"What a lovely night!" says Monica, gazing wistfully into the misty depths of the illuminated darkness beyond. "I want to step into it, and—we have not been out all day."
"Then why not go now?" says Hermia, answering her glance in a kindly spirit.
"Ah! will you come?" says Monica, brightening into glad excitement.
"Let us go as far as the fountain in the lower garden," says Olga: "it is always beautiful there when the moon is up."
"Avoid the grass, however; wet feet are dangerous," says Lord Rossmoyne, carefully.
"You will die an old bachelor," retorts Olga, saucily, "if you take so much 'thought for the morrow.'"
"It will certainly not be my fault if I do," returns Rossmoyne, calmly, but with evident meaning.
"Mrs. Bohun, bring your guitar," says Desmond, "and we will make Ronayne sing to it, and so imagine ourselves presently in the land of the olive and the palm."
"Shall we ask the others to come with us?" says Monica, kindly, glancing back into the drawing-room.
"Miss Browne, for example," suggests Owen Kelly. If he hopes by this speech to arouse jealousy in anybody present, he finds himself, later on, mightily mistaken.
"If she is as good a sort as you say, I daresay she would like it," says Olga. "And, besides, if we leave her to Bella's tender mercies she will undoubtedly be done to death by the time we return."
"Oh, do go and rescue her," says Mrs. Herrick, turning to Kelly. Her tone is almost appealing.
"Perhaps Miss Fitzgerald will come too," says Monica, somewhat fearfully.
"Don't be afraid," says Olga. "Fancy Bella running the risk of having a bad eye or a pink nose in the morning! She knows much better than that."
"Tell Miss Browne to make haste," says Mrs. Herrick, turning to Kelly. "Because we are impatient,—we are longing to precipitate ourselves into the moonlight. Come, Olga; come, Monica; they can follow."
Miss Browne, however, on being appealed to, shows so honest a disregard for covering of any sort, beyond what decency had already clothed her with, that she and Kelly catch up with the others even before the fountain is reached.
It is, indeed, a fairy dell to which they have been summoned,—a magic circle, closed in by evergreens with glistening leaves. "Dark with excessive light" appears the scene; the marble basin of the fountain, standing out from the deep background, gleams snow-white beneath Diana's touch. "The moon's an arrant thief." Perchance she snatches from great Sol some beauties even rarer than that "pale fire" he grants her—it may be, against his will. So it may well be thought, for what fairest day can be compared with a moonlit night in languorous July?
The water of the fountain, bubbling ever upwards, makes sweet music on the silent air; but, even as they hark to it, a clearer, sweeter music makes the night doubly melodious. From bough to bough it comes and goes,—a heavenly harmony, not to be reproduced by anything of earthly mould.
"O nightingale, that on yon gloomy spray Warbles at eve, when all the woods are still, Thou with fresh hope the lover's heart dost fill."
Clear from the depths of the pine woods beyond, the notes ascend, softly, tenderly. Not often do they enrich our Irish air, but sometimes they come to gladden us with a music that can hardly be termed of earth. The notes rise and swell and die, only to rise and to slowly fade again, like "linked sweetness long drawn out."
Seating themselves on the edge of the fountain, they acknowledge silently the beauty of the hour. Olga's hand, moving through the water, breaks it into little wavelets on which the riotous moonbeams dance.
"Where are your bangles, Olga? you used to be famous for them?" asks Desmond, idly.
"I have tired of them."
"Poor bangles!" says Ulic Ronayne, in a low tone heard only by her.
"What a heavy sigh!"
"A selfish one, too. More for myself than for the discarded bangles. Yet their grievance is mine."
"I thought they suited you," says Desmond.
"Did you? Well, but they had grown so common; every one used to go about laden with them. And then they made such a tiresome tinkle-tinkle all over the place."
"What place?" says Lord Rossmoyne, who objects to slang of even the mildest description from any woman's lips, most of all from the lips of her whom he hopes to call his wife.
"Don't be stupid!" says this prospective wife, with considerable petulance.
"You are fickle, I doubt," goes on Rossmoyne, unmoved. "A few months ago you raved about your bangles, and had the prettiest assortment I think I ever saw. Thirty-six on each arm, or something like it. We used to call them your armor. You said you were obliged to wear the same amount exactly on each arm, lest you might grow crooked."
"I know few things more unpleasant than having one's silly remarks brought up to one years afterwards," says Olga, with increasing temper.
"Months not years," says Rossmoyne, carefully. Whereupon Mrs. Bohun turns her back upon him, and Mrs. Herrick tells herself she would like to give him a good shake for so stupidly trying to ruin his own game, and Ulic Ronayne feels he is on the brink of swearing with him an eternal friendship.
"Bangles?" breaks in Owen Kelly, musingly. "Harmless little circular things women wear on their wrists, aren't they? But awkward too at times,—amazingly awkward. As Olga has feelingly remarked, they can make a marvellously loud tinkle-tinkle at times. I know a little story about bangles, that ought to be a warning against the use of them. Would any one like to hear my little story? It is short, but very sweet."
Every one instantly says "Yes," except Olga, who has drawn herself together and is regarding him with a stony glare.
"Well, there was once on a time a young woman, who had some bangles, and a young man; she had other things too, such as youth and beauty, but they weren't half so important as the first two items; and wherever she and her bangles went, there went the young man too. And for a long time nobody knew which he loved best, the beauteous maiden or the gleaming bangles. Do I make myself clear?"
"Wonderfully so, for you," says Mrs. Herrick.
"Well one day the young man's preference was made 'wonderfully so' too. And it was in this wise. On a certain sunny afternoon, the young woman found herself in a conservatory that opened off a drawing-room, being divided from it only by a hanging Indian curtain; a hanged Indian curtain she used to call it ever afterwards; but that was bad grammar, and bad manners too."
"I feel I'm going to sleep," says Desmond, drowsily. "I hope somebody will rouse me when he has done, or pick me out of the water if I drop into it. Such a rigmarole of a story I never heard in my life."
"Caviare can't be appreciated by the general; it is too strong for you," says Mr. Kelly, severely. "But to continue——Anything wrong with you, my dear Olga?"
"Nothing!" says Mrs. Bohun, with icy indignation.
"Well. In this conservatory my heroine of the bangles found herself; and here, too, as a natural consequence, was found the young man. There was near them a lounge,—skimpy enough for one, but they found it amply large for two. Curious fact in itself, wasn't it? And I think the young man so far forgot himself as to begin to make violent——and just as he was about to emb——the young woman, whose name was——, she very properly, but with somewhat mistaken haste, moved away from him, and in so doing set all her bangles a-tinkling. Into full cry they burst, whereupon the curtain was suddenly drawn back from the drawing-room side, giving the people there a full view of the conservatory and its—contents! The denouement was full of interest,—positively thrilling! I should advise all true lovers of a really good novel to obtain this book from their libraries and discover it for themselves."
Here Mr. Kelly stops, and looks genially around.
"I think I shall take to writing reviews," he says, sweetly. "I like my own style."
A dead silence follows his "little story," and then Mrs. Herrick lifts her eyes to his.
"'I wonder that you will still be talking, Signor Benedick: nobody marks you,'" she quotes, with a touch of scorn.
"You do, my dear Lady Disdain, or else you would not have addressed me that contemptuous remark."
"An absurd story, altogether!" says Olga, throwing up her head, a smile lightening her eyes as they meet Kelly's. At her tone, which is more amused than annoyed, Ronayne lets his hand fall into the water close to hers, and doubtless finds its cool touch (the water's, I mean, of course) very refreshing, as it is fully five minutes before he brings it to the surface again.
"True, nevertheless," says Kelly. "Both the principals in my story were friends of mine. I knew—indeed, I may safely say I know—them well."
"I am glad you said 'were,'" says Olga, shaking her blonde head at him. Lord Rossmoyne, by this time, is looking as black as a thunder-cloud.
"A questionable friend you must be, to tell tales out of school," says Mrs. Herrick.
"I defy any one to say I have told anything," says Kelly, with much-injured innocence. "But I am quite prepared to hear my actions, as usual, grossly maligned. I am accustomed to it now. The benefit of the doubt is not for me."
"There isn't a doubt," says Hermia.
"Go on. I must try to bear it,"—meekly. "I know I am considered incapable of a pure motive."
"Was it you drew back the curtain?"
"Well, really, yes, I believe it was. I wanted my friend, you see, and I knew I should find him with the bangles. Yes; it was I drew the curtain."
"Just what I should have expected from you," says Mrs. Herrick.
"Ah! Thank you! Now at last you are beginning to see things in their true light, and to take my part," says Mr. Kelly, with exaggerated gratitude. "Now, indeed, I feel I have not lived in vain! You have, though at a late hour, recognized the extraordinary promptitude that characterizes my every action. While another might have been hesitating, I drew the curtain. I am seldom to be found wanting, I may, indeed, always be discovered just where——"
"You aren't wanting," interrupts Mrs. Herrick, with a sudden smile.
"How can that be," says Kelly, with reproachful sadness, "when I am generally to be found near you?"
At this Hermia gives in, and breaks into a low soft laugh.
"But I wish you had not told that story of Olga and Mr. Ronayne," she says, in a whisper, and with some regret. "You saw how badly Rossmoyne took it."
"That is partly why I told it. I think you are wrong in trying to make that marriage: she would be happier with Ronayne."
"For a month or two, perhaps."
"Oh, make it three," says Kelly, satirically. "Surely the little winged god has so much staying power."
"A few weeks ago you told me you did not believe in him at all."
"I have changed all that."
"Ah! you can be fickle too."
"A man is not necessarily fickle because when he discovers the only true good he leaves the bad and presses towards it. I think, too, his mentor," in a lowered tone, "should be the last to misjudge him."
"Nothing is so lasting, at least, as riches," says Mrs. Herrick, with a chastened but unmistakable desire to change his mood. "Olga with unlimited means and an undeniable place in the world of society would be a happier Olga than as the wife of a country gentleman."
"I don't agree with you; but you know best—perhaps. You speak your own sentiments, of course. A title is indispensable to you too, as well as to her?"
His tone is half a question.
"It counts," she says, slowly, trifling with firm though slender fingers with the grasses that are growing in the interstices of the marble.
"Pshaw!" says Kelly. Rising with a vehemence foreign to him, he crosses to where Ulic Ronayne is standing alone.
How Olga drowns a faithful servant—How Mr. Kelly conjures up a ghost—And how Monica, beneath the mystic moonbeams, grants the gift she first denies.
"Why so pale and wan, fond lover?" he says, lightly, laying his hand on Ulic's shoulder. The latter turns to him with a bright smile that renders his handsome face quite beautiful. Seeing its charm, Kelly asks himself, in half-angry fashion, how Olga can possibly hesitate for one moment between him and Rossmoyne. "But they are all alike heartless," he decides, bitterly.
"I am feeling neither pale nor wan," says Ronayne, still smiling. "It must be the moon, if anything. Look here, Kelly, something to-night has told me that it will all come right in the end. I shall gain her against the heaviest odds."
"If you mean Rossmoyne, he's the heaviest mortal I know," says Kelly.
"Well, he isn't suited to her, is he?" There is a strange excitement in Ronayne's manner. "Putting me out of the question altogether, I don't believe he could make her happy. If I thought he could, of course I should then go away somewhere, and find contentment in the thought of hers; but——you don't think she would do well to marry him do you Kelly?" He has controlled his features to an almost marvellous calm, but the agony of his question in his eyes cannot be hid.
"I think the woman who could even hesitate between you and him must be a fool and worse," says Kelly, whose temper is not his own to-night. "He is a pedantic ass, more in love with himself than he can ever be with anything else. While you——Look here, Ronayne; I wonder if any woman is worth it."
"Oh, she is," says Ronayne, with tender conviction. "I don't think she is at all like other people; do you? There's something different—something special—about her."
"I daresay," says Kelly, gently, which is rather good of him, considering his frame of mind.
"You're an awfully kind sort of fellow, Kelly, do you know?" says Ronayne, slipping his arm through his. "You are the only one I ever talk to about her. And I suppose I must bore you, though you don't say it. It's the most generous thing I know, your sympathizing with me as you do. If you were in love yourself, I could understand it. But you are not, you know."
"Oh, no; of course not," says Mr. Kelly.
"Is that your guitar, Mrs. Bohun? I wish you would sing us something," says Miss Browne at this moment.
"I don't sing much,—and never out of doors, it hurts my throat so," says Olga, smiling at her; "but if any else will sing, I will gladly play to them."
"Mr. Ronayne,—Ulic,—come here," says Monica, half shyly, but very sweetly. "You can sing, I know."
"Yes come here," says Olga, turning to him, and away from Lord Rossmoyne, who is talking to her in low, short, angry tones. But the latter, laying his hand on her arm, half compels her to turn to him again.
"Let some one else accompany him if he must sing," he says; "any one but you."
"No one else can."
"I object to your doing it."
"You won't when you hear him; he sings so sweetly," with the prettiest, most enthusiastic smile. "You really should hear him."
"You persist, then? you compel me to believe the worst,—to regard you as implicated in that story of Kelly's."
"I compel you to nothing. And as for the story, I thought it very amusing: didn't you?"
"No!" says Rossmoyne, with subdued fury.
"Do you know, I often said you lacked humor?" says Mrs. Bohun, with a little airy laugh; "and now I am sure of it. I thought it intensely comic; such a situation! I should like to have seen your face when the curtain was drawn, if you had been the young man."
"I must beg you to understand that such a situation would be impossible to me."
"I am to understand, then, that you would not 'emb——' that was what he said, wasn't it?—a woman if you loved her?"
"Not without permission, certainly," very stiffly.
"Oh, dear!" says Olga; "what a stupid man! Well, I shouldn't think you would do it often. And so you wouldn't have liked to be that particular young man?"
This is a poser; Lord Rossmoyne parries the thrust.
"Would you have liked to be that young woman,—who, as it appears to me, wasn't at all particular?" he asks, in turn.
"That is no answer to my question," says Olga, who is angry with his last remark. "Are you afraid to say what you mean?"
"Afraid! No. To give publicity to a thing means always to vulgarize it: therefore, on consideration, I should not have cared to be that young man."
"Ah! I should have thought otherwise," says Olga, in an indescribable tone. "Well, there must be consolation for you in the thought that you never can be.—Mr. Ronayne," calling to Ulic lightly, "are you coming, or must I sit fingering my lyre in vain?"
Ulic, coming slowly up to her, stands beside her, as she seats herself again upon the marble edge of the fountain, and runs her fingers gracefully over its strings.
His voice, a rich sweet tenor, breaks upon the air, blends with the beauty of the night, and sinks into it until all seems one great harmony. "'Tis I" is the song he has chosen, and a wonderful pathos that borders on despair enriches every note. He has forgotten every one but her, the pretty dainty creature who holds his heart in the hollow of her small hand. She must hear the melancholy that is desolating and thereby perfecting his voice; but, if so, she gives no sign. Once only her fingers tremble, but she corrects herself almost before her error is committed, and never after gives way to even the faintest suspicion of feeling.
Through the glade the music swells and throbs. Mary Browne, drawing instinctively nearer, seems lost in its enchantment. Monica, looking up with eyes full of tears into Desmond's face, finds his eyes fixed on her, and, with a soft, childish desire for sympathy, slips her hand unseen into his. How gladly he takes and holds it need not here be told.
As he comes to the last verse, Ronayne's voice grows lower; it doesn't tremble, yet there is in it something suggestive of the idea that he is putting a terrible constraint upon himself:
"If regret some time assail thee For the days when first we met, And thy weary spirit fail thee, And thine eyes grow dim and wet, Oh, 'tis I, love, At thy heart, love, Murmuring, 'How couldst thou forget?'"
The music lingers still for a moment, ebbs, and then dies away. Ronayne steps back, and all seems over. How Olga has proved so utterly unmoved by the passionate protest is exercising more minds than one, when suddenly she rises and with a swift movement bends over the fountain. Another moment, and she has dropped the guitar into the water. Some little silver ornament upon its neck flashes for an instant in the moonlight, and then it is gone.
"Oh, Olga!" says Hermia, making an involuntary step towards her.
"I shall never play on it again," says Olga, with a gesture that is almost impassioned. An instant, and it is all over,—her little burst of passion, the thought that led to it,—everything!
"I hate it!" she says, with a petulant laugh. "I am glad to be rid of it. Somebody made me a present of it whom I learned to detest afterwards. No, Owen, do not try to bring it to life again: let it lie down there out of sight where I may learn to forget it."
"As you will, madame," says Owen Kelly, who has been fruitlessly fishing for the drowned guitar.
"It is curious how hateful anything, however pretty, can become to us if we dislike the giver of it," says Mary Browne, pleasantly.
"Yes," says Hermia, quickly, glancing at her with a sudden gleam in her eyes,—of gratitude, perhaps. A moment ago there had been a certain awkwardness following on Olga's capricious action; now these few careless, kindly words from this ugly stranger have dispelled it. And is she so plain, after all? The fastidious Hermia, gazing at her intently, asks herself this question. Surely before that bright and generous gleam in her eyes her freckles sink into insignificance.
"I knew you would like her," says Mr. Kelly, at this moment, speaking low in Hermia's ear.
When a woman is startled she is generally angry. Mrs. Herrick is angry now, whether because of his words, or the fact that she did not know he was so close to her, let who will decide.
"You are very, very clever," she says, glancing at him from under drooping lids, and then turning away.
"So they all tell me," returns he, modestly.
Rossmoyne, crossing the brilliant moonlit path that divides him from the group round Hermia, seats himself beside her, thereby leaving Olga and Ulic Ronayne virtually alone.
"You will regret that guitar to-morrow," says Ronayne,—"at least not the thing itself (I can replace that), but——"
"I regret nothing," says Mrs. Bohun, carelessly,—"unless I regret that you have taken an absurdly ill-tempered action so much to heart. I am ill-tempered, you know."
"I don't," says Ronayne.
"So courteous a liar must needs obtain pardon. But let us forget everything but this lovely night. Was there ever so serene a sky? see how the stars shine and glimmer through the dark interstices of the blue-gray clouds!"
"They remind me of something,—of some words," says Ronayne, in a low voice. "They come to me now, I hardly know why, perhaps because of the night itself, and perhaps because—" he hesitates.
Olga is staring dreamily at the studded vault above her.
"About the stars?" she asks, without looking at him.
'A poet loved a star, And to it whispered nightly, Being so fair, why art thou, love, so far, Or why so coldly shine who shin'st so brightly?'
The poet was presumptuous, it seems to me."
"Was he? I don't know. All things come to him who knows how to wait."
"Who's waiting?" says Kelly's voice from the other side of the fountain; "and for what?"
"Toujours Owen," says Mrs. Bohun, with a shrug of her pretty shoulders. "Well, no one even in this life is altogether without a taste of purgatory: mine (this is a delicate compliment to you, Owen, so listen to it) might have been worse. Do you know I have sometimes thought——"
"She has really!" interrupts Mr. Kelly, turning with cheerful encouragement to the others. "You wouldn't think it to look at her, would you? but I know her intimately, and can vouch for the truth of her words. Go on, my dear Olga."
But "my dear Olga" has turned aside, and declines to take any notice of his remark beyond a faint grimace.
"She's very shy," says Mr. Kelly, in an explanatory aside, "and so retiring. Can't bear to hear herself publicly praised, or feel herself the centre of attraction. Let us haste to change the subject." This with many becks, and nods, and wreathed smiles, meant to explain the delicacy of the feeling that prompts him to this course. "By the by, Desmond, doesn't this fairy-like spot, and the moonlight, and the pathos of the silent night, and everything, remind you forcibly of old O'Connor?"
"But I always heard——" begins Monica, in a voice of much amazement; then she stops confusedly and presently goes on again, but in a different key. "Was The O'Connor, then, aesthetic?" she says.
At this even Lord Rossmoyne, who was in the lowest depths of despair, gives way to open mirth.
"Well, no, not exactly," says Ulic Ronayne. "There was a fatal healthiness about his appearance that disagreed with that idea. But he certainly was fond of this little place; he put up the fountain himself, had it brought all the way from Florence for the purpose; and he had a trick of lying here on his face and hands for hours together, grubbing for worms,—or studying the insect world I think he used to call it."
"I have always thought," says Mr. Kelly, in a tone of reflective sadness, "what an uncomfortable position that must be."
"What must be?"
"Lying on one's face and hands. What becomes of the rest of one? Does one keep one's heels in the air whilst doing it? To me it sounds awful! Yet only last week I read in the papers of a fellow who was found on a road on his face and hands, and the doctors said he must have been in that position for hours! Fancy—your nose, for instance, Rossmoyne, in the mud, and your heels in the air, for hours!"
Lord Rossmoyne, having vainly tried to imagine his dignified body in such a position, looks distinctly offended.
"No, nobody would like it," says Kelly, pathetically, answering his disgusted look exactly as if it had been put into words. "There is a shameful frivolity about it not to be countenanced for a moment. Yet good and wise men have been said to do it. Fancy the Archbishop of Canterbury, now, balancing himself on his nose and his palms! Oh! it can't be true!"
His voice by this time is positively piteous, and he looks earnestly around, as though longing for some one to support his disbelief.
"You are really excelling yourself to-night," says Mrs. Herrick, in a delicately disdainful tone.
"Am I? I am glad," humbly, "that you have had an opportunity of seeing me at my poor best."
"I wonder," says Desmond, suddenly, "if, when old O'Connor revisits the earth at the witching hour, he comes in the attitude so graphically described by Kelly? In acrobat fashion, I mean."
At this Monica breaks into laughter so merry, so full of utterly childish abandon and enjoyment, that all the others perforce join in it.
"Oh! fancy a ghost standing on his head!" she says, when she can speak.
"I shouldn't fancy it at all," says Mr. Kelly, gloomily. "I won't. Far from it. And I should advise you, Miss Beresford, to treat with less frivolity a subject so fraught with terror,—especially at this time of night. If that 'grand old man' were to appear now," with a shuddering glance behind him, "what would become of us all?"
"An unpleasant idea!" says Miss Browne,—"so unpleasant, indeed, that I think I should like to go for a little walk somewhere,—anywhere, away from the scene of the late Mr. O'Connor's nightly visitations."
"Come to the end of the shrubbery, then," says Desmond, "and look at the sea. It should be worth the trouble on such a night as this. Come you too, Olga."
"I should like it, but my head aches so," says Mrs. Bohun, plaintively. And, indeed, she is very pale. "It is either the moonlight which oppresses me, or—I don't know what. No! I shall go indoors, I think."
"Then I shall go with you," says Mrs. Herrick, regarding her with a certain anxiety. "But you," turning to Mary Browne, "must not miss a glimpse of the coast by moonlight. Mr. Kelly will show it to you."
She slips her arm through Olga's, and turns towards the house; Ulic Ronayne accompanies them; but Lord Rossmoyne and Owen Kelly move in the contrary direction with Miss Browne. Monica and Desmond have gone on before; and even when the others arrive at the point in the shrubbery from which a glimpse of the ocean can be distinctly seen, these last two people are not to be discovered anywhere.
Yet they are not so distant as they seem. Desmond has led Monica to a rather higher spot, where the desired scene can be more vividly beheld, and where too they can be—oh, blessed thought!—alone.
Through a belt of dark-green fir-trees, whose pale tips are touched with silver by the moon, can be seen the limitless ocean, lying in restless waiting in the bay below.
A sort of enforced tranquillity has fallen upon it,—a troubled calm,—belied by the hoarse, sullen roar that rises now and again from its depths, as when some larger death-wave breaks its bounds, and, rushing inland, rolls with angry violence up the beach. Soft white crests lie upon the great sea's bosom, tossing idly hither and thither, glinting and trembling beneath the moon's rays, as though reluctantly subdued by its cold influence.
Across the whole expanse of the water a bright path is flung, that has its birth in heaven, yet deigns to accept a resting-place on earth,—a transitory rest, for there in the far distance on the horizon, where the dull grays of sea and sky have mingled, it has joined them, and seems again to have laid hold of its earliest home.
The birds are asleep in their sea-bound nests; the wind has died away. There is nothing to break the exquisite stillness of the night, save the monotonous beating of the waves against the rocks, and the faint rippling murmur of a streamlet in the ash-grove.
The whole scene is so rich with a beauty mystical and idealistic that Monica draws instinctively nearer to Desmond, with that desire for sympathy common to the satisfied soul, and stirs her hand in his.
Here, perhaps, it will be as well to mention, once for all, that whenever I give you to understand that Desmond is alone with Monica you are also to understand, without the telling, that he has her hand in his. What pleasure there can be for two people in standing, or sitting, or driving, as the case may be, for hours, palm to palm (this is how the poetical one expresses it), I leave all true lovers to declare. I only know for certain that it is a trick common to every one of them, rich and poor, high and low. I suppose there is consolation in the touch,—a sensation of nearness. I know, indeed, one young woman who assured me her principal reason for marrying Fred in a hurry (Fred was her husband) lay in the fact that she feared if she didn't she would grow left-handed, as he was always in possession of the right during their engagement.
"Ah! you like it," says Desmond, looking down upon her tenderly,—alluding to the charming view spread out before them,—the dark firs, the floating moon, the tranquil stars, the illimitable ocean, "of Almightiness itself the immense and glorious mirror."
Monica makes no verbal answer, but a sigh of intensest satisfaction escapes her, and she turns up to his a lovely face full of youth and heaven and content. Her eyes are shining, her lips parted by a glad, tremulous smile. She is altogether so unconsciously sweet that it would be beyond the power of even a Sir Percivale to resist her.
"My heart of hearts!" says Desmond, in a low, impassioned tone.
Her smile changes. Without losing beauty, it loses something ethereal and gains a touch of earth. It is more pronounced; it is, in fact, amused.
"I wonder where you learned all your terms of endearment," she says, slowly, looking at him from under her curling lashes.
"I learned them when I saw you. They had their birth then and there."
An eloquent silence follows this earnest speech. The smile dies from Monica's lips, and a sudden thoughtfulness replaces it.
"You never called any one your 'heart of hearts' before, then?" she asks, somewhat wistfully.
"Never—never. You believe me?"
"Yes." Her lids drop. Some inward thought possesses her, and then—with a sudden accession of tenderness very rare with her—she lifts her head, and lays her soft, cool cheek fondly against his.
"My beloved!" says the young man, in a tone broken by emotion.
For a moment he does not take her in his arms; some fear lest she may change her mind and withdraw her expression of affection deters him; and when at last he does press her to his heart, it is gently and with a careful suppression of all vehemence.
Perhaps no man in all the world is so calculated to woo and win this girl as Desmond. Perhaps there is no woman so formed to gain and keep him as Monica.
Holding her now in a light but warm clasp, he knows he has his heaven in his arms; and she, though hardly yet awake to the full sweetness of "Love's young dream," understands at least the sense of perfect rest and glad content that overfills her when with him.
"What are you thinking of?" she says, presently.
"'Myn alderlevest ladye deare,'" quotes he, softly.
"And what of her?"
"'That to the deth myn herte is to her holde,'—yes, for ever and ever," says Desmond, solemnly.
"I am very glad of that," says Monica, simply; and then she raises herself from his embrace and looks straight down to the sea again.
At this moment voices, not approaching but passing near them, reach their ears.
"They are going in," says Monica, hurriedly, and with a regret that is very grateful to him. "We must go too."
"Must we?" reluctantly. "Perhaps," brightening, "they are only going to try the effect higher up."
"No. They are crossing the gravel to the hall door."
"They are devoid of souls, to be able to quit so divine a view in such hot haste. Besides, it is absurdly early to think of going indoors yet. By Jove, though!" looking at his watch, "I'm wrong: it is well after eleven. Now, who would have thought it?"
"Are you sure you mean eleven?" with flattering incredulity.
"Only too sure. Hasn't the time gone by quickly? Well, I suppose I must take you in, which means candles and bed for you, and a dreary drive home for Kelly and me, and not a chance of seeing you alone again."
"This time last week you couldn't have seen me at all," says Miss Beresford.
"True. I am ungrateful. And altogether this has been such a delightful evening,—to me at least: were," doubtfully, "you happy?"
"Very, very happy," with earnest, uplifted eyes.
"Darling love!—I am afraid I must give you up to Mrs. O'Connor now," he goes on, presently, when an ecstatic thought or two has had time to come and go. "But, before going, say good-night to me here."
He has never attempted to kiss her since that first time (and last, so far) in the orchard; and even now, though her pretty head is pressed against him, and her face is dangerously close to his, he still refrains. He has given her his word and will not break it; but perhaps he cannot altogether repress the desire to expostulate with her on her cruelty, because he gives voice to the gentle protest that rises to his lips.
"That is very cold good-night," he says. "You would say quite as much as that to Kelly or any of the others."
"I shouldn't call Mr. Kelly by his Christian name."
"No; but you would, Ronayne."
"Well, I shan't again, if you don't like it."
"That has nothing at all to do with what I mean. I only think you might show me a little more favor than the rest."
"Good-night, then, dear Brian. Now, I certainly shouldn't dream of calling Mr. Ronayne dear Ulic."
"Of course not. I should hope not, indeed! But still——there is something else that you might do for me."
Miss Beresford draws herself a little—a very little—away from him, and, raising her head, bestows upon him a glance that is a charming combination of mischief and coquetry. A badly-suppressed smile is curving the corner of her delicate lips.
"What a long time it takes you to say it!" she says, wickedly.
At this they both break into low, soft laughter,—delicious laughter!—that must not be overheard, and is suggestive of a little secret existing between them, that no one else may share.
"That is an invitation," says Desmond, with decision. "I consider you have now restored to me that paltry promise I made to you the other day in the orchard. And here I distinctly decline ever to renew it again. No, there is no use in appealing to me: I am not to be either softened or coerced."
"Well," says Miss Beresford, "listen to me." She stands well back from him this time, and, catching up the tail of her white gown, throws it negligently over her arm. "If you must have—you know what!—at least you shall earn it. I will race you for it, but you must give me long odds, and then, if you catch me before I reach that laurel down there, you shall have it. Is that fair?"
Plainly, from her exultant look, she thinks she can win.
"A bargain!" says Desmond. "And, were you Atalanta herself, I feel I shall outrun you."
"So presumptuous! Take care. 'Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall,' and you may trip."
"I may not, too."
"Well," moving cautiously away from him, "when I come to that branch there, and say one, two, three, you—will——Now!"
At this, before he is half prepared, she cries, "one, two, three," with scandalous haste, and rushes away from him down the moonlit path. Swift and straight as a deer she flies, but, alas! just as the goal is all but reached, she finds the race is not to her, and that she is a prisoner in two strong arms!
"Now, who was presumptuous?" says Desmond, gazing into her lovely face. Her head, with a touch of exhaustion about it, is thrown back against his chest; through her parted lips her breath is coming with a panting haste, born of excitement and her fruitless flight. He bends over her, lower, and lower still. She feels herself altogether in his power.
"As you are strong, be merciful," she whispers, faintly. A warm flood of crimson has dyed her cheeks; her smile has faded; she struggles slightly, and then all in one moment Desmond becomes aware that tears have sprung into her eyes.
Instantly he releases her.
"Darling, forgive me," he says, anxiously. "See how your heart is beating now, and all for nothing! Of course I shall let you off your bargain. What do you take me for? Do you think I should make you unhappy for all the world could offer? Take those tears out of your eyes this instant, or I shall be seriously angry with you."
Monica laughs, but in a rather nervous fashion, and lets her lover dry her eyes with his own handkerchief. Then she sits down with him upon a rustic seat close by, wishing to be quite mistress of herself again before encountering the glare of the drawing-room lamps and the still more searching light of her friends' eyes.
For a full minute not a word is spoken by either of them She is inwardly troubled; he is downcast. Presently she rises with a little restless movement.
"No, do not stir just yet," she says. "I only want to pick some of that syringa behind you, it is so sweet."
Disinclined for action of any sort, he obeys her. She slips away behind him, and he sits there waiting listlessly for her return, and thinking, somewhat sadly, how small a way he has made with her, and that she is almost as shy with him now as on that day by the river when first they met.
And then something marvellous happens that puts all his theories and regrets and fears to flight forever. Two soft arms—surely the softest in this wide glad world—steal round his neck; a gold-brown head is laid against his; a whisper reaches him.
"You were very good to me about that!" says somebody, tremulously; and then two warm childish lips are laid on his, and Monica is in his arms.
"I wonder what it was that frightened you?" says Desmond, in a tender whisper, drawing her down on his knees and enfolding her closely as though she were in form the child that verily at heart she still is. "Tell me."
"I don't know." She has twined her bare beautiful arms around him, and is rubbing her cheek softly up and down against his in a fresh access of shyness.
"I think you do, my dearest."
"It was only this; that when I found I couldn't get away from you, I was frightened. It was very foolish of me, but whenever I read those stories about prisoners of war, and people being confined in dungeons, and that, I always know that if I were made a captive I should die."
"But surely your lover's arms cannot be counted a prison, my life!"
"Yes, if they held me when I wanted to get away."
"But," reproachfully, "would you want to get away?"
She hesitates, and, lifting one arm, runs her fingers coaxingly through the hair fashion has left him.
"I don't want to go away now, at all events," she temporizes sweetly. Then, a moment later, "But I must, nevertheless. Come," nervously, "we have been here a long time, and Madam O'Connor will be angry with me; and besides," pityingly, "you have all that long drive home still before you."
"I forgot all about the time," says Desmond, truthfully. "You are right: we must go in. Good-night again, my own."
Without waiting for permission this time, he stoops and presses his lips to hers. An instant later he knows with a thrill of rapture that his kiss has been returned.
How Mary Browne makes confession, though not by creed a Romanist; and how those who receive it are far removed from being holy fathers!—Moreover, I would have you see there is more acting off the stage than on it.
Monica's week at Aghyohillbeg is drawing to a close. The day has dawned that is to usher in at even the famous representation of "The School for Scandal," as given by Miss Fitzgerald, Captain Cobbett, etc.
The whole house is topsy-turvy, no room being sacred from the actors and actresses (save the mark!), and all the servants are at their wit's end. There have been men down from the Gayety Theatre, Dublin, who have seen about the stage, and there have been other men from the village of Rossmoyne to help in the decoration of the ballroom, and between these two different sets of men an incessant war has been raging for many days.
Now at last the house is comparatively quiet, and, as four o'clock strikes, Madam O'Connor finds herself in her own special den (the only spot that has not been disturbed), with a tea-equipage before her, and all her ladies-in-waiting round her.
These ladies, for the most part, are looking full of suppressed excitement, and are in excellent spirits and irreproachable tea-gowns. Mary Browne, who has developed into a general favorite, is making some laughing remark about Lord Rossmoyne, who, with all the other men, is absent.
"D'ye know what it is, Mary?" says Madam O'Connor, in her unchecked brogue; "you might do something else with Rossmoyne besides making game of him."
"What?" says Mary Browne.
"Marry him, to be sure. A young woman like you, with more money than you know what to do with, ought to have a protector. Faith, you needn't laugh, for it's only common sense I'm talking. Tenants, and the new laws, will play the mischief with your soft heart and your estate, if you don't get some one to look after them both."
"Well?" says Mary Browne.
"Well, there's Rossmoyne, as I said before, actually going a begging for a wife. Why not take him?"
"I don't care about beggars," says Miss Browne, with a slight smile. "I am not one of those who think them picturesque."
"He isn't a beggar in any other sense than the one I have mentioned. He is a very good match. Think of it, now."
"I am thinking. Indeed, ever since my first day here I been thinking how deeply attached he is to Mrs. Bohun. Forgive me, Mrs. Bohun."
Olga laughs lightly. There is something about this plain girl that repels the idea of offence.
"What on earth put that idea into your head?" says her hostess, opening her eyes, who talks too much both in season and out of it to be able to see all the by-play going on around her. "You aren't setting your cap at him, are you, Olga my dear?"
"Indeed, no," says Olga, still laughing. "How could so absurd a notion have got into anybody's head?"
"How, indeed?" says Monica, gayly.
"There's Owen Kelly, then; though he isn't as well off as Rossmoyne, still he will be worth looking after by and by, when the old man drops off. He's as good hearted a fellow as ever lived, when you know what he's at,—which isn't often, to do him justice. It struck me he was very civil to you last night."
"He was," says Miss Browne, whose merriment is on the increase. "But I never met any one who wasn't civil to me: so I found him commonplace enough. Ah! if he had only been uncivil, now!"
"Well, there he is, at all events," says Madam O'Connor, sententiously.
"I hope he's comfortable," says Miss Browne, kindly, "I shan't try to make him less so, at least. Why don't you recommend Mr. Desmond or Mr. Ronayne to my notice?" with a mischievous glance at Monica and Olga Bohun.
"I'm afraid they are done for," says Madam, laughing now herself. "And I only hope that handsome boy Ronayne isn't laying up sorrow for himself and living in a fool's paradise. Indeed, Olga, pretty as you are, I'll be very angry with you if I hear you have been playing fast and loose with him."
The old lady shakes her head grimly at Mrs. Bohun, who pretends to be crushed beneath her glance.
"To prevent you offering me any more suitors," says Mary Browne, steadily, but with a rising blush, "I may as well tell you that I am engaged to be married."
"Good gracious, my dear! then why didn't you say so before?" says Madam, sitting bolt upright and letting her pince-nez fall unheeded into her lap.
"I really don't know; but I daresay because you took it for granted I wasn't."
"Mary," says Mrs. Herrick, speaking for the first time, and for the first time, too, calling Miss Browne by her Christian name, "tell us all about it."
"Yes, do," says Monica, and all the women draw their chairs instinctively a degree closer to the heroine of the hour, and betray in her a warm interest. After all, what can equal a really good love-affair?
"Go on, my dear," says Madam O'Connor, who is always full of life where romance is concerned. "I hope it is a good marriage."
"The best in the world, for me," says Mary Browne, simply, "though he hasn't a penny in the world but what he earns."
As she makes this awful confession, she isn't in the least confused, but smiles brightly.
"Well, Mary, I must say I wouldn't have believed it of you," says Madam.
"I would," says Monica, hastily laying her hand on one of Mary's. "It is just like her. After all, what has money got to do with it? Is he nice, Mary?"
"So nice!" says Mary, who seems quite glad to talk about him, "and as ugly as myself," with a little enjoyable laugh, "so we can't call each other bad names; and his name is Peter, which of course will be considered another drawback, though I like the name myself. And we are very fond of each other—I have no doubt about that: and that is all, I think."
"No, it is not all," says Madam O'Connor, severely. "May I ask when you met this young man?"
"I must take the sting out of your tone at once, Gertrude," says her cousin, pleasantly, "by telling you that we were engaged long before poor Richard died." (Richard was the scampish brother by whose death she inherited all.)
"Then why didn't you marry him?" says Madam.
"I was going to,—in fact, we were going to run away," says Miss Browne, with intense enjoyment at the now remote thought,—"doesn't it sound absurd?—when—when the news about Dick reached us, and then I could not bring myself to leave my father, no matter how unpleasant my home be."
"What is he?" asks Olga, with a friendly desire to know.
"A doctor. In rather good practice, too, in Dublin. He is very clever," says Miss Browne, telling her story so genially, so comfortably, that all their hearts go out to her, and Madam O'Connor grows lost in a revery about what will be the handsomest and most suitable thing to give "Peter" as a wedding-present. As she cannot get beyond a case of dissecting-knives, this revery is short.
"Perhaps if you saw some one else you might change your mind," she says, a new thought entering her head (of course there would be a difficulty about offering dissecting-knives to a barrister or quiet country gentleman).
"I have had five proposals this year already," says Miss Browne, quietly, "but, if I could be a princess by doing so, I would not give up Peter."
"Mary Browne, come here and give me a kiss," says Madam O'Connor, with tears in her eyes. "You are the best girl I know, and I always said it. I only hope your Peter knows the extent of his luck."
Miss Browne having to leave the room some few minutes later Olga raises herself from the lounging position she has been in, with her hands clasped behind her head, and says, slowly,—
"I don't think she is so plain, after all."
"Neither do I," says Monica, eagerly, "there is something so sweet about her expression."
"I am perfectly certain that man Peter is awfully in love with her," says Mrs. Herrick solemnly, "and that without the slightest thought of her money."
"What would he think of her money for?" says Madam O'Connor, testily, who had firmly believed him a fortune-hunter only two minutes ago. "Isn't she a jewel in herself?"
"By the bye, where is our Bella all this time?" says Olga, suddenly. "It now occurs to me that of course we have been missing her all this time."
"I know," says Monica, mysteriously: "she is asleep,—getting herself up for her Lady Teazle. I was running along the corridor, outside her room, half an hour ago, when her mother came out on tiptoe and implored me to go gently, lest I should wake her."
"Gentle dove," says Mrs. Herrick.
"I shall go and dance the can-can up and down that corridor this moment," says Mrs. Bohun, rising to her feet with fell determination in her eye.
"I think you had all better go to your rooms and get ready for dinner. It is painfully early to-night," says Madam, "on account of all this nonsense of Olga's. But no dressing mind, as I have told the men to come as they are. There will be plenty of that by and by."
One by one they all dwindle away at the word of command, Olga, true to her word, making such a clatter as she passes Miss Fitzgerald's door as might readily be classed with those noises popularly supposed to be able to wake the silent dead. Whether it wakes Miss Fitzgerald is unknown to all save her mother and her maid.
It makes Monica laugh, however who, sitting in her own room, is gazing with dreamy delight at the pretty gown Miss Priscilla has ordered from Mrs. Sim's for her all the way from Dublin, and which has been spread upon her bed by Olga's maid, Mrs. Bohun having insisted on sharing that delightful young person with her ever since her first night at Aghyohillbeg.
Yet Aunt Priscilla will not be here to-night to see her favorite niece dressed in her charming present.
At the last moment, not two hours agone, had come a letter from Moyne to Madame O'Connor telling how Miss Penelope had been seized by a bad neuralgic headache and was in such pain that Miss Priscilla could not find it in her heart to leave her. Kit, escorted by Terence, would arrive, however, in time for the opening act; and it would be impossible to say how disappointed the two old ladies were (which indeed was the strict truth), and they hoped all would be successful, etc., etc.
With a remorseful pang, Monica acknowledges to herself now that she had felt a secret gladness when first the news had been retailed to her by Madame O'Connor. A sense of being under an obligation to that dire neuralgic headache, is oppressing her. It is wicked of her, and most cruel, but the secret exultation cannot be denied.
And see how the case stands. Poor Aunt Penelope in vile suffering, Aunt Priscilla enduring bitter disappointment,—for she had, as Monica well knew, set her heart on witnessing these theatricals,—and Monica herself actually glad and light at heart because of the misfortunes that have befallen them. Alas! how fiendish it all sounds!
And again, to add to the iniquity of it, for how slight a cause has she welcomed the discomfiture of her best friends! For a few dances with their enemy, a freedom for happy smiles and unrestrained glances,—all to be made over to the enemy. For how, with Miss Priscilla's reproachful angry eyes upon her, could she have waltzed or smiled or talked with a Desmond?
And what is to be the end of it all? A vague feeling of terror compasses her round about as she dwells on her forbidden lover. Will she have to give him up at the last?—it must be either him or Aunt Priscilla; and she owes so much to Aunt Priscilla; while to him—oh, no! she owes him nothing; of course he is only—only—and yet——
A bell sounds in the distance; she starts and glances at the tiny clock upon her chimney-piece. Yes, it is almost six, and dinner will be ready in ten minutes. And afterwards comes "The School for Scandal," and after that the tableaux, and after that again dancing,—delights threefold for happy eighteen. Her spirits rise; her fears fall; self-contempt, remorse, regret, all sink into insignificance, and with a beating heart she coils afresh her tinted hair, and twines some foreign beads about her slender throat to make herself a shade more lovable in the eyes of the man she must not encourage, and whose very existence she has been forbidden to acknowledge.
* * * * *
The curtain has risen, has fallen and risen again, and now has descended for the last time. A flutter—is it rapture or relief?—trembles through the audience. "The School for Scandal" has come to a timely end!
I selfishly forbear from giving my readers a lengthened account of it, as they (unless any of the Aghyohillbeg party takes up this book) have mercy—that is, unfortunately, been debarred by fate from ever witnessing a performance such as this, that certainly, without servile flattery, may be termed unique. Words (that is, my words) would fail to give an adequate idea of it, and so from very modesty I hold my pen.
"It was marvellous," says Sir Mark Gore, who is paying a flying visit to Lord Rossmoyne. He says this with the profoundest solemnity, and perhaps a little melancholy. His expression is decidedly pensive.
"It was indeed wonderful," says the old rector, in perfect good faith.
And wonderful it was indeed. Anything so truly remarkable, I may safely declare, was never seen in this or any other generation.
Miss Fitzgerald's Lady Teazle left nothing to be desired, save perhaps an earlier fall of the curtain, while Captain Cobbett's Joseph Surface was beyond praise. This is the strict truth. He was indeed the more happy in his representation of the character in that he gave his audience a Joseph they never had seen and never would see again on any stage, unless Captain Cobbett could kindly be induced by them to try it on some other occasion.
A few ignorant people, indeed, who plainly found such a splendid rendering of the part too much for their intellectual capacity, were seized with a laughter profane, if smothered, whenever the talented captain made his appearance, giving the rest of the company (who could see them shaking behind their fans) to understand that they at least were "not for Joe,"—that is, Captain Cobbett's Joe. But the majority very properly took no notice of these Philistines, and indeed rebuked them by maintaining an undisturbed gravity to the very end.
Sir Peter (Mr. Ryde) was most sumptuously arrayed. Nothing could exceed the magnificence of his attire. Upon an amateur stage, startling habiliments copied from a remote period are always attractive, and Mr. Ryde did all he knew in this line, giving even to the ordinary Sir Peter of our old-fashioned knowledge certain garments in vogue quite a century before he could possibly have been born. This gave a charming wildness to his character, a devil-may-care sort of an air, that exactly suited his gay and festive mood. After all, why should Sir Peter be old and heavy? why indeed?
The effect was altogether charming. That there were a few disagreeable people who said they would have liked to know what he was at (such a phrase, you know!), what he meant, in fact, and who declared that, as a mere simple matter of choice, they liked to hear a word now and again from an actor, goes without telling. There are troublesome people in every grade of society,—gnats that will sting. Silence is golden, as all the world knows; and Mr. Ryde is of it: so of course he forgot his part whenever he could, and left out all the rest!
This he did with a systematic carefulness very praiseworthy in so young a man.
On the whole, therefore, you will see that the affair was an unprecedented success; and if some did go away puzzled as to whether it was a burlesque or a tragedy, nobody was to blame for their obtuseness. There certainly are scenes in this admirable comedy not provocative of laughter; but such was the bad taste of Madam O'Connor that she joined in with the Philistines mentioned farther back, and laughed straight through the piece from start to finish, until the tears ran down her cheeks.
She said afterwards she was hysterical, and Olga Bohun, who was quite as bad as she, said, "no wonder."
Now, however, it is all over, and the actors and actresses have disappeared, to make way for the gauze, the electric light, and the tableaux; whilst the audience is making itself happy with iced champagne and conversation, kind and otherwise (very much otherwise), about the late performance.
Olga Bohun, who is looking all that the heart of man can desire in white lace and lilies, leaving the impromptu theatre, goes in search of Hermia, who, with Owen Kelly, is to appear in the opening tableau. She makes her way to the temporary green-room, an inner hall, hidden from the outer world by means of a hanging velvet curtain, and with a staircase at the lower end that leads to some of the upper corridors. Here she finds Ulic Ronayne, Miss Browne, Monica, Desmond, and Kelly.
She has barely time to say something trivial to Miss Browne, when a pale light appearing at the top of the staircase attracts the attention of all below. Instinctively they raise their eyes towards it, and see a tall figure clad in white descending the stairs slowly and with a strange sweet gravity. Is it an angel come to visit them, or Hermia Herrick?
It resolves itself into Hermia at last, but a beautiful Hermia,—a lovely apparition,—a woman indeed still, but "with something of an angel-light" playing in her dark eyes and round her dusky head. Always a distinguished-looking woman, if too cold for warmer praise, she is now at least looking supremely beautiful.
She is dressed as Galatea, in a clinging garment of the severest Greek style, with no jewels upon her neck, and with her exquisite arms bare to the shoulder. One naked sandalled foot can be seen as she comes leisurely to them step by step. She is holding a low Etruscan lamp in one hand upon a level with her head, and there is just the faintest suspicion of a smile about her usually irresponsive lips.
No one speaks until her feet touch the hall, when a little murmur, indistinct, yet distinctly admiring, arises to greet her.
"I hope I don't look foolish," she says, with as much nervousness in her tone as can possibly be expected from her.
"Oh, Hermia, you are looking too lovely," says Olga, with a burst of genuine enthusiasm. "Is she not, Owen?"
But Mr. Kelly makes no reply.
A slight tinge of color deepens Mrs. Herrick's complexion as she turns to him.
"Poor Mr. Kelly!" she says, the amused flicker of a smile flitting over her face, which has now grown pale again. "What a situation! There! don't sully your conscience: I will let you off your lie. That is where an old friend comes in so useful, you see."
"At all events, I don't see where the lie would come in. But, as you do, of course I shall say nothing," says Kelly.
"What a Pygmalion!" says Olga, in high disgust. "And what a speech! Contemptible! I don't believe any Galatea would come to life beneath your touch. It would be cold as the marble itself!"
So saying, she moves away to where Monica is standing, looking quite the sweetest thing in the world, as
"A nun demure, of lowly port."
"She has prophesied truly," says Kelly, in a low tone, turning to Mrs. Herrick. "I fear my Galatea will never wake to life for me."
A subdued bell tinkles in the distance.
"Our summons," says Mrs. Herrick, hastily, as though grateful to it; and presently she is standing upon a pedestal, pale motionless, with a rapt Pygmalion at her feet, and some Pompeian vases and jugs (confiscated from the drawing-room) in the background.
And then follow the other tableaux, and then the stage is deserted, and, music sounding in the distant ballroom, every one rises and makes a step in its direction, the hearts of some of the younger guests beating in time to it.
"Where are you going?" says Ulic Ronayne, seeing Olga about to mount the stairs once more.
"To help the others to get into civilized garb,—Hermia and Monica, I mean. Lady Teazle I consider capable of looking after herself."
"H'm! you say that? I thought Miss Fitzgerald was a friend of yours."
"Then you thought like the baby you are. No! Women, like princes, find few real friends. But one in a hundred can fill that character gracefully, and Bella is not that one."
She turns to run up the stairs. "Well, don't be long," says Mr. Ronayne.
"I'll be ready in a minute," she says; and in twenty-five she really is.
Monica, who has had Kit to help her,—such an admiring, enthusiastic, flattering Kit,—is soon redressed, and has run down stairs, and nearly into Desmond's arms, who, of course, is waiting on the lowest step to receive her. She is now waltzing with him, with a heart as light as her feet.
Hermia's progress has been slow, but Miss Fitzgerald's slowest of all, the elaborate toilet and its accessories taking some time to arrange themselves; she has been annoyed, too, by Olga Bohun, during the earlier part of the evening, and consequently feels it her duty to stay in her room for a while and take it out of her maid. So long is she, indeed, that Madam O'Connor (most attentive of hostesses) feels it her duty to come upstairs to find her.
She does find her, giving way to diatribes of the most virulent, that have Olga Bohun for their theme. Mrs. Fitzgerald, standing by, is listening to, and assisting in, the defamatory speeches.
"Hey-day! what's the matter now?" says Madam, with a bonhommie completely thrown away. Miss Fitzgerald has given the reins to her mortification, and is prepared to hunt Olga to the death.
"I think it is disgraceful the license Mrs. Bohun allows her tongue," she says, angrily, still smarting under the speech she had goaded Olga into making her an hour ago. "We have just been talking about it. She says the most wounding things, and accuses people openly of thoughts and actions of which they would scorn to be guilty. And this, too, when her own actions are so hopelessly faulty, so sure to be animadverted upon by all decent people."
"Yes, yes, indeed," chimes in her mother, as in duty bound. Her voice is feeble, but her manner vicious.
"The shameful way in which she employs nasty unguents of all kinds, and tries by every artificial means to heighten any beauty she may possess, is too absurdly transparent not to be known by all the world," goes on the irate Bella. "Who run may read the rouge and veloutine that cover her face. And as for her lids, they are so blackened that they are positively dirty! Yet she pretends she has handsome eyes and lashes!"
"But, my dear, she may well lay claim to her lashes. All the Egyptian charcoal in the world could not make them long and curly. Nature is to be thanked for them."
"You can defend her if you like," says Bella, hysterically, "but to my mind her conduct is—is positively immoral. It is cheating the public into the belief that she has a skin when she hasn't."
"But I'm sure she has: we can all see it," says Madam O'Connor, somewhat bewildered by this sweeping remark.
"No, you can't. I defy you to see it, it is so covered with pastes and washes, and everything; she uses every art you can conceive."
"Well, supposing she does, what then?" says Madam, stoutly. She is dressed in black velvet and diamonds, and is looking twice as important and rather more good-humored than usual. "I see nothing in it. My grandmother always rouged,—put on patches as regularly as her gown. Every one did it in those days, I suppose. And quite right, too. Why shouldn't a woman make herself look as attractive as she can?"
"But the barefaced fashion in which she hunts down that wretched young Ronayne," says Mrs. Fitzgerald, "is dreadful! You can't defend that, Gertrude. I quite pity the poor lad,—drawn thus, against his will, into the toils of an enchantress." Mrs. Fitzgerald pauses after this ornate and strictly original speech, as if overcome by her own eloquence. "I think he should be warned," she goes on presently. "A woman like that should not be permitted to entrap a mere boy into a marriage he will regret all his life afterwards, by means of abominable coquetries and painted cheeks and eyes. It is horrible!"
"I never thought you were such a fool, Edith," says Madam O'Connor, with the greatest sweetness.
"You may think as you will, Gertrude," responds Mrs. Fitzgerald, with her faded air of juvenility sadly lost in her agitation, and shaking her head nervously, as though afflicted with a sudden touch of palsy that accords dismally with her youthful attire. "But I shall cling to my own opinions. And I utterly disapprove of Mrs. Bohun."
"For me," says Bella, vindictively, "I believe her capable of anything. I can't bear those women who laugh at nothing, and powder themselves every half-hour."
"You shouldn't throw stones, Bella," says honest Madam O'Connor, now nearly at the end of her patience. "Your glass house will be shivered if you do. Before I took to censuring other people I'd look in a mirror, if I were you."
"I don't understand you," says Miss Fitzgerald, turning rather pale.
"That's because you won't look in a mirror. Why, there's enough powder on your right ear to whiten a Moor!"
"I never——" begins Bella, in a stricken tone; but Madam O'Connor stops her.
"Nonsense! sure I'm looking at it," she says.
This hanging evidence is not to be confuted. For a moment the fair Bella feels crushed; then she rallies nobly, and, after withering her terrified mother with a glance, sweeps from the room, followed at a respectful distance by Mrs. Fitzgerald, and quite closely by Madam, who declines to see she has given offence in any way.
As they go, Mrs. Fitzgerald keeps up a gentle twitter, in the hope of propitiating the wrathful goddess on before.
"Yes, yes, I still think young Ronayne should be warned; she is very designing, very, and he is very soft-hearted." She had believed in young Ronayne at one time, and had brought herself to look upon him as a possible son-in-law, until this terrible Mrs. Bohun had cast a glamour over him. "Yes, yes, one feels it quite one's duty to let him know how she gets herself up. His eyes should be opened to the rouge and the Egyptian eye-stuff."
While she is mumbling all this, they come into a square landing, off which two rooms open. Both are brilliantly lighted and have been turned into cosey boudoirs for the occasion.
In one of them, only half concealed by a looped curtain from those without, stand two figures, Olga Bohun and the "poor lad" who is to have his eyes opened.
They are as wide open at present as any one can desire, and are staring thoughtfully at the wily widow, who is gazing back just as earnestly into them. Both he and Olga are standing very close together beneath the chandelier, and seem to be scanning each other's features with the keenest scrutiny.
So remarkable is their demeanor, that not only Bella but her mother and Madam O'Connor refrain from further motion, to gaze at them with growing curiosity.
There is nothing sentimental about their attitude; far from it; nothing even vaguely suggestive of tenderness. There is only an unmistakable anxiety that deepens every instant.
"You are sure?" says Olga, solemnly. "Certain? Don't decide in a hurry. Look again."
He looks again.
"Well, perhaps! A very little less would be sufficient," he says, with hesitation, standing back to examine her countenance more safely.
"There! see how careless you can be," says Olga, reproachfully. "Now, take it off with this, but lightly, very lightly."
As she speaks, she hands him her handkerchief, and, to the consternation of the three watchers outside, he takes it, and with the gentlest touch rubs her cheeks with it, first the one, and then the other.
When he had finished this performance, both he and she stared at the handkerchief meditatively.
"I doubt you have taken it all off," she says, plaintively. "I couldn't have put more than that on, and surely the handkerchief has no need of a complexion; whilst I——It must be all gone now, and I was whiter than this bit of cambric when I put it on. Had I better run up to my room again, or——"
"Oh, no. You are all right; indeed you are. I'd say so at once if you weren't," says Ronayne, reassuringly. "You are looking as lovely as a dream."
"And my eyes?"
"Are beautifully done. No one on earth could find you out," says Ulic, comfortably; after which they both laugh merrily, and, quitting the impromptu boudoir, go down to the ballroom.
Mrs. Fitzgerald shows a faint disposition to sob, as they pass out of sight. Madam O'Connor is consumed with laughter.
"I don't think I should trouble myself to open 'that poor young Ronayne's' eyes, if I were you, Edith," she says, with tears of suppressed amusement in her eyes.
"He is lost!" says Mrs. Fitzgerald, with a groan; but whether she means to Bella or to decency never transpires.
How Madam O'Connor tells how lovers throve in the good old days when she was young; and Brian Desmond thrives with his love in these our days, when he and she are young.
The day is near; the darkest hour that presages the dawn has come, and still every one is dancing, and talking, and laughing, and some are alluring, by the aid of smiles and waving fans, the hearts of men.
Kit Beresford, in spite of her youth and her closely-cropped head,—which, after all is adorable in many ways,—has secured, all to her own bow, a young man from the Skillereen Barracks (a meagre town to the west of Rossmoyne). He is a very young, young man, and is by this time quite bon comarade with the sedate Kit, who is especially lenient with his shortcomings, and treats him as though he were nearly as old as herself.
Monica is dancing with Mr. Ryde. To do him justice, he dances very well; but whether Monica is dissatisfied with him, or whether she is tenderly regretful of the fact that at this moment she might just as well—or rather better—be dancing with another, I cannot say; but certainly her fair face is clothed with a pensive expression that heightens its beauty in a considerable degree.
"Look at that girl of Priscilla Blake's," says Madam O'Connor, suddenly, who is standing at the head of the room, surrounded, as usual, by young men. "Look at her. Was there ever such a picture? She is like a martyr at the stake. That intense expression suits her."
Brian Desmond flushes a little, and Kelly comes to the rescue.
"A martyr?" he says. "I don't think Ryde would be obliged to you if he heard you. I should name him as the martyr, if I were you. Just see how hopelessly silly—I mean, sentimental—he looks."
"Yet I think she fancies him," says Lord Rossmoyne, who is one of those men who are altogether good, respectable, and dense.
"Nonsense!" says Madam O'Connor, indignantly. "What on earth would she fancy that jackanapes for, when there are good men and true waiting for her round every corner?"
As she says this, she glances whole volumes of encouragement at Desmond, who, however, is so depressed by the fact that Monica has danced five times with Ryde, and is now dancing with him again, that he gives her no returning glance.
At this apparent coldness on his part, the blood of all the kings of Munster awakes in Madam O'Connor's breast.
"'Pon my conscience," she says, "I wouldn't give a good farthing for the lot of you, to let that girl go by! She came into Rossmoyne on the top of a hay-cart, I hear,—more luck to her, say I; for it shows the pluck in her, and the want of the sneaking fear of what he and she will say (more especially she) that spoils half our women. When I was her age I'd have done it myself. Rossmoyne, get out of that, till I get another look at her. I like her face. It does me good. It is so full of life et le beaute du diable," says Madame O'Connor, who speaks French like a native, and, be it understood, Irish too.
"We like to look at her, too," says Owen Kelly.
"To look, indeed! That would be thought poor comfort in my days when a pretty woman was in question, and men were men!" says Madam, with considerable spirit. "If I were a young fellow, now, 'tis in the twinkling of an eye I'd have her from under her aunt's nose and away in a coach and four."
"The sole thing that prevents our all eloping with Miss Beresford on the spot is—is—the difficulty of finding the coach and four and the blacksmith," says Mr. Kelly, with even a denser gloom upon his face than usual. Indeed, he now appears almost on the verge of tears.
"We never lost time speculating on ways and means in those days," says Madame O'Connor, throwing up her head. "Whoo! Times are changed indeed since my grandfather played old Harry with the countrymen and my grandmother's father by running away with her without a word to any one, after a big ball at my great grandmother's, and that, too, when she was guarded as if she was the princess royal herself and had every man in the South on his knees to her."
"But how did he manage it?" says Desmond, laughing.
"Faith, by making the old gentleman my great-grandfather as drunk as a fiddler, on drugged potheen," says Madam O'Connor, proudly. "The butler and he did it between them; but it was as near being murder as anything you like, because they put so much of the narcotic into the whiskey that the old man didn't come to himself for three days. That's the sort of thing for me," says Madam, with a little flourish of her shapely hand.
"So it would be for me, too," says Kelly, mournfully. "But there's no one good enough to risk my neck for, now you have refused to have anything to do with me."
"Get along with you, you wicked boy, making fun of an old woman!" says Madam, with her gay, musical laugh. "Though," with a touch of pride, "I won't deny but I led the lads a fine dance when I was the age of that pretty child yonder."
"I wonder you aren't ashamed when you think of all the mischief you did," says Desmond, who delights in her.
"Divil a bit!" says Madam O'Connor.
"Still, I really think Ryde affects her," says Rossmoyne, who, being a dull man, has clung to the first topic promulgated.
"That's nothing, so long as she doesn't affect him," says Kelly, somewhat sharply.
"But perhaps she does; and I daresay he has money. Those English fellows generally have a reversion somewhere."
"Not a penny," says Mr. Kelly. "And, whether or no, I don't believe she would look at him."
"Not she," says Madam O'Connor.
"I don't know that. And, even allowing what you say to be true, women are not always to be won by wealth" (with a faint sigh), "and he is a very good-looking fellow."
"Is he?" says Desmond, speaking with an effort. "If flesh counts, of course he is. 'Let me have men about me that are fat; sleek-headed men, and such as sleep o' nights.' To look at Ryde, one would fancy he slept well, not only by night but by day."
"I feel as if I was going to be sorry for Ryde presently," says Mr. Kelly.
"Well, he's not the man for Monica," says Madam O'Connor, with conviction. "See how sorrow grows upon her lovely face. For shame! go and release her, some one, from her durance vile. Take heart of grace, go in boldly, and win her, against all odds."
"But if she will not be won?" says Desmond, smiling, but yet with an anxious expression.
"'That man that hath a tongue, I say, is no man if with his tongue he cannot win a woman,'" quotes Madam, in a low voice, turning to Desmond with a broad smile of the liveliest encouragement; "and as for you, Desmond, why, if I were a girl, I'd be won by yours at once."
"I'm sorry I'm beneath your notice now."
"Where's your uncle? Couldn't even my letter coax him here to-night?"
"Not even that. He has gone nowhere now for so many years that I think he is afraid to venture."
"Tut!" says Madam, impatiently; "because he jilted a woman once is no reason why the rest of us should jilt him."
* * * * *
It is an hour later, and all the guests have gone except indeed Kit, who has been sent upstairs tired and sleepy to share Monica's room, and Terence and Brian Desmond, who with his friend Kelly are struggling into their top-coats in the hall. The rain is descending in torrents, and they are regarding with rather rueful countenances the dog-cart awaiting them outside, in which they had driven over in the sunny morning that seems impossible, when Madam O'Connor sweeps down upon them.
"Take off those coats at once," she says. "What do you mean, Brian? I wouldn't have it on my conscience to send a rat out of my house on such a night as this, unless under cover." Her conscience is Madam's strong point. She excels in it. She ofttimes swears by it! Her promise to Miss Priscilla that Desmond shall not sleep beneath her roof during Monica's stay is forgotten or laid aside, and finally, with a smile of satisfaction, she sees the two young men carried off by Ronayne for a final smoke before turning in.
"I don't feel a bit sleepy myself," says Monica, who is looking as fresh and sweet as if only now just risen.
"Neither do I," says Olga. "Come to my room, then, and talk to me for a minute or two."
They must have been long minutes, because it is quite an hour later when a little slender figure, clad in a pretty white dressing-gown, emerges on tiptoe from Mrs. Bohun's room and steals hurriedly along the deserted corridor.
Somebody else is hurrying along this corridor, too. Seeing the childish figure in the white gown, he pauses; perhaps he thinks it is a ghost; but, if so, he is a doughty man, because he goes swiftly up to it with a glad smile upon his lips.
"My darling girl," he says, in a subdued voice, "I thought you were in the middle of your first happy dream by this."
Monica smiles, and leaves her hand in his.
"I am not such a lazy-bones as you evidently thought me," she says. "But I must hurry now, indeed. All the world is abed, I suppose; and if Kit wakes and finds me not yet come, she will be frightened."
"Before you go, tell me you will meet me somewhere to-morrow. You," uncertainly, "are going home to-morrow, are you not?"
"Yes. But—but—how can I meet you? I have almost given my word to Aunt Priscilla to do nothing—clandestine—or that; and how shall I break it? You are always tempting me, and"—a soft glance stealing to him from beneath her lashes—"I should like to see you, of course, but so much duty I owe to her."
"Your first duty is to your husband," responds he, gravely.
She turns to him with startled eyes.
"Who is that?" she asks.
"I am," boldly; "or at least I soon shall be: it is all the same."
"How sure you are of me!" she says, with just the faintest touch of offence in her tone that quickens his pulses to fever-heat.
"Sure!" he says, with a melancholy raised by passion into something that is almost vehemence. "Was I ever so unsure of anything, I wonder? There is so little certainty connected with you in my mind that half my days are consumed by doubts that render me miserable! Yet I put my trust in you. Upon your sweetness I build my hope. I feel you would not willingly condemn any one to death, and what could I do but die if you now throw me over? But you won't I think."
"No, no," says Monica, impulsively, tears in her eyes and voice. Tremblingly she yields herself to him, and let him hold her to his heart in a close embrace. "How could you think that of me? Have you forgotten that I kissed you?"
Plainly she lays great stress upon that rash act committed the other night beneath the stars.
"Forget it!" says Desmond, in a tone that leaves nothing to be desired. "You are mine, then, now,—now and forever," he says, presently.
"But there is always Aunt Priscilla," says Monica, nervously. Her tone is full of affliction. "Oh, if she could only see me now!"
"Well, she can't, that's one comfort; not if she were the hundred-eyed Argus himself."
"I feel I am behaving very badly to her," says Monica, dolorously. "I am, in spite of myself, deceiving her, and to-morrow, when it is all over,——"
"It shan't be over," interrupts he, with considerable vigor. "What a thing to say!"
"I shall feel so guilty when I get back to Moyne. Just as if I had been doing something dreadful. So I have, I think. How shall I ever be able to look her in the face again?"
"Don't you know? It is the simplest thing in the world. You have only to fix your eyes steadily on the tip of her nose, and there you are!"
This disgraceful frivolity on the part of her lover rouses quick reproach in Monica's eyes.
"I don't think it is a nice thing to laugh at one," she says, very justly incensed. "I wouldn't laugh at you if you were unhappy. You are not the least help to me. What am I to say to Aunt Priscilla?"
"'How d'ye do?' first; and then—in an airy tone, you know—'I am going to be married, as soon as time permits, to Brian Desmond.' No, no," penitently, catching a firmer hold of her as she makes a valiant but ineffectual effort to escape the shelter of his arms, "I didn't mean it. I am sorry, and I'll never do it again. I'll sympathize with anything you say, if you will promise not to desert me."
"It is you," reproachfully, "who desert me, and in my hour of need. I don't think," wistfully, "I am so very much to blame, am I? I didn't ask you to fall in love with me, and when you came here all this week to see Madam O'Connor I couldn't possibly have turned my back upon you, could I?"
"You could; but it would have brought you to the verge of suicide and murder. Because, as you turned, I should have turned too, on the chance of seeing your face, and so on, and on until vertigo set in, and death ensued, and we were both buried in one common grave. It sounds awful, doesn't it? Well, and where, then, will you come to meet me to-morrow?"
"To the river, I suppose," says Monica.
"Do you know," says Desmond, after a short pause, "I shall have to leave you soon? Not now; not until October, perhaps; but whenever I do go it will be for a month at least."
"A whole long month!"
"The longest month I shall have ever known," sadly.
"I certainly didn't think you would go and do a thing like that," says his beloved, with much severity.
"My darling, I can't help it; but we needn't talk about it just yet. Only it came into my head a moment ago, that it would be very sweet to get a letter from you while I was away: a letter," softly, "a letter from my own wife to her husband."
Monica glances at him in a half-perplexed fashion, and then, as though some thought has come to her for the first time, and brought merriment in its train, her lips part, and all her lovely face breaks into silent mirth.
"What is it?" asks he, a little—just a very little—disconcerted.
"Oh, nothing; nothing, really. Only it does seem so funny to think I have got a husband," she says, in a choked whisper, and then her mirth gets beyond her control, and, but that Brian presses her head down on his chest, and so stifles it, they might have had Miss Fitzgerald out upon them in ten seconds.
"Hush!" whispers the embryo husband, giving her a little shake. But he is laughing, too.
"I don't feel as if I honored you a bit," says Miss Beresford; "and as to the 'obey,' I certainly shan't do that."
"As if I should ask you!" says Desmond. "But what of the love, sweetheart?"
"Why, as it is yours, you ought to be the one to answer that question," retorts she, prettily, a warm flush dyeing her face.
"But why must you leave me?" she says, presently.
"The steward has written to me once or twice. Tenants nowadays are so troublesome. Of course I could let the whole thing slide, and the property go to the dogs; but no man has a right to do that. I am talking of my own place now, you understand,—yours, as it will be soon, I hope."
"And where is—our place?"
The hesitation is adorable, but still more adorable are the smile and blush that accompany it.
"In Westmeath," says Brian, when some necessary preliminaries have been gone through. "I hope you will like it. It is far prettier than Coole in every way."
"And I think Coole lovely, what I've seen of it," says Monica, sweetly.
Here the lamp that has hitherto been lighting the corridor, thinking, doubtless (and very reasonably, too), that it has done its duty long enough, flickers, and goes out. But no darkness follows its defection. Through the far window a pale burst of light rushes, illumining in a cold and ghostly manner the spot on which they stand. "The meek-eyed morn, mother of dews," has come, and night has slipped away abashed, with covered front.
Together they move to the window and look out upon the awakening world; and, even as they gaze enraptured at its fairness, the sun shoots up from yonder hill, and a great blaze of glory is abroad.