"Oh, thank you!" says Monica, gratefully smiling at her.
"Tut, child! thank me when I have done something for you. It is Fred's turn to thank me now," says Madam O'Connor, with a merry twinkle in her gray eyes.
She is a large woman close on sixty, with an eagle eye and a hawk's nose. As Monica leaves her she continues her gossip with the half dozen young men round her, who are all laughing at some joke. Presently she herself is laughing louder than any of them (being partial to boys and their "fun," as she calls it). Bestowing now a smart blow with her fan upon the youngest and probably therefore most flippant of her attendants, she stalks away from them across the lawn, to where two ladies are sitting together.
One is elderly, but most ridiculously dressed in juvenile attire, that might have well suited the daughter sitting beside her. This latter is a tall girl, and large in every way, with curious eyes and a rather harsh voice; she is laughing now at some remark made by a man lounging at the back of her chair, and the laugh is both affected and discordant.
"Have you seen that girl of Kitty Beresford's, Edith?" asks Madam O'Connor of the elder lady.
"That little washed-out-looking girl who came with those two old Miss Blakes?" asks the youthful old woman, with a profoundly juvenile lisp.
"Faith, I don't know about her being washed out," says Madam O'Connor, bluntly. "I think she is the prettiest creature I've seen this many a day."
"You are so impulsive, my dear Theresa!" says her friend, with a simper: "all your geese are swans."
"And other people's swans my geese, I suppose," says Madam, with a glance at the tall girl, which somehow brings the conversation to a full stop.
Meantime, Monica is crossing the soft turf, with the moody man called Rossmoyne beside her. She can see her goal in the distance, and finds comfort in the thought that soon she must be there, as she cannot bring herself to be agreeable to her new acquaintance; and certainly he is feeling no desire just at present to be agreeable to her or to anybody.
As Monica comes nearer to her friend, she gazes anxiously at her, as though to see if time has worked a change in her.
She is quite a little woman about five and twenty, but looking at least four years younger than that. Her eyes are large, dark, and mischievous. Her hair is so fair as to be almost silvery; naturally wavy, it is cut upon the forehead in the prevailing fashion, but not curled. Her mouth is small, mutinous, and full of laughter; her nose distinctly retrousse. Altogether she is distractingly pretty, and, what goes for more nowadays, very peculiar in style, and out of the common.
She is exquisitely dressed in a costume that suggests Paris. She is a harmony in black and white, as Lord Rossmoyne told her an hour ago, when he was not wearing his discontented expression. Seated beside her is a tall pallid woman with a cold face, but very velvety eyes and a smile rare but handsome. Every now and then this smile betrays itself, as her companion says anything that chances to amuse her. She is a Mrs. Herrick, a cousin of Olga Bohun's, and is now on a visit with her at Aghyohillbeg.
There are several men grouped round Mrs. Bohun, all in various standing positions. One man is lying at her feet. He is a tall slight young fellow, of about twenty-three, with a lean face, dark hair, and beautiful teeth. He has, too, beautiful eyes, and a most lovable expression, half boyish, but intensely earnest and very sensitive.
Just now he appears happy and careless, and altogether as if he and the world are friends indeed, and that he is filled with the belief that every one likes him; and, in truth, he is right in so believing, for every one does like him, and a great many are fond of him, and some love him.
He is looking up at Mrs. Bohun, and is talking rapidly, as Monica and Lord Rossmoyne come up behind them.
"What! another bit of scandal?" exclaims Mrs. Bohun, lifting her brows in pleased anticipation. "The air seemed full of it. An hour ago I heard of the dire discomfiture of two of my dearest friends, and just now I listened to a legend of Belgravia that was distinctly fifi and had a good deal to do with a marchioness. It is really quite too much happiness for one day."
"My tale does not emanate from such an aristocratic region as Belgravia," says Ulic Ronayne, the man at her feet: "it is, I blush to say, from the city."
"Ah!" in a regretful tone; "then it will of course be decenter. Don't trouble to expend color on it, as I daresay there isn't a blush in the whole of it. Well," resignedly, "go on."
In the usual quick manner habitual to him, and with the slight but eloquent amount of gesture common to Irish people, Ronayne tells his news, which is received with low laughter by those around.
"I've heard better stories," says Mrs. Bohun, discontentedly; "and it isn't a bit like what Lord Tommy would do. It is more in Rossmoyne's line. I don't think I believe it. And the roundabout way in which you told it reminds one of a three-volume novel: the first leads up to the point, the third winds up the point, the second is the point. I confess I like the second volume best. When I grow funny over my friends I'm all second."
"Then don't be funny about me, please," says Ronayne, lazily.
"Are you my friend?" asks she, glancing at him. Lifting his eyes to hers, he pauses, and then says slowly, the smile dying from his face,—
"Well, perhaps not."
Then he lowers his eyes again, and goes back to his idle occupation of decorating with daisies some of the fantastic loops upon her gown.
At this moment Lord Rossmoyne, coming forward, says, sullenly, "May I hear the story that just now reminded you of me? But first——" He pauses, and glances at Monica. Mrs. Bohun, following his glance, rises hurriedly from her seat, and going up to the girl, embraces her warmly.
"Ah! my pretty Monica! my little saint!" she cries, in her sweet, gay voice, "what happy breeze has blown you hither?"
"I am living here,—at Moyne,—with my aunts," in a happy, breathless way. "Some days ago they described you to me, and I knew it must be you. I was right. And to-day I have found you."
"I'm always found out, as a rule," says Mrs. Bohun, with a light laugh. "That is my standing grievance. You know Hermia, don't you?" indicating the tall, cold-looking woman near her, who so far unbends as to take Monica's hand kindly and bestow upon her one of her handsome smiles. "She has come here to look after me and see that I don't get into a scrape or make myself unhappy."
"Could you be unhappy?" says Rossmoyne, from behind her chair, in so disagreeable a tone that every one looks at him. "Decidedly," thinks Monica to herself, "he has either neuralgia or an execrable temper."
"Miserably so," says the pretty widow, airily. "Though, after all," reflectively, "I believe I have even a greater talent for making others so. That, however, is my misfortune, not my fault. I was 'born so,' like that poor man with the twisted neck."
"Well, this is not one of your miserably unhappy hours, at all events," says Hermia Herrick. "You have been in magnificent spirits ever since you came to Aghyohillbeg."
"You've learned it?" says Olga, staring at her with pretended surprise. "The name, I mean. Well, you are clever. It takes most people four long weeks. Oh, yes, I am blissfully happy here. I ought to be. It would be the grossest ingratitude if I were otherwise, as all the men have been good enough to fall in love with me, and that, of course, is the principal thing."
At this the young man at her feet smiles openly and presses his face unperceived against her gown; but Rossmoyne throws up his head and glances with a coldly displeased expression into the vague distance.
"Have you been here long?" asks Monica, turning to her friend.
"Very long," pettishly. Something—perhaps Rossmoyne—has annoyed the capricious beauty.
"Only a fortnight," says Mrs. Herrick, briefly. "You must know that."
"I don't judge time by days and weeks; it seems long," says Mrs. Bohun, "years,—an eternity almost!"
A sudden gloom appears to have fallen upon the group. Rossmoyne's dark face grows darker still; the smile fades from Ronayne's face, a shadow falls athwart his eyes.
"I think I like the country," says Monica, suddenly. "It is so calm, so quiet, and there are moments when the very beauty of it brings tears to my eyes."
"I love it too," says Ronayne, quickly, addressing her pointedly in a friendly tone, although no introduction has been gone through between them. "I wonder how any one who has once tasted the sweetness of it can ever again long for the heat and turmoil of the town."
"Yes, for a time it is charming, all-sufficing," says Mrs. Bohun, "but for what a little time! Perhaps,—I am not sure,—but perhaps I should like to live for three months of every year in the country. After that, I know I should begin to pine again for the smoke and smuts of my town."
"If you are already wearied, I wonder you stay here," says Lord Rossmoyne, sullenly.
"And I wonder what has happened to-day to your usually so charming temper," returns she, laughingly uplifting her face to his, and letting her eyes rest on him with almost insolent inquiry.
"Desmond says good temper is a mere matter of digestion," says some one at this moment. Monica starts more at the name mentioned than at the exceedingly worn-out words uttered. She glances at the speaker, and sees he is a very ugly young man, with a nice face, and a remarkably dismal expression. He is looking at Rossmoyne. "Sit down, dear boy," he says, sotto voce and very sadly. "There's too much of you; you should never stand. You appear to so much better advantage when doubled in two. It don't sound well, does it? but——"
"But really, when you come to think of it," Mrs. Bohun is saying, feelingly, "there is very little in the country."
"There is at least the fascinating tulip and lily," says the sad man who mentioned Desmond's name. "Don't put yourself beyond the pale of art by saying you had forgotten those aesthetic flowers,—blossoms, I mean. Don't you yearn when you think of them? I do."
"So glad you are awake at last, Owen!" says Mrs. Bohun.
"That silly craze about tulips," says Mrs. Herrick, contemptuously, "I have always treated it with scorn. Why could not the art idiots have chosen some better flower for their lunatic ravings? What can any one see in a tulip?"
"Sometimes earwigs," says the man called Owen.
"Nonsense! I don't believe even earwigs would care for it. Foolish, gaudy thing, uplifting its lanky neck as though to outdo its fellows! There is really nothing in it."
"Like the country," says Owen, meekly, "according to Mrs. Bohun."
"And like Bella Fitzgerald," says that graceless person, with a little grimace.
"My dear Olga," says Mrs. Herrick, glancing quickly to right and left. "Do you never think?"
"As seldom as ever I can. But why be nervous, Hermia? If any one were to compare me with a tulip, I should die of—no, not chagrin—joy, I mean, of course. Monica, what are you saying to Owen?"
"I don't think I know who Owen is," says Monica, with a glance at the gentleman in question, that is half shy, half friendly.
"That argues yourself unknown," says Olga. "He is Master Owen Kelly, of Kelly's Grove, county Antrim, and the bright and shining light of the junior bar. They all swear by him in Dublin,—all, that is except the judges, and they swear at him."
Monica looks at Master Owen Kelly in a faintly puzzled fashion.
"It is all quite true," says that young man, modestly, in a reassuring tone.
"Now tell us what you were saying to each other," says Olga.
"It was nothing," returns Monica. "We were only talking about this Egyptian war. But I don't really," nervously, "understand anything about it."
"You needn't blush for your ignorance on that score," says Mr. Kelly. "You're in the general swim: nobody knows."
"It is the most senseless proceeding altogether," says Hermia Herrick, in her decided way. "Gladstone's wars are toys. He has had three of them now, dear little fellow, to amuse himself with, and he ought to be proud of his victories."
"According to Erasmus, war is the 'malady of princes,'" says Lord Rossmoyne, sententiously.
"Rossmoyne isn't well," says Mr. Kelly, softly. "He is calling the wood-cutter a prince. It reminds one of Hans Andersen's fairy-tale: all hewers of wood and drawers of water were blood-royal then."
"Yet Gladstone has intellect," says Mrs. Herrick, in oh, such a tone: would that the master of Hewarden could have heard her!
"Some!" said Mr. Kelly. "He is indeed 'a thing apart.' I know nothing like him. 'Once, in the flight of ages past, there lived a man.' In ages to come they will say that of our modern immortal William. They will probably add that no real man has ever lived since."
"How silly you can be at times!" says Olga.
"It isn't mine; it's Montgomery's nonsense," says Mr. Kelly, sadly. "Blame him, not me."
"I don't want to blame any one," says Olga, with a skillfully-suppressed yawn; "but, taking your view of the case, I think it will be an awful age when there doesn't live a man."
"Your 'occupation will be o'er,' indeed," says Rossmoyne, with an accentuated bitterness, "when that time comes."
("He must be very much in love with her," thinks Monica, with a touch of inspiration, "he is so excessively rude to her!")
"Lord Rossmoyne," says Mrs. Bohun, turning to him with ineffable sweetness, "will you do something for me?"
The transition from coldness to tender appeal is too much for Rossmoyne: his face brightens.
"You know there is nothing I would not do for you," he says, gravely but eagerly.
"Then," promptly, "please take that ugly frown off your forehead and put it in your pocket; or—no, throw it away altogether; if you kept it near you, you might be tempted to put it on again."
"I did not know I was frowning."
"You were," sweetly. "You are all right again now, and so shall be rewarded. You can't think how unbecoming frowns are, and how much better you look when you are all 'sweetness and light' as now for example. Come," rising, "you shall take me for a nice long walk through these delightful old gardens."
As she moves she sees the daisies still clinging to her gown that Ulic Ronayne has been amusing himself with during the past half-hour. More than this, she sees, too, the imploring gaze of his dark eyes upturned to hers.
"Silly boy!" she says, stooping to shake away the daisies with her hand; but her words have a double meaning. Involuntarily, unseen by all the others—except Monica—his hand closes upon hers.
"Do not go with him," he says, with deep entreaty.
"Then let me come too?"
"No." Then she raises herself, and says, gayly, "You shall stay and make love to Miss Beresford—Monica, I have desired Mr. Ronayne to stay here and amuse you."
She moves across the lawn with Rossmoyne beside her. Mrs. Herrick and Mr. Kelly are strolling lazily in another direction. Monica and Ulic are alone.
"Is there anything I can take you to see?" asks he, gently.
"No, thank you. I am quite happy here."
Then, noticing the extreme sadness on his beautiful face, she says, slowly, "But you are not, I am afraid."
"I should be, with so fair a companion." He smiles as he says this, but his smile is without mirth, and she does not return it. Suddenly leaning forward, she says to him, very tenderly,—
"You love Olga, do you not?"
She never afterwards thinks of this speech without blushing deeply and wondering why she said it. It was an impulse too strong to be conquered, and it overpowers her. His face changes, and he colors perceptibly; he hesitates too, and regards her inquiringly. Something, perhaps, in her expression reassures him, because presently he says, bravely,—
"Yes, I do. I love her with all my heart and soul; as I never have loved, as I never shall love again. This thought is my happiness: my sorrow lies in the fear that she will never love me. Forgive my saying all this to you: she told me to amuse you," with a faint smile, "and I have woefully neglected her commands."
"You must forgive me," says Monica. "I should not have asked you the question."
"Do not be sorry for that: it has done me good, I think. I am glad I have said it out loud to somebody at last. It is odd though,—isn't it?—I should have made my confession to you, of all people, whom I never saw until ten minutes ago!"
Then Monica remembers that this is the second young man she has found herself on friendly terms with since her arrival at Moyne, without the smallest introduction having been gone through on any side. It all sounds rather dreamy, and certainly very irregular.
"Ah! there is Madam O'Connor beckoning to me," says Ronayne, rising lazily to his feet. "I suppose she wants me for a moment. Will you mind my leaving you for a little, or will you come with me? I shan't be any time."
"I shall stay here," says Monica. "There, go: she seems quite in a hurry. Come back when you can."
He runs across the grass to his hostess; and Monica, leaning back in her chair, gives herself up to thought. Everything is strange, and she is feeling a little lonely, a little distraite, and (but this she will not allow even to herself) distinctly disappointed. She is trying very hard to prevent her mind from dwelling upon a certain face that should be naught to her, when she suddenly becomes conscious of the fact that some one has come to a standstill close beside her chair. She turns.
How Monica listens to strange words and suffers herself to be led away.—How Cupid plants a shaft in Mars, and how Miss Priscilla finds herself face to face with the enemy.
"You see I failed," says Brian Desmond.
A quick warm blush has dyed Monica's cheeks crimson.
"Ah! it is you," she said. "I thought you had not come."
This betrays the fact that she has been thinking of him, but he is far too wise a young man in his own generation to take count of it.
"Yes, I came. Three days ago I thought I should have been in London now, and then I heard you were to be here to-day."
"In what have you failed?" asks she, abruptly, alluding to his opening sentence.
"Can't you guess? Have you forgotten the last cruel injunction you laid upon me? 'When next we meet,' you said, 'you are to look straight over my head and pass on.' Will you believe that twice to-day I obeyed that mandate? The third time was the charm: it conquered me; I broke my sword in two and came to you."
"I wish you hadn't," says Monica, sincerely, if impolitely. "I wish you would go away now, and promise me never to speak to me again. You know I am afraid of you," looking nervously around.
"I don't, indeed; I can't conceive such a situation. You do me a great injustice, I think. I verily believe if I tried my very hardest I couldn't instil terror into the smallest child in the village."
"You know what I mean. Of course," scornfully, "I should never be afraid of a man: it is Aunt Priscilla I am afraid of. And see, see there!" in an agony, "she is standing quite close to us, talking to somebody."
"If that is your aunt Priscilla, she is safe for an hour at least. The old lady with her is Lady Rossmoyne, and she never lets any one (unfortunate enough to get into her clutches) go free under a generous sixty minutes. She is great on manures, and stock, and turnips, and so forth. And your aunt, I hear, is a kindred spirit."
"But then there is Aunt Penelope," says Monica, timidly.
"She, too, is arranged. Half an hour ago I met her so deep in a disgraceful flirtation with the vicar that I felt it my duty to look the other way. Depend upon it, she is not thinking of you."
"But some one may tell them I have been talking to you."
"I always thought I had a proper amount of pride until I met you," says Mr. Desmond. "You have dispelled the belief of years. 'Is thy servant a dog,' that you should be ostracized for speaking to him? Never mind; I submit even to that thought if it gives me five minutes more of your society. But listen to me. No one can tell tales of us, because we are both strangers in the land. No one knows me from Adam, and just as few know you from—let us say Eve, for euphony's sake."
She laughs. Encouraged by her merriment to believe that at least she bears him no ill will, Brian says, hurriedly,—
"Come with me to the rose-garden. It is stupid sitting here alone, and the garden is beyond praise. Do come."
"Why?" lifting her heavy lashes.
"For one thing, we shall be free from observation, and you know you dislike being seen with me. For another——" He pauses.
"Well?" rather nervously.
"It is just this, that I must speak to you," says the young man, his gay manner changing to one of extreme earnestness. "You were unkind to me that day we parted. I want you to tell me why. I understand quite that I have no right to demand even the smallest favor of you, yet I do entreat you to come with me."
For another moment she hesitates, then—
"Yes, I will come with you," she says, raising her soft eyes to his. In her whole manner, voice, and bearing there is something so sweet and childish and trusting as to render Desmond her slave upon the spot.
The path to the rose-garden leads away from Miss Priscilla, so they avoid detection as they go.
But they are singularly silent and grave; when the garden is reached they pass between the rows of growing blossoms mute, if rich in thought. At last, when silence is becoming too eloquent to be borne, her companion turns to her.
"It wasn't true what you said to me that last day, was it?" he asks, with far more anxiety than the occasion seems to demand. "Not really, I mean. You said it for fun, perhaps—or——It has been with me ever since. I can't forget it. You said you disliked sudden friendships, and the way you said it made me think you disliked me. Tell me I thought wrong."
"Quite wrong," in a low tone. She is plucking a rose to pieces, and keeps her eyes downcast. "When I said that, I was angry about something."
"About something I said?"
"No. Nothing you said."
"Something I did, then?" growing more and more anxious.
"What was it?"
"It doesn't matter now; not in the least now; and I can not tell you, indeed."
"But I wish very much you would. Perhaps, being in wretched ignorance, I shall be so unhappy as to do it again some day, and so make you hate me a second time."
"I didn't hate you."
"No? Yet there was a look in your eyes I wouldn't like to see there again. Do tell me, lest I once more fall into error."
"Oh, no," coloring deeply, as though at some unpleasant recollection. "That would be impossible. It could never happen again. I shall take care of that. I shall never as long as I live get into a—that is—I mean—I——Really I have forgiven it all now, so let us forget it too."
Though still greatly mystified, Mr. Desmond wisely forbears to press the point, something in her pretty distressed face and heightened color forbidding him.
"Very good," he says, pleasantly. "But there is another thing I have not forgotten. Have you ever cleared up that mystery about my uncle and your aunts?"
"Oh! that. It cannot be cleared, I am afraid it is too muddy a tale for any help; but I have at least found out all about it."
"Would it be indiscreet if I said I would give anything to be as wise as you on this subject? In other words, will you divulge the secret?"
"It is a story that doesn't redound to the honor and glory of your house," says Miss Beresford, stepping back from him with a gay little laugh, and glancing at him mischievously from under her big "Patience" hat. "If I were you I should shrink from hearing it."
"I decline to shrink," with unparalleled bravery. "I prefer to rush upon my fate. Life has no longer any flavor for me until I hear what the old reprobate at Coole has done."
"Well, if you will insist upon the sorry tale, 'tis this. Once there lived a wicked knight, who wooed a maiden fair. But when that her heart was all his own, his love grew cold, and, turning from her, he refused to fulfil his plighted troth and lead her to the hymeneal altar. In fact, he loved and he rode away, leaving her as dismally disconsolate as the original maid forlorn."
"Alas for the golden age of chivalrie!" says Mr. Desmond.
"Alas, indeed! That wicked knight was your uncle; the maid forlorn my mother!"
"You have been giving me a summary of a fairytale, haven't you?" asks he, in an unbelieving tone.
"No, indeed; it is all quite true. From what I have heard, your uncle must have treated my mother very badly. Now, aren't you thoroughly ashamed of yourself and your family?"
"One swallow makes no summer," says Mr. Desmond, hardily. "Because my uncle refused to succor a distressed damosel is no reason why I should so far forget myself. Besides, the whole thing seems incredible. Report says, and," with an expressive glance at her, "I can well believe it, your mother was the most beautiful woman of her time in all the countryside; while my uncle, bless him, is one of the very ugliest men I ever met in my life. He might take a prize in that line. Just fancy the Beast refusing to wed with Beauty!"
"To be ugly, so far as a man is concerned, is nothing," says Monica with a knowledge beyond her years. "Many singularly plain men have been much beloved. Though"—with an unconscious study of her companion's features, who is decidedly well favored—"I confess I should myself prefer a man whose nose was straight, and whose eyes were—had no inclination to look round the corner, I mean."
"A straight nose is to be preferred, of course," says Mr. Desmond, absently stroking his own, which is all that can be desired. "But I never since I was born heard such an extraordinary story as yours. I give you my word,"—earnestly,—"my uncle is just the sort of man who, if any girl, no matter how hideous, were to walk up to him and say, 'I consent to marry you,' ought to be devoutly grateful to her. Why, talking of noses, you should just see his: it's—it's anyhow," with growing excitement. "It's all up hill and down dale. I never before or since saw such a nose; and I'd back his mouth to beat that!"
"He must be a very distinguished-looking person," says Miss Beresford, demurely.
"I know very little about him, of course, having been always so much abroad; but he looks like a man who could be painfully faithful to an attachment of that kind."
"He was not faithful to her, at all events. I daresay he fell in love with some other girl about that time, and slighted my mother for her."
"Well," says Mr. Desmond, drawing a deep breath, "he is 'a grand man!'"
"I think he must be a very horrid old man," replies Monica, severely.
"You have proofs of his iniquity, of course," says Brian, presently, who evidently finds a difficulty in believing in his uncle's guilt.
"Yes. He wrote her a letter, stating in distinct terms that"—and here she alters her voice until it is highly suggestive of Miss Blake's fine contralto—"'he deemed it expedient for both parties that the present engagement existing between them should be annulled.' Those are Aunt Priscilla's words; what he really meant, I suppose, was that he was tired of her."
"Your mother, I should imagine, was hardly a woman to be tired of readily."
"That is a matter of opinion. We—that is, Terry and Kit and I—thought her a very tiresome woman indeed," says Miss Beresford, calmly. She does not look at him as she makes this startling speech, but looks beyond him into, possibly, a past where the "tiresome woman" held a part.
Brian Desmond, gazing at her pale, pure, spiritual face, sustains a faint shock, as the meaning of her words reaches him. Is she heartless, emotionless? Could not even a mother's love touch her and wake her into life and feeling?
"You weren't very fond of your mother, then?" he asks, gently. The bare memory of his own mother is adored by him.
"Fond?" says Monica, as though the idea is a new one to her. "Fond? Yes, I suppose so; but we were all much fonder of my father. Not that either he or mamma took very much notice of us."
"Were they so much wrapt up in each other, then?"
"No, certainly not," quickly. Then with an amount of bitterness in her tone that contrasts strangely with its usual softness, "I wonder why I called my mother 'mamma' to you just now. I never dared do so to her. Once when she was going away somewhere I threw my arms around her and called her by that pet name; but she put me from her, and told me I was not to make a noise like a sheep."
She seems more annoyed than distressed as she says this. Desmond is silent. Perhaps his silence frightens her, because she turns to him with a rather pale, nervous face.
"I suppose I should not say such things as these to you," she says, unsteadily. "I forgot, it did not occur to me, that we are only strangers."
"Say what you will to me," says Desmond, slowly, "and be sure of this, that what you do say will be heard by you and me alone."
"I believe you," she answers, with a little sigh.
"And, besides, we are not altogether strangers," he goes on, lightly; "that day on the river is a link between us, isn't it?"
"Oh, yes, the river," she says, smiling.
"Our river. I have brought myself to believe it is our joint property: no one else seems to know anything about it."
"I have never been near it since," says Monica.
"I know that," returns he, meaningly.
"How?" is almost framed upon her lips; but a single glance at him renders her dumb. Something in his expression suggests the possibility that he has spent pretty nearly all his time since last they met, and certainly all his afternoons, upon that shady river just below the pollard willows, in the vain hope of seeing her arrive.
She blushes deeply, and then, in spite of herself, laughs out loud, a low but ringing laugh, full of music and mischief.
This most uncalled-for burst of merriment has the effect of making Mr. Desmond preternaturally grave.
"May I ask what you are laughing at?" he says, with painful politeness; whereupon Miss Beresford checks her mirth abruptly, and has the grace to blush again even harder than before. Her confusion is, indeed, the prettiest thing possible.
"I don't know," she says, in an evasive tone.
"People generally do know what they are laughing at," contends he, seriously.
"Well, I don't," returns she, with great spirit.
"Of course not, if you say so; but," with suppressed wrath, "I don't myself think there is anything provocative of mirth in the thought of a fellow wasting hour after hour upon a lonely stream in the insane but honest hope of seeing somebody who wouldn't come. Of course in your eyes the fellow was a fool to do it; but—but if I were the girl I wouldn't laugh at him for it."
Monica's eyes are bent upon the ground; her face is averted; but there is something about her attitude that compels Mr. Desmond to believe she is sorry for her untimely laughter; and thinking this breeds hatred towards himself for having caused this sorrow and makes him accuse himself of basest ill temper.
"I beg your pardon!" he says, in a contrite tone; "I shouldn't have spoken to you like that. I lost my temper most absurdly and must apologize to you for it now. It was ridiculous of me to suppose you would ever come again to the river; but one hopes against hope. Yet, as Feltham tells us, 'he that hopes too much shall deceive himself at last:' that was my fate, you see. And you never once thought of coming, did you? You were quite right."
"No, I was quite wrong; but—but—you are quite wrong too in one way," still with her eyes downturned.
"By what right did I expect you? I was a presumptuous fool and got just what I deserved."
"You were not a fool," exclaims she, quickly; and then, with a little impulsive gesture, she draws herself up and looks him fair in the eyes. "If I had known you were there," she says, bravely, though evidently frightened at her own temerity, "I—I—am almost sure I should have been there too!"
"No! would you really?" says Desmond, eagerly.
Then follows a rather prolonged silence. Not an awkward one, but certainly a silence fraught with danger to both. There is no greater friend to Cupid than an unsought silence such as this. At last it is broken.
"What lovely roses there are in this garden!" says Desmond, pointing to a bush of glowing beauty near him.
"Are there not?" She has taken off a long white glove, so that one hand and arm are bare. The hand is particularly small and finely shaped, the nails on it are a picture in themselves; the arm is slight and childish, but rounded and very fair.
Breaking a rose from the tree indicated, she examines it lovingly, and then, lifting it to his face, as though desirous of sympathy, says,—
"Is it not sweet?"
"It is indeed!" He is staring at her. Very gently he takes the little hand that holds the flower and keeps it in his own. He detains it so lightly that she might withdraw it if she pleases, but she does not. Perhaps she doesn't please, or perhaps she sees nothing remarkable in his action. At all events, she, who is so prone to blush on all occasions, does not change color now, but chatters to him gayly, in an unconcerned manner, about the scented blossoms round her, and afterwards about the people yonder, behind the tall flowering shrubs that surround the tennis-ground.
And still her little slender fingers lie passively in his. Glancing at them, he strokes them lightly with his other hand, and counts her rings.
"Four—five," he says; "quite a burden for such a little hand to carry."
"I like them," says Monica: "brooches and earrings and bracelets I don't care for, but rings I love. I never really feel dressed until they are on. To slip them on my fingers is the last thing I do every morning before running downstairs. At least nearly the last."
"And what is the last?"
"I say my prayers," says Monica, smiling. "That is what every one does, isn't it?"
"I don't know," says Mr. Desmond, not looking at her. It seems to him a long, long time now since last he said his prayers. And then he suddenly decides within himself that he will say them to-morrow morning, "the last thing before going downstairs;" he cannot have quite forgotten yet.
He is examining her rings as he thinks all this, and now a little pale turquoise thing attracts his notice.
"Who gave you that?" he asks, suddenly. It is to a jealous eye rather a lovable little ring.
"Papa, when I was fourteen," says Monica. "It is very pretty, isn't it? I have felt quite grown up ever since he gave me that."
"Monica," says Brian Desmond suddenly, tightening his hold on her hand, "had you ever a lover before?"
"Yes," slowly, and as if determined to make his meaning clear, and yet, too, with a certain surprise at his own question. "Had you?"
"Before?" as if bewildered, she repeats the word again. "Why, I never had a lover at all!"
"Do not say that again," says Brian, moving a step nearer to her and growing pale: "I am your lover now—and forever!"
"Oh! no, no," says Monica, shrinking from him. "Do not say that."
"I won't, if you forbid me, but," quietly, "I am, and shall be, all the same. I think my very soul—belongs to you."
A crunching of gravel, a sound of coming footsteps, the murmur of approaching voices.
Monica, pallid as an early snowdrop, looks up to see her Aunt Priscilla coming towards her, accompanied by a young man, a very tall and very stout young man, with a rather drilled air.
"Ah! here is Aunt Priscilla," says Monica, breathlessly. "Who is that with her?"
"Ryde, one of the marines stationed at Clonbree," says Mr. Desmond, cursing the marine most honestly in his heart of hearts. Clonbree is a small town about seven miles from Rossmoyne, where a company of marines has been sent to quell the Land League disturbances.
Miss Priscilla is looking quite pleased with herself, and greets Monica with a fond smile.
"I knew I should find you here," she says; "flowers have such a fascination for you. You will let me introduce you to Mr. Ryde, dear child!"
And then the introduction is gone through, and Monica says something unworthy of note to this big young man, who is staring at her in a more earnest manner than is strictly within the rules of etiquette. Somehow, too, she presently discovers she has fallen into line with her new friend, and is moving towards the lawn again with Aunt Priscilla following in her train with Mr. Desmond.
Quaking inwardly, Monica at first cannot take her mind off the twain behind her, and all the consequences that must ensue if Miss Priscilla once discovers a Desmond is being addressed by her with common civility.
She is, therefore, but poor company for the tall marine, who seems, however, quite satisfied with the portion allotted him and maunders on inanely about the surroundings generally. When the weather and the landscape have been exhausted, it must be confessed, however, that he comes to a standstill.
Miss Priscilla, pleased with her day and the satisfactory knowledge that every one has been raving about Monica, is making herself specially agreeable to her companion, who, nothing loath, draws her out and grows almost sycophantic in his attentions. She becomes genial with him, not knowing who he is, while he becomes even more than genial with her, knowing right well who she is. Indeed, so merrily does he make the time fly that Miss Priscilla is fain to confess to herself that seldom has she passed so pleasant a five minutes.
In the meantime, Monica, strolling on in front with Mr. Ryde, is feeling both nervous and depressed. This chance meeting between her aunt and Mr. Desmond, and the memory of all the strange exciting things the latter has said to her, renders her mute and unequal to conversation, and her present companion is not one likely to enchain her attention by any brilliant flashes of intellect.
He is, in truth, a very ordinary young man, of the heavy, stupid type too often met with to require either introduction or description. He had arrived in Queenstown about a fortnight before, with nothing much to guide his conduct in a strange country beyond the belief that Hibernia, as he elects to call it, is like Africa, a "land benighted," fit only to furnish food for jests. He has a fatal idea that he himself can supply these jests at times, and that, in fact, there are moments when he can be irresistibly funny over the Paddies: like many others devoid of brain, and without the power to create wholesome converse, he mistakes impertinence for wit, and of late has become rude at the expense of Ireland whenever he found anybody kind enough, or (as in Monica's case now) obliged, to listen to him.
Just now, there being a distinct and rather embarrassing pause, he says amiably,—
"Awfully jolly gown you've got on!"
"So glad you like it!" says Monica, absently.
"Got it from town, I suppose?"
"Oh! by Jove, you call Dublin town, do you?" says Mr. Ryde, with a heavy laugh that suggests danger of choking, he being slightly plethoric by nature.
"Yes: what do you call it?" says Monica, regarding him steadily. She has hardly looked at him till now, and tells herself instantly that young men with fat faces are not in her line.
"Always thought it was a village, or something of that sort, you know," replies he, with a continuation of the suicidal merriment.
Monica stares, and her color rises, ever so little, but unmistakably.
"You ought to read something, papers and articles on Ireland, now and then," she says, deep but suspicious pity for him in her tone. "Considering what education costs nowadays, it is shameful the way yours has been neglected. Your college, or wherever you were, ought to be ashamed of itself. Why, I don't believe you know what a capital means."
"A capital?—in writing, do you mean?" asks he, puzzled.
"N—o; I wasn't thinking of that. You can write, I suppose," with malicious hesitation that betrays doubt. "I was speaking of the capitals of Europe. Dublin is one of them."
Unable to grasp the fact that she is mildly snubbing him, Mr. Ryde smiles gayly, and says, "Oh, really?" with an amused air that incenses her still more highly. "Was there ever," she asks herself, angrily, "so hateful a man, or so long a gravel walk!"
Having racked his brain to find something further wherewith to beguile the monotony of the way, and finding it barren, Mr. Ryde falls back upon the original subject.
"I like a white gown on a woman better than any," he says. "And so they really can make gowns in Ireland? I've been awfully disappointed, do you know?—reg'lar sold. I came over here in the full hope of seeing everybody going about in goatskins and with beads round their necks—and—er—that."
"And why are you disappointed?" asks Monica, mildly, with a provoking want of appreciation of this brilliant sally. "Are you fond of goatskins and beads? Do you wear them when 'your foot is on your native heath'?"
"Eh?—Oh, you don't understand," says this dense young man, fatally bent on explanation. "I meant to imply that the general belief with us over there"—pointing to the horizon, which would have led him to America rather than to England—"is that everybody here is half savage—d'ye see—eh?"
"Oh, yes, it's quite plain," says Miss Beresford, her eyes immovably fixed on the horizon. "'Over there' must be a most enlightened spot."
"So of course I thought the goatskins, etc., would be the order of the day," goes on Mr. Ryde, with another chuckle.
"You do think sometimes, then?" says Monica, innocently.
"I have been thinking of you ever since I first saw you this afternoon," returns he, promptly, if unwisely.
There is an almost imperceptible pause, and then—
"Don't trouble yourself to do that again," says Monica very sweetly, but with a telltale flash in her blue eyes; "I am sure it must fatigue you dreadfully. Remember what a warm day it is. Another thing: don't for the future, please, say rude things about Ireland, because I don't like that either."
The "either" is the cruellest cut of all: it distinctly forbids him even to think of her.
"I am afraid I have been unlucky enough to offend you," says young Mars, stiffly, awaking at last to a sense of the situation, and glancing down uneasily at the demure little figure marching beside him with her pretty head erect. "I didn't mean it, I assure you. What I said was said in fun."
"Are you always like that when you are funny?" asks she, looking straight before her. "Then I think, if I were you, I wouldn't do it."
Then she is a little ashamed of her severity, and, changing her tone, makes herself so charming to him that he quite recovers his spirits before they come up with all the others on the lawn.
Yet perhaps her smiles have wrought him more harm than her frowns.
Madam O'Connor, going up to Miss Priscilla, engages her in some discussion, so that presently Monica finds Brian beside her again.
"You will let me see you again soon," he says, in a low tone, seeing Ryde is talking to Miss Fitzgerald.
"But how can I?"
"You can if you will. Meet me somewhere, as I may not call; bring your brother, your sister, any one, with you; only meet me."
"If I did that, how could I look at Aunt Priscilla afterwards?" says Monica, growing greatly distressed. "It would be shameful; I should feel like a traitor. I feel like it already."
"Then do nothing. Take a passive part, if you will, and leave all to me," says Desmond, with a sudden determination in his eyes. "I would not have you vexed or made unhappy in any way. But that I shall see you again—and soon—be sure."
"I will listen to no 'buts:' it is too late for them. Though all the world, though even you yourself, should forbid me your presence, I should still contrive to meet you."
Here somebody addresses him, and he is obliged to turn and smile, and put off his face the touch of earnest passion that has just illumined it; while Monica stands silent, spellbound, trying to understand it all.
"Is it thus that all my countrymen make love?" she asks herself, bewildered. At the very second meeting (she always, even to herself, ignores that ignominious first) to declare in this masterful manner that he must and will see her again!
It is rapid, rather violent wooing; but I do not think the girl altogether dislikes it. She is a little frightened, perhaps, and uncertain, but there is a sense of power about him that fascinates her and tells her vaguely that faith and trust in him will never be misplaced. She feels strangely nervous, yet she lifts her eyes to his, and gazes at him long and bravely, and then the very faintest glimmer of a smile, that is surely full of friendliness and confidence, if nothing more, lights up her eyes and plays around her pensive mouth. A moment, and the smile has vanished, but the remembrance of it lives with him forever.
Yes, the wooing is rapid, and she is not won; but "she likes me," thinks Desmond, with a touch of rapture he has never known before. "Certainly, she likes me; and—there are always time and hope."
"My dear Monica, it grows late," says Miss Priscilla at this moment. "Say good-by to Madame O'Connor, and let us go."
"Oh, not a bit of it, now," says Madam O'Connor, hospitably in her rich, broad brogue, inherited in all its purity, no doubt, from her kingly ancestor. "You mustn't take her away yet: sure the day is young. Mr. Ryde, why don't you get Miss Beresford to play a game with you? In my time, a young fellow like you wouldn't wait to be told to make himself agreeable to a pretty girl. There, go now, do! Have you brought your own racket with you?"
"I left it at home," says Mr. Ryde. "Fact is," affectedly, "I didn't think tennis was known over here. Didn't fancy you had a court in the land."
This speech fires the blood of the O'Toole's last descendant.
Madam O'Connor uprears a haughty crest, and fixes the luckless lieutenant with an eagle eye, beneath which he quails.
"There is no doubt we lack much," she says, taking his measure with lofty scorn; "but we have at least our manners."
With this she turns her back upon him, and commences a most affable discussion with Miss Penelope, leaving her victim speechless with fright.
"Have a brandy-and-soda, Ryde?" says Mr. Kelly, who is always everywhere, regarding the wretched marine through his eyeglass with a gaze of ineffable sadness. "Nothing like it, after an engagement of this sort."
"I thought Ireland was the land for jokes," says the injured Ryde, indignantly,—"stock in trade sort of thing over here; and yet when I give 'em one of mine they turn upon me as if I was the worst in the world. I don't believe any one understands 'em over here."
"You see, your jokes are too fine for us," says Mr. Kelly, mournfully. "We miss the point of them."
"You are all the most uncomfortable people I ever met," says the wrathful marine.
"We are, we are," acquiesces Kelly. "We are really a very stupid people. Anything, delicate or refined is lost upon us, or is met in an unfriendly spirit. I give you my word, I have known a fellow's head smashed for less than half what you said to Madam O'Connor just now. Prejudice runs high in this land. You have, perhaps," in a friendly tone, "heard of a shillelagh?"
"No, I haven't," sulkily.
"No? really? It is quite an institution here. It's a sort of a big stick, a very unpleasant stick, and is used freely upon the smallest difference of opinion. You'll meet them round every corner when you get more used to us: you'd like to see them, wouldn't you?"
"No, I shouldn't," still more sulkily.
"Oh, but you ought, you know. If you are going to live for any time in the country, you should study its institutions. The best way to see this one is to make cutting remarks about Ireland in a loud voice when two or three of the peasants are near you. They don't like cutting remarks, they are so stupid, and jokes such as yours annoy them fearfully. Still, you mustn't mind that; you must smother your natural kindliness of disposition and annoy them, if you want to see the shillelagh."
"I said nothing to annoy Mrs. O'Connor, at any rate," says Mr. Ryde. "She needn't have taken a simple word or two like that."
"You see, we are all so terribly thin-skinned," says Mr. Kelly, regretfully, "I quite blush for my country-people. Of course there are noble exceptions to every rule. I am the noble exception here. I don't feel in the least annoyed with you. Now do try some brandy, my dear fellow: it will do you all the good in the world."
"I don't know this moment whether you are laughing at me or not," says the marine, eying him doubtfully.
"I never laugh," says Mr. Kelly, reproachfully. "I thought even you could see that. Well, will you have that B. and S.?"
But Mars is huffed, and declines to accept consolation in any shape. He strolls away with an injured air to where his brother officer, Captain Cobbett, is standing near the hall door, and pours his griefs into his ears. Captain Cobbett being a very spare little man, with a half starved appearance and a dismal expression, it is doubtful whether poor Ryde receives from him the amount of sympathy required.
"Well," says Madam O'Connor, turning round as she sees him disappear, and addressing the three or four people round her generally, "'pon me conscience, that's the silliest young man I ever met in my life!" When disturbed, elated, or distressed, Madam O'Connor always says, "'Pon me conscience!"
"Don't be hard upon him," says Mr. Kelly, kindly. "Though very mad, he is quite harmless!"
"He plays tennis very well," says Miss Fitzgerald, the tall girl. "So nice, isn't it? to have these ancient games reproduced!" This with the learned air of one who could say more if she would.
"Ancient?" says Madam O'Connor. "Faith, I thought it was a game of yesterday."
"Oh, dear, no!" says the erudite Bella, with a lenient smile. "Tennis was first brought from France to England in the reign of Charles the Second."
"There now, Miss Beresford, don't forget that," says Madam O'Connor, turning to Monica with an amused smile: "it is essential you should remember it, as it is part of one's education." After which she moves away towards some other guests, having said all she has to say to those near her.
"May I see you to your carriage, Miss Blake?" says Desmond, finding she and Miss Penelope are bent on going; and Aunt Priscilla, who has taken quite a fancy to this strange young man, gives her gracious permission that he shall accompany them to the fossilized chariot awaiting them.
"Who is he, my dear Priscilla?" asks Miss Penelope, in a stage whisper, as they go.
"Don't know, my dear, but a vastly agreeable young man, very superior to those of his own age of the present day. He is marvellously polite, and has, I think, quite a superior air."
"Quite," says Penelope, "and a very sweet expression besides,—so open, so ingenuous. I wish all were like him." This with a sigh, Terence having proved himself open to suspicion with regard to plain dealing during the past few days.
Now, it so happens that at this instant they turn a corner leading from the shrubbery walk on to the gravel sweep before the hall door; as they turn this corner, so does some one else, only he is coming from the gravel sweep to the walk, so that consequently he is face to face with the Misses Blake without any hope of retreat.
The walk is narrow at the entrance to it, and as the newcomer essays to pass hurriedly by Miss Priscilla he finds himself fatally entangled with her, she having gone to the right as he went to the left, and afterwards having gone to the left as he went to the right, and so on.
Finally a passage is cleared, and the stranger—who is an amazingly ugly old man, with a rather benign though choleric countenance—speeds past the Misses Blake like a flash of lightning, and with a haste creditable to his years, but suggestive rather of fear than elasticity.
"My uncle?" says Brian Desmond, in an awestruck tone, to Monica, who literally goes down before the terrible annunciation, and trembles visibly.
It is a rencontre fraught with mortal horror to the Misses Blake. For years they have not so much as looked upon their enemy's face, and now their skirts have actually brushed him as he passed.
"Come, come quickly, Monica," says Miss Penelope, on this occasion being the one to take the initiative. "Do not linger, child. Do you not see? It was our enemy that passed by."
If she had said "it was the arch fiend," her voice could not have been more tragic.
"I am coming, Aunt Penny," says Monica, nervously.
Now, it is at this inauspicious moment that Mr. Kelly (who, as I have said before, is always everywhere) chooses to rush up to Brian Desmond and address him in a loud tone.
"My dear boy, you are not going yet, are you?" he says reproachfully. "I say, Desmond, you can't, you know, because Miss Fitzgerald says you promised to play in the next match with her."
The fatal name had been uttered clearly and distinctly. As though petrified the two old ladies, stand quite still and stare at Brian; then Miss Priscilla, with a stately movement, gets between him and Monica, and, in tones that tremble perceptibly, says to him,—
"I thank you for the courtesy already received sir; but we will no longer trouble you for your escort: we prefer to seek our carriage alone."
She sweeps him a terribly stiff little salute, and sails off, still trembling and very pale, Miss Penelope, scarcely less pale, following in her wake.
Desmond has barely time to grasp Monica's hand, and whisper, "Remember," in as mysterious a tone as the hapless Stuart, when she too is swept away, and carried from his sight.
Not until the gates of Aghyohillbeg are well behind them do the Misses Blake sufficiently recover themselves for speech. Terence, who has been a silent witness of the whole transaction, creating a diversion by making some remark about the day generally, breaks the spell that binds them. His remark is passed over in silence, but still the spell is broken.
"Whoever introduced you to that young man," begins Miss Priscilla, solemnly, "did a wrong thing. Let us hope it was done in ignorance."
At this Monica shivers inwardly and turns cold, as she remembers that no introduction has ever been gone through between her and "that young man." What if her Aunt Priscilla persists, and asks the name of the offending medium? Fortunately, Miss Blake loses sight of this idea, being so much engrossed with a greater.
"For the future you must forget you ever spoke to this Mr. Desmond," she says, her face very stern. "Happily he is an utter stranger to you, so there will be no difficulty about it. You will remember this, Monica?"
"Yes, I will remember," says the girl, slowly, and with a visible effort.
Then Moyne is reached in solemn silence so far as the Misses Blake are concerned; in solemn silence, too, the two old ladies mount the oaken staircase that leads to their rooms. Outside, on the corridor, they pause and contemplate each other for a moment earnestly.
"He—he is very good-looking," says Miss Penelope at last, as though compelled to make the admission even against her will.
"He is abominably handsome," says Miss Priscilla fiercely: after which she darts into her room and closes the door with a subdued bang behind her.
How Brian, having instituted inquiries, condemns his Uncle secretly—How Terry throws light upon a dark subject, and how, for the third time, Love "finds out his way."
It is the evening of the next day, and dinner at Coole has just come to an end. Mr. Kelly, who has been Brian's guest for the last fortnight, and who is to remain as long as suits him or as long after the grouse-shooting in August as he wills, has taken himself into the garden to smoke a cigar. This he does at a hint from Brian.
Now, finding himself alone with his uncle, Brian says, in the casual tone of one making an indifferent remark,—
"By the bye, I can see you are not on good terms with those old ladies at Moyne."
As he speaks he helps himself leisurely to some strawberries, and so refrains from looking at his uncle.
"No," says The Desmond, shortly.
"Some old quarrel I have been given to understand."
"I should prefer not speaking about it," says the squire.
"Twinges of conscience even at this remote period," thinks Brian, and is rather tickled at the idea, as he lifts his head to regard his uncle in a new light,—that is, as a regular Don Juan.
"Well, of course, I dare say I should not have mentioned the subject," he says, apologetically; "but I had no idea it was a sore point. It was not so much bad taste on my part as ignorance. I beg your pardon!"
"It was a very unhappy affair altogether," says Don Juan.
"Very unfortunate indeed, from what I have heard."
"More than unfortunate!—right down disgraceful!" says the squire, with such unlooked-for energy as raises astonishment in the breast of his nephew. ("By Jove, one would think the old chap had only now awakened to a sense of his misconduct," he thinks, irreverently.)
"Oh, well," he says, leniently, "hardly that, you know."
"Quite that," emphatically.
"It has been often done before: yours is not a solitary case."
"Solitary or not, there were elements about it inexcusable," says the old squire, beating his hand upon the table as though to emphasize his words.
"I wouldn't take it so much to heart if I were you," says Brian, who is really beginning to pity him.
"It has lain on my heart for twenty years. I can't take it off now," says the squire.
"You have evidently suffered," returns Brian, who is getting more and more amazed at the volcano he has roused. "Of course I can quite understand that if you were once more to find yourself in similar circumstances you would act very differently."
"I should indeed!—very differently. A man seldom makes a fool of himself twice in a lifetime."
("He's regretting her now," thinks Brian.)
But out loud he says,—
"You didn't show much wisdom, I daresay."
"No, none; and as for her,—to fling away such a love as that——" Here he pauses, and looks dreamily at the silver tankard before him.
This last speech rather annoys Brian; to gloat over the remembrance of a love that had been callously cast aside to suit the exigences of the moment, seems to the younger man a caddish sort of thing not to be endured.
("Though what the mischief any pretty girl of nineteen could have seen in him," he muses, gazing with ill-concealed amazement at his uncle's ugly countenance, "is more than I can fathom.")
"Perhaps it wasn't so deep a love as you imagine," he cannot refrain from saying a propos to his uncle's last remark, with a view to taking him down a peg.
"It was, sir," says the Squire, sternly. "It was the love of a lifetime. People may doubt as they will, but I know no love has superseded it."
"Oh, he is in his dotage!" thinks Brian, disgustedly; and, rising from the table, he makes a few more trivial remarks, and then walks from the dining-room on to the balcony and so to the garden beneath.
Finding his friend Kelly in an ivied bower, lost in a cigar, and possibly, though improbably, in improving meditation, he is careful not to disturb him, but, making a successful detour, escapes his notice, and turns his face towards that part of Coole that is connected with Moyne by means of the river.
* * * * *
At Moyne, too, dinner has come to an end, and, tempted by the beauty of the quiet evening, the two old ladies and the children have strolled into the twilit garden.
There is a strange and sweet hush in the air—a stillness full of life—but slumberous life. The music of streams can be heard, and a distant murmur from the ocean; but the birds have got their heads beneath their wings, and the rising night-wind wooes them all in vain.
Shadows numberless are lying in misty corners; the daylight lingers yet, as though loath to quit us and sink into eternal night. It is an eve of "holiest mood," full of tranquillity and absolute calm.
"It is that hour of quiet ecstasy, When every rustling wind that passes by The sleeping leaf makes busiest minstrelsy."
"You are silent, Priscilla," says Miss Penelope, glancing at her.
"I am thinking. Such an eve as this always recalls Katherine; and yesterday that meeting,—all has helped to bring the past most vividly before me."
"Ah, dear, yes," says Miss Penelope, regarding her with a furtive but tender glance. "How must he have felt, when he thought what grief he brought to her young life!"
"You are talking of mother?" asks Kit, suddenly, letting her large dark eyes rest on Miss Penelope's face, as though searching for latent madness there.
"Yes, my dear, of course."
"He would not have dared so to treat her had her father been alive or had we been blessed with a brother," says Miss Priscilla, sternly. "He proved himself a dastard and a coward."
"Perhaps there was some mistake," says Monica, timidly, plucking a pale blossom and pretending to admire it.
"No, no. We believe he contracted an affection for some other girl, and for her sake jilted your mother. If so, retribution fit and proper followed on his perfidy, because he brought no wife later on to grace his home. Doubtless he was betrayed in his turn. That was only just."
"There seems to be reason in that conjecture," says Miss Penelope, "because he went abroad almost immediately. I saw him shortly before he left the country, and he was then quite a broken-down man. He must have taken his own misfortune greatly to heart."
"Served him right!" says Miss Priscilla, uncompromisingly. "He deserved no greater luck. Your mother suffered so much at his hands that she almost lost her health. I don't believe she ever got over it."
"Oh, yes, she did," says Terry, suddenly; "she got over it uncommonly well. We didn't know who Mr. Desmond was then, of course; but I know she used to make quite a joke of him."
"A joke!" says Miss Priscilla, in an awful tone.
"Yes, regular fun, you know," goes on Terence, undaunted. "One day she was telling father some old story about Mr. Desmond, a 'good thing' she called it, and she was laughing heartily; but he wasn't, and when she had finished, I remember, he said something to her about want of 'delicacy of feeling,' or something like that."
"I was there," says Kit, in her high treble. "He said, too, she ought to be ashamed of herself."
"Oh, that was nothing," says Mr. Beresford, airily. "Father and mother never agreed for a moment; they were always squabbling from the time they got up till they went to bed again."
The Misses Blake have turned quite pale.
"Terence how can you speak so of your sainted mother?" says Miss Penelope. "I'm sure, from her letters to us, she was a most devoted mother and wife, and, indeed, sacrificed her every wish and pleasure to yours."
"I never knew it cost her so much to keep away from us," says Terence. "If she was dying for our society, she must indeed have sacrificed herself, because she made it the business of her life to avoid us from morn to dewy eve."
"Doubtless she had her duties," says Miss Penelope, in a voice of suppressed fear. What is she going to hear next? what are these dreadful children going to say?
"Perhaps she had," said Terence. "If so, they didn't agree with her, as she was always in a bad temper. She used to give it to papa right and left, until he didn't dare to call his soul his own. When I marry, I shall take very good care my wife doesn't lead me the life my mother led my father."
"Your wife! who'd marry you?" says Kit, scornfully, which interlude gives the discussion a rest for a little time. But soon they return to the charge.
"Your mother when here had an angelic temper," says Miss Penelope. Miss Priscilla all this time seems incapable of speech.
"Well, she hadn't when there," says Terence; and then he says a dreadful thing, as vulgar as it is dreadful, that fills his aunt's heart with dismay. "She and my father fought like cat and dog," he says; and the Misses Blake feel their cup is indeed full.
"And she never would take Monica anywhere," says Kit; "so selfish!"
It is growing too terrible. Is their idol to be shattered thus before their eyes?
"Monica, was your mother unkind to you?" says Miss Penelope, in a voice full of anguish. After all these years, is the Katherine of their affections to be dragged in the dust?
Monica hesitates. She can see the grief in her aunt's face, and cannot bear to add to it. The truth is that the late Mrs. Beresford had not been beloved by her children, for reasons which it will be possible to conceive, but which would be tiresome to enumerate here. Perhaps there seldom had been a more careless or disagreeable mother.
So Monica pauses, flushes, glances nervously from right to left, and then back again, and finally rests her loving, regretful eyes full upon Miss Penelope's agitated face.
Something she sees there decides her. Sinking to her knees, she flings her arms around the old lady's neck, and lays her cheek to hers.
"I will say nothing, but that I am happy here," she says, in a low whisper.
Miss Penelope's arms close round her. The worst has come to her; yet there is solace in this clinging embrace, and in the dewy lips that seek hers. If she has lost one idol, who can say she has not gained another, and perhaps a worthier one?
Yet beyond doubt the two old ladies have sustained a severe shock: they hold down their heads, and for a long time avoid each other's eyes, as though fearing what may there be seen.
"Let us walk round the garden, Aunt Priscilla," says Monica, feeling very sorry for them. "The evening is lovely, and the roses so sweet."
"Come then," says Miss Priscilla, who is perhaps glad to escape from her own thoughts. And so they all wander to and fro in the pretty garden, bending over this flower and lingering over that in a soft, idle sort of enjoyment that belongs alone to the country.
Terence had disappeared, but, as he is not great on flowers, his presence is not indispensable, and no one takes any notice of his defection.
Presently they come upon the old gardener, who is also the old coachman, upon his bended knees beside a bed. The whole garden is scrupulously raked and scrupulously weeded till not a fault can be found. But Miss Priscilla is one of those who deem it necessary always to keep a servant up to his trumps.
Stooping over the bed, therefore, she carefully adjusts her glasses upon her nose, and proceeds to examine with much minuteness the earth beneath her. A tiny green leaf attracts her notice.
"Corney, is that a weed?" she asks, severely. "I certainly remember sowing some seeds in this place; but that has a weedy look."
"It's seeds, miss," says Corney, "Ye'd know it by the curl of it."
"I hope so, I hope so," says Miss Priscilla, doubtfully, "but there's a common cast about it. It reminds me of groundsel. Corney, whatever you do, don't grow careless."
"Faix, I'm too ould a hand for that, miss," says Corney. "But, to tell the truth, I think myself, now, not to desaive ye, that the leaf ye mentioned is uncommon like the groundsel. You ought to be proud of yer eyes, Miss Priscilla; they're as clear as they were twinty years ago."
Greatly mollified by this compliment, Miss Priscilla declines to scold any more, and, the groundsel forgotten, moves onward to a smooth piece of sward on which a cartload of large white stones from the seashore has been ruthlessly thrown.
"What is this?" she says, indignantly, eying the stones with much disfavor. "Corney, come here! Who flung those stones down on my green grass?"
"The rector, miss. He sent his man wid a load of 'em, and 'tis there they left 'em."
"A most unwarrantable proceeding!" says Miss Priscilla, who is in her managing mood. "What did Mr. Warren mean by that?"
"Don't you think it was kind of him to draw them for our rookery, my dear Priscilla?" says Miss Penelope, suggestively.
"No, I don't," says Miss Priscilla. "To bring cartloads of nasty large stones and fling them down upon my velvet grass on which I pride myself (though you may think nothing of it, Penelope) is not kind. I must say it was anything but nice,—anything but gentlemanly."
"My dear, he is quite a gentleman, and a very good man."
"That may be. I suppose I am not so uncharitable as to be rebuked for every little word; but to go about the country destroying people's good grass, for which I paid a shilling a pound, is not gentlemanly. Katherine, what are you laughing at?"
"At the stones," says Kit.
"There is nothing to laugh at in a stone. Don't be silly, Katherine. I wonder, Monica, you don't make it the business of your life to instil some sense into that child. The idea of standing still to laugh at a stone."
"Better do that than stand still to cry at it," says the younger Miss Beresford, rebelliously. Providentially, the remark is unheard; and Monica, scenting battle in the breeze, says, hastily,—
"Do you remember the roses at Aghyohillbeg, auntie? Well, I don't think any of them were as fine as this," pointing to a magnificent blossom near her. It is the truth, and it pleases Miss Priscilla mightily, she having a passion for her roses. And so peace is once more restored.
"It grows chilly," says Miss Penelope, presently.
"Yes; let us all go in," says Miss Priscilla.
"Oh, not yet, auntie; it is quite lovely yet," says Monica, earnestly. She cannot go in yet, not yet; the evening is still young, and—and she would like so much to go down to the river, if only for a moment. All this she says guiltily to herself.
"Well we old women will go in at least," says Miss Penelope. "You two children can coquet with the dew for a little while; but don't stay too long, or sore throats will be the result."
"Yes, yes," says Miss Priscilla, following her sister. As she passes Monica, she looks anxiously at the girl's little slight fragile figure and her slender throat and half-bared arms.
"That dress is thin. Do not stay out too long. Take care of yourself, my darling." She kisses her pretty niece, and then hurries on, as though ashamed of this show of affection.
A little troubled by the caress, Monica moves mechanically down the path that leads towards the meadows and the river, followed by Kit. By this time the latter is in full possession of all that happened yesterday,—at least so much of it as relates to Monica's acquaintance with Mr. Desmond (minus the tender passages), his uncle's encounter with her aunts, and Brian's subsequent dismissal. Indeed, so much has transpired in the telling of all this that Kit, who is a shrewd child, has come to the just conclusion that the young Mr. Desmond is in love with her Monica!
Strange to say, she is not annoyed at his presumption, but rather pleased at it,—he being the first live lover she has ever come in contact with, and therefore interesting in no small degree.
Now, as she follows her sister down the flowery pathway, her mind is full of romance, pure and sweet and great with chivalry, as a child's would be. But Monica is sad and taciturn. Her mind misgives her, conscience pricks her, her soul is disquieted within her.
What was it she had promised Aunt Priscilla yesterday? Aunt Priscilla had said, "For the future you will remember this?" and she had answered, "Yes."
But how can she forget? It was a foolish promise, for who has got a memory under control?
Of course, Aunt Priscilla had meant her to understand that she was never to speak to Mr. Desmond again, and she had given her promise in the spirit. And of course she would be obedient; she would at least so far obey that she would not be the first to speak to him, nor would she seek him—nor——But why, then, is she going to the river? Is it because the evening is so fine, or is there no lurking hope of——
And, after all, what certainty is there that—that—any one will be at the river at this hour? And even if they should be, why need she speak to him? she can be silent; but if he speaks to her, what then? Can she refuse to answer?
Her mind is as a boat upon a troubled sea, tossed here and there; but by and by the wind goes down, and the staunch boat is righted, and turns its bow toward home.
"Kit, do not let us go to the river to-night," she says, turning to face her sister in the narrow path.
"But why? It is so warm and light, and such a little way!"
"You have been often there. Let us turn down this side of the meadow, and see where it will lead to."
That it leads directly away from Coole there cannot be the least doubt; and the little martyr treading the ground she would not, feels with an additional pang of disappointment that the fulfilment of her duty does not carry with it the thrill of rapture that ought to suffuse her soul. No, not the faintest touch of satisfaction at her own heroism comes to lighten the bitter regret she is enduring as she turns her back deliberately on the river and its chances. She feels only sorrow, and the fear that some one will think her hard-hearted, and she could cry a little, but for Kit and shame's sake.
"Monica, who is that?" exclaims Kit, suddenly, staring over the high bank, beside which they are walking, into the field beyond. Following her glance, Monica sees a crouching figure on the other side of this bank, but lower down, stealing cautiously, noiselessly, towards them, as though bent on secret murder. A second glance betrays the fact that it is Terence, with—yes, most positively with a gun!
"Where on earth did he get it?" says Kit; and, unable to contain her curiosity any longer, she scrambles up the bank, and calls out, "Terry, here we are! Come here! Where did you get it?" at the top of her fresh young lungs.
As she does so, a little gray object, hitherto unseen by her, springs from among some green stuffs, and, scudding across the field into the woods of Coole beyond, is in a moment lost to view.
"Oh, bother!" cries Terry, literally dancing with rage; "I wouldn't doubt you to make that row just when I was going to fire. I wish to goodness you girls would stay at home, and not come interfering with a fellow's sport. You are always turning up at the wrong moment, and just when you're not wanted!—indeed you ever are!"
These elegant and complimentary remarks he hurls at their heads, as though with the wish to annihilate them. But they haven't the faintest effect: the Misses Beresford are too well accustomed to his eloquence to be dismayed by it. They treat it, indeed, as a matter of course, and so continue their inquiries uncrushed.
"Terry, where did you get this gun?" asks Monica, as breathless with surprise as Kit. "Is it"—fearfully—"loaded? Oh! don't!—don't point it this way! It will surely go off and kill somebody."
Here she misses her footing and slips off the high bank, disappearing entirely from view, only to reappear again presently, flushed but uninjured.
"What a lovely gun!" says Kit, admiringly.
"Isn't it?" says Terence, forgetting his bad temper in his anxiety to exhibit his treasure. "It's a breech-loader, too; none of your old-fashioned things, mind you, but a reg'lar good one. I'll tell you who lent it to me, if you'll promise not to peach."
"We won't," says Kit, who is burning with curiosity.
"Bob Warren?" says Monica. Bob Warren is the rector's son, and is much at Moyne.
"Not likely! Pegs above him. Well, I'll tell you. It's that fellow that's spoons on you,"—with all a brother's perspicacity,—"the fellow who saw us on the hay-cart,"—Monica writhes inwardly,—"Desmond, you know!"
"The enemy's nephew?" asks Kit, in a thrilling tone, that bespeaks delight and a malicious expectation of breakers ahead.
"Yes. I was talking to him yesterday, early in the day, at Madam O'Connor's; and he asked me was I your brother, Monica, to which I pleaded guilty, though," with a grin, "I'd have got out of it if I could; and then he began to talk about shooting, and said I might knock over any rabbits I liked in Coole. I told him I had no gun, so he offered to lend me one. I thought it was awfully jolly of him, considering I was an utter stranger, and that; but he looks a real good sort. He sent over the gun this morning by a boy, and I have had it hidden in the stable until now. I thought I'd never get out of that beastly garden this evening."
"Oh, Terence, you shouldn't have taken the gun from him," says Monica, flushing. "Just think what Aunt Priscilla would say if she heard of it. You know how determined she is that we shall have no intercourse with the Desmonds."
"Stuff and nonsense!" says Mr. Beresford. "I never heard such a row as they are forever making about simply nothing. Why, it's quite a common thing to jilt a girl, nowadays. I'd do it myself in a minute."
"You won't have time," says Kit, contemptuously. "She—whoever she may be—will be sure to jilt you first."
"Look here," says Terence, eyeing his younger sister with much disfavor; "you're getting so precious sharp, you know, that I should think there'll be a conflagration on the Liffey before long; and I should think, too, that an outraged nation would be sure to fling the cause of it into the flames. So take care."
"Terence, you ought to send that gun back at once," says Monica.
"Perhaps I ought, but certainly I shan't," says Terence, genially. "And if I were you," politely, "I wouldn't make an ass of myself. There is quite enough of that sort of thing going on up there," indicating, by a wave of his hand, the drawing-room at Moyne, where the Misses Blake are at present dozing.
"You shouldn't speak of them like that," says Monica; "it is very ungrateful of you, when you know how kind they are, and how fond of you."
"Well, I'm fond of them, too," says Terence, remorsefully but gloomily; "and I'd be even fonder if they would only leave me alone. But they keep such a look-out on a fellow that sometimes I feel like cutting the whole thing and making a clean bolt of it."
"If you ran away you would soon be wishing yourself back again," says Monica, scornfully. "You know you will have no money until you are twenty-one. People pretend to be discontented, at times, with their lives; but in the long run they generally acknowledge 'there is no place like home.'"
"No, thank goodness, there isn't," says Terence, with moody fervor. "I'll acknowledge it at once, without the run. To have frequent repetitions of it would be more than human nature could endure. I have known two homes already; I should think a third would be my death."
So saying, he shoulders the forbidden gun and marches off.
Monica and Kit, getting down from their elevated position, also pursue their path, which leads in a contrary direction.
"Monica," says Kit, presently, slipping her slender brown fingers through her sister's arm, "what did Terry mean just now, when he spoke about some one being 'spoons' on you? Does that mean being in love with you?"
"Is Mr. Desmond, then, in love with you?"
"Oh, Kit, how can I answer such a question as that?"
"In words, I suppose. Is he in love with you?"
"I don't know," says Monica, in a troubled tone. "If I ever had a lover before, I should know; but——"
"That means he is," says the astute Kit. "And I'm sure," with a little loving squeeze of her arm, "I don't wonder at it."
"You must not say that," says Monica, earnestly. "Indeed, he said a few things to me, but that is nothing; and——"
"You think he likes you?"
"I believe he adores the very ground you walk on."
"Oh, no, indeed."
"If you say that, he isn't a real lover. A real one, to my mind, ought to be ready and willing to kiss the impressions your heels may make in the earth."
"That would be the act of a fool; and Mr. Desmond is not a fool."
"Ergo, not a lover. And yet I think he is yours. Monica," coaxingly, "did he say any pretty things to you?"
"What should he say? I only met him twice."
"You are prevaricating," gazing at her severely. "Why don't you answer me honestly?"
"I don't know what you call 'pretty things.'"
"Yes, you do. Did he tell you your eyes were deep, deep wells of love, and that your face was full of soul?"
"No, he did not," says Monica, somewhat indignantly; "certainly not. The idea!"
"Well, that is what Percival said to the girl he loved in the book I was reading yesterday," says Kit, rather cast down.
"Then I'm very glad Mr. Desmond isn't like Percival."
"I daresay he is nicer," says Kit, artfully. Then she tucks her arm into her sister's, and looks fondly in her face. "He must have said something to you," she says. "Darling love, why won't you tell your own Kitten all about it?"
A little smile quivers round Monica's lips.
"Well, I will, then," she says. In her heart I believe she is glad to confide in somebody, and why not in Kit the sympathetic? "First, he made me feel he was delighted to meet me again. Then he asked me to go for a walk alone with him; then he said he was—my lover!"
"Oh!" says Kit, screwing up her small face with delight.
"And then he asked me to meet him again to-day with you."
"With me! I think that was very delicate of him." She is evidently flattered by this notice of her existence. Plainly, if not the rose in his estimation, she is to be treated with the respect due to the rose's sister. It is all charming! she feels wafted upwards, and incorporated, as it were, in a real love affair. Yes, she will be the guardian angel of these thwarted lovers.
"And what did you say?" she asks, with a gravity that befits the occasion.
"I refused," in a low tone.
"To meet him?"
"With me?" says this dragon of propriety.
"Because of Aunt Priscilla." And then she tells her all about Aunt Priscilla's speech in the carriage, and her reply to it.
"I never heard such a rubbishy request in my life!" says the younger Miss Beresford, disdainfully. "It is really beneath notice. And when all is told it means nothing. As I read it, it seems you have only promised to forget you ever spoke to Mr. Desmond: you haven't promised never to speak to him again." Thus the little Jesuit.
"That was not what Aunt Priscilla meant."
"If she meant anything, it was folly. And, after all, what is this dreadful quarrel between us and the Desmonds all about? It lives in Aunt Priscilla's brain. I'll tell you what I think, Monica. I think Aunt Priscilla was once in love with old Mr. Desmond, and mother cut her out; and now, just because she has been disappointed in her own love-affair, she wants to thwart you in yours."
"She doesn't, indeed. Any one but Mr. Desmond might show me attention, and she would be pleased. She was quite glad when Mr. Ryde—well—when he made himself agreeable to me."
"From all you told me of him, he must have made himself dis-agreeable. I'm perfectly certain I should hate Mr. Ryde, and I'm equally sure I should like Mr. Desmond. What did he say to you, darling, when you refused to meet him even with me?" She lays great stress on this allusion to herself.
"He said I might do as I chose, but that he would meet me again, whether I liked it or not, and soon!"
"Now, that's the lover for me!" says Kit, enthusiastically. "No giving in, no shilly-shallying, but downright determination. He's an honest man, and we all know what an honest man is,—'the noblest work of God.' I'm certain he will keep his word, and I do hope I shall be with you when next you meet him, as I should like to make friends with him."
At this moment it occurs to Monica that she never before knew how very, very fond she is of Kit.
"Oh, well, I don't suppose I can see him again for ever so long," she says. But even as the words pass her lips she knows she does not mean them, and remembers with a little throb of pleasure that he had said he would see her again soon. Soon! why, that might mean this evening,—now,—any moment! Instinctively she lifts her head and looks around her, and there, just a little way off, is a young man coming quickly towards her, bareheaded and in evening dress.