of the same rowan-berries occupied the centre of the round table; an Oriental scarf draped the ugly horsehair sofa, and a comfortable-looking rug was thrown over the shabby easy-chair. The fishing-tackle, butterfly-nets, pipes, and all other heterogeneous matters, were consigned to a small bare apartment, known as 'Michael's den,' and which soon became a lumber-room.
Geraldine looked at her sister's handiwork with great approval. She considered her father's household was magnificently lodged; she and her husband had taken up their quarters in a much less commodious cottage—their tiny parlour would hardly hold four people comfortably, and the ceiling was so low that Mr. Harcourt always felt as though he must knock his head against the rafters. When any of the Ross party called on them, they generally adjourned to the small sloping garden, and conversed among the raspberry-bushes.
It was delightful to see Geraldine's enjoyment of these primitive surroundings. The young mistress of Hillside seemed transformed into another person. Percival's clever contrivances, their little makeshifts, their odd picnic life, were all fruitful topics of conversation.
'And then I have him all to myself, without any tiresome boys,' she would say to her mother. 'It is just like another honeymoon.'
Geraldine's one grievance was that she was not strong enough to share her husband's excursions. She had to stay with her mother and Michael when he and Audrey and Dr. Ross took one of their long scrambling or fishing expeditions. Geraldine used to manifest a wifely impatience on these occasions that was very pretty and becoming; and she and Michael, who seemed to share her feelings, would stroll to the little bridge of an evening to meet the returning party. Somehow Michael was always the first to see them and to raise the friendly halloo, that generally sent the small black cattle scampering down the croft.
'See the conquering hero comes!' Mr. Harcourt would respond, opening his rush basket to display the silvery trout. Dr. Ross's pockets would be full of mosses and specimens and fragments of rock, and Audrey brought up the rear with both hands laden with wild-flowers and grasses.
'Have you been dull, my darling?' Mr. Harcourt would say as Geraldine walked beside him. She seemed to have eyes and ears for no one else—and was that any wonder, when he had been absent from her since early morning? 'We have had a grand day, Jerry; we have tramped I do not know how many miles—Dr. Ross says fifteen; we have been arguing about it all the way home. I am as hungry as a hunter. I feel like Esau—a bowl of red lentils would not have a chance with me. I always had a sneaking sort of liking for Esau. What have you got for supper, little woman?'
'Salmon-steaks and broiled fowl,' was Geraldine's answer—'your favourite dishes, Percy. I am so glad you are hungry.'
'Faith, that I am; the Trojan heroes were nothing to me! I will have a wash first, and get off these boots—should you know them for boots?—and then you shall see, my dear.'
And it may be doubted whether those two ever enjoyed a meal more than those salmon-steaks and broiled fowl that Jean Scott first cooked and then carried in bare-armed, setting down the dishes with a triumphant bang on the small rickety table.
'Now we will have a drop of the cratur and a pipe,' Mr. Harcourt would say. 'Wrap yourself in my rug, and we will sit in the porch, for really this cabin stifles me after the moors. What have you and your mother been talking about? Let me have the whole budget, Jerry.'
Was there a happier woman in the world than Geraldine, nestled under her husband's plaid, in the big roomy porch, and looking out at the starlight? Even practical, prosaic people have their moments of poetry, when the inner meaning of things seems suddenly revealed to them, when their outer self drops off and their vision is purged and purified; and Geraldine, listening to the tinkling beck below, and inhaling the cool fragrance of the Scotch twilight, creeps nearer to her husband and leans against his sheltering arm. What does it matter what they talked about? Mr. Harcourt had not yet forgotten the lover in the husband; perhaps he, too, felt how sweet was this dual solitude after his busy labours, and owned in manly fashion his sense of his many blessings.
'How happy those two are!' Audrey once said, a little thoughtfully.
She was sitting on the open moor, and Michael was stretched on the heather beside her, with Kester at a little distance, buried as usual in his book; Booty was amusing himself by following rather inquisitively the slow movements of a bee that was humming over the heather. The three had been spending a tranquil afternoon together, while Dr. Ross and his son-in-law had started for a certain long walk, which they declared no woman ought to attempt.
Audrey was not sorry to be left with Michael. It had been her intention from the first to devote herself to him; and dearly as she loved these rambles with her father, she was quite as happy talking to Michael. Audrey's dangerous gift of sympathy—dangerous because of its lack of moderation—always enabled her to throw herself into other people's interests; it gave her positive happiness to see Michael so tranquil and content, and carrying himself with the air of a man who knows himself to be anchored in some fair haven after stress of weather; and, indeed, these were halcyon days to Michael.
He had Audrey's constant companionship, and never had the girl been sweeter to him. The delicious moorland air, the free life, the absence of any care or worry, braced his worn nerves and filled his pulses with a sense of returning health. He felt comparatively well and strong, and woke each morning with a sense of enjoyment and well-being. Even Audrey's long absences did not trouble him over-much, for there was always the pleasure of her return. He and Kester could always amuse themselves until the time came for him and Geraldine to stroll to their trysting-place.
'Here we are, Michael!' Audrey would say, with her sudden bright smile, that seemed to light up the landscape. Somehow, he had never admired her so much as he did now in her neat tweed dress, and the deerstalker cap that sat so jauntily on her brown hair. How lightly she walked! how full of life and energy she was! No mountain-bred lass had a freer step, a more erect carriage.
When Audrey made her little speech about her sister's happiness, Michael looked up with a sort of lazy surprise in his eyes.
'Well, are not married people generally happy?' he asked. 'At least, the world gives them credit for happiness. Fancy turning bankrupt at nine or ten months!'
'Oh, there will be no bankruptcy in their case. Gage is a thoroughly contented woman. Do you know, Michael, I begin to think Percival a good fellow myself. I never saw quite so much of him before, and he is really very companionable.'
'Come, now, I have hopes of you. Then why this dubious tone in alluding to their matrimonial felicity?'
'Oh, I don't know!' with a slight blush. 'I believe it makes me a little impatient if people talk too much about it. Mother and Gage are perpetually haranguing on such subjects as this; they are always hinting, or saying out openly, that such a girl had better be married. Now, it is all very well, but there are two sides to every question, and I do think old maids have a great many privileges. No one seems to think of the delights of freedom.'
'I believe we have heard these sentiments before. Kester, my son, go on with your book; this sort of conversation is not intended for good little boys.'
'Michael, don't be absurd! I really mean what I say; it is perfectly glorious to say and do just what one likes. I mean to write a paper about it one day, and send it up to one of our leading periodicals.'
'"On the Old Maids of England," by "A Young Maid." I should like to read it; the result of three-and-twenty years' experience must be singularly beneficial to the world at large. Write it, my child, by all means; and I will correct the proof-sheets.'
'But why should not one be happy in one's own way?' persisted Audrey. 'You are older than I, Michael—I suppose a man of your age must have some experience—is it not something to be your own master, to go where you like and do what you like without being cross-questioned on your actions?'
'Oh, I will agree with you there!'
'People talk such nonsense about loneliness and all that sort of thing, as though one need be lonely in a whole world full of human creatures—as though an old maid cannot find plenty to love, and who will love her.'
'I don't know; I never tried. If I had a maiden aunt, perhaps——' murmured Michael.
'If you had, and she were a nice, kind-hearted woman, you would love her. I know it is the fashion to laugh at old maids, and make remarks on their funny little ways; but I never will find fault with them. Why, I shall be an old maid myself one day; but, all the same, I mean people to love me all my life long. What are you doing now?' rather sharply; for Michael had taken out his pocket-book and was writing the date.
'I thought I might like to remind you of this conversation one day. Is it the sixteenth or the seventeenth? Thank you, Kester—the seventeenth? There! it is written down.'
'You are very disagreeable, and I will not talk any more to you. I shall go and look for some stag's-horn moss instead;' and Audrey sprang up from her couch of heather and marched away, while Michael lay face downward, with his peaked cap drawn over his eyes, and watched her roaming over the moor.
Now, why was Audrey declaiming after this fashion? and why did she take it into her head to air all sorts of independent notions that quite shocked her mother? and why was she for ever drawing plans to herself of a life that should be solitary, and yet crowded with interests—whose keynote should be sympathy for her fellow-creatures and large-hearted work among them? and, above all, why did she want to persuade herself and Michael that this was the sort of life best fitted for her? But no one could answer these questions; so complex is the machinery of feminine nature, that perhaps Audrey herself would have been the last to be able to answer them.
But she was very happy, in spite of all these crude theories—very happy indeed; some fulness of life seemed to enrich her fine, bountiful nature, and to add to her sense of enjoyment. Sometimes, when she was sitting beside some mountain beck, in the hush of the noontide heat, when all was silent and solitary about her except the gauzy wings of insects moving above the grasses, a certain face would start up against the background of her thoughts—a pair of dark, wistful eyes would appeal to her out of the silence. That mute farewell, so suggestive, so full of pain—even the strong warm grasp with which her hand had been held—recurred to her memory. Was he still missing her, she wondered, or had Miss Frances contrived to comfort him?