"Over the spangled grass Swept the swift footsteps of the lovely light, Turning the tears of Night to joyous gems."
"Oh, we have delayed too long," says Monica, with a touch of awe engendered by the marvellous and mystic beauty of the hour. "Good-night, good-night!"
"Nay, rather a fair good-morrow, my sweet love," says Desmond, straining her to his heart.
How The Desmond's mind is harrassed by a gentle maiden and two ungentle roughs; and how the Land League shows him a delicate attention.
"By the by," says old Mr. Desmond, looking at his nephew across the remains of the dessert, "You've been a good deal at Aghyohillbeg of late: why?"
It is next evening, and, Monica being at Moyne and inaccessible, Brian is at Coole. Mr. Kelly is walking up and down on the gravelled walk outside, smoking a cigar.
"Because Miss Beresford was there," says Brian, breaking a grape languidly from the bunch he holds in his hand.
"What!" says Mr. Desmond, facing him.
"Because Miss Beresford was there."
"What am I to understand by that?"
"That she was there, I suppose," says Brian, laughing, "and that I am head over ears in love with her."
"How dare you say such a thing as that to me?" says the squire, pushing back his chair and growing a lively purple. "Are you going to tell me next you mean to marry her?"
"I certainly do," says Brian; "and," with a glance of good-humored defiance at the squire, "I'm the happiest man in the world to-day because she last night told me she'd have me."
"You shan't do it!" says the squire, now almost apoplectic. "You shan't do it!—do you hear? I'm standing in your poor father's place, sir, and I forbid you to marry one of that blood. What! marry the daughter—of—of—" something in his throat masters him here,—"the niece of Priscilla Blake, a woman with a tongue! Never!"
"My dear George, you wouldn't surely have me marry a woman without one?"
"I think all women would be better without them; and as for Priscilla Blake's, I tell you, sir, Xantippe was an angel to her. I insist on your giving up this idea at once."
"I certainly shan't give up Miss Beresford, if that is what you mean?"
"Then I'll disinherit you!" roars the squire. "I will, I swear it! I'll marry myself. I'll do something desperate!"
"No, you won't," says Brian, laughing again; and going over to the old man, he lays his hands upon his shoulders and pushes him gently back into his chair. "When you see her you will adore her, and she sent her love to you this morning, and this, too," laying a photograph of Monica before the Squire, who glances at it askance, as though fearful it may be some serpent waiting to sting him for the second time; but, as he looks, his face clears.
"She is not like her mother," he says, in a low tone.
"I never met such a remorseful old beggar," thinks Desmond, with wonder; but just at this moment a servant enters with a message to the squire; so the photograph is hastily withdrawn, and the conversation—or rather discussion—comes to an end.
"Two of the tenants are asking to see you, sir," says the butler, confidentially.
"Donovan, from the East, and Moloney, from the Bog Road, sir."
"Very well; show Moloney into the library, and tell Donovan to wait downstairs until I send for him."
"Well, Moloney, come to pay your rent?" says the squire, cheerfully, entering the library and gazing keenly at the man who is awaiting him there. He is a fellow of ordinary build, with a cringing, servile expression and shifting eyes. He smiles apologetically, and shuffles uneasily from one foot to the other as he feels the squire's eye upon him.
"No, sir; I can't bring it, sir. I'd be in dhread o' my life wid the boys to do it."
"I don't know who the gentlemen in question you designate as 'the boys' may be," says the squire, calmly. "I can only tell you that I expect my rent from you, and intend to get it."
"That's what I come to spake about, yer honor. But the Land League is a powerful body, an' secret too; look at the murdher o' Mr. Herbert and that English Lord in Faynix Park, and the rewards an' all, an' what's come of it?"
"A good deal of hanging will come of it, I trust," says The Desmond, hopefully. "In the mean time, I am not to be detered from doing my duty by idle threats. I thought you, Moloney, were too respectable a man to mix yourself up with this movement."
"I'm only a poor man, sir, but my life is as good to me as another's; an' if I pay they'll murdher me, an' what'll become o' me then? An' besides, I haven't it, sir; 'tis thrue for me. How can I be up to time, wid the crop so bad this year."
"It is as good a year as I have ever known for crops," says Desmond. "I will have no excuses of that sort: either you pay me or turn out; I am quite determined on this point."
"Ye wouldn't give me an abatement, yer honor?"
"No, not a penny. Not to men such as you, who come here to demand it as a right and are very well to do. There are others whose cases I shall consider; but that is my own affair, and I will not be dictated to. On Monday you will bring me your rent, or give up the land."
"I think ye're a bit unwise to press matthers just now," says the man, slowly, and with a sinister glance from under his knitted brows. "I don't want to say anything uncivil to ye, sir, but—I'd take care if I were you. The counthry is mad hot, an', now they think they've got Gladstone wid 'em, they wouldn't stick at a trifle."
"The trifle being my assassination," says old Desmond, with a laugh. He draws himself up, and, in spite of his ugly face, looks almost princely. "Tut, man! don't think, after all these years among you, I am to be intimidated: you should know me better."
The man cowers before the haughty glance the old squire casts upon him, and retreats behind his cringing manner once again.
"I thought ye might take into considheration the fact that I'm of yer own religion," he says cunningly.
"That you are a Protestant does not weigh with me one inch. One tenant is as worthy of consideration as another; and, to tell the truth, I find your Roman Catholic brethren far easier to deal with, I will have no whining about differences of that sort. All I require is what is justly due to me; and that I shall expect on Monday. You understand?"
"Ye're a hard man," says Moloney, with an evil glance.
"I expected you to say nothing else. All the kindness of years is forgotten because of one denial. How often have I let you off your rent entirely during these twenty years we have been landlord and tenant together! There, go! I have other business to attend to. But on Monday, remember."
"Ye won't see me that day or any other," says the fellow, insolently, sticking his hat on his head with a defiant gesture.
"Very good. That is your own lookout. You know the consequences of your non-arrival. Denis," to the footman, "show this man out, and send Donovan here."
"Well, Donovan, what is it?" says Desmond, a few minutes later, as the library door again opens to admit the other malcontent. He is a stout, thick-set man, with fierce eyes and a lowering brow, and altogether a very "villanous countenance." He has mercifully escaped, however, the hypocritical meanness of the face that has just gone. There is a boldness, a reckless, determined daring about this man, that stamps him as a leading spirit among men of evil minds.
"I've come here to spake to ye to-night, Misther Desmond, as man to man," he says, with a somewhat swaggering air.
"With all my heart," says The Desmond; "but be as fair to me as I have ever been to you and yours, and we shall come to amicable terms soon enough."
"As to fairness," says the man, "I don't see how any landlord in Ireland can spake of it without a blush."
Strange to say, the aggressive insolence of this man fails to rouse in Mr. Desmond's breast the anger that the servile humility of the last comer had brought into active being.
"Look here, Donovan," he says, "I've been a good landlord to you; and I expect you, therefore, to be a good tenant to me. You hint that I, along with the rest, have dealt unfairly with my people; but can you prove it? You can lay to my charge no tales of harshness. In famine times, and when potatoes failed, in times of misfortune and sickness, I have always stood your friend, and the friend of every man, woman, and child on my estate; yet now what harvest do I reap, save grossest ingratitude? yet what more can I hope for in this most unhappy time, when blood is unrighteously poured upon the land, and the laws of God and my queen are set at naught?"
There is a touch of passionate old-world grandeur in the squire's face and manner that works a sense of admiration in Donovan's breast. But it quickly gives way to the carefully-cultivated sense of injury that has been growing within him for months.
"Ye can talk, there's no doubt," he mutters; "but words go for little; and the fact is, I've got no rent to pay ye."
His tone conveys the idea that he has the rent, but deliberately refuses to pay it.
"You will bring it on Monday, or I shall evict you," says the Squire quietly. "You hear?"
"I hear," says the man, with an evil frown. "But ye can't have it all yer own way now, Misther Desmond. There's others have a voice in the matther."
"I don't care for innuendoes of that sort, or for any insolence whatever; I only mean you to fully know that I must live as well as you, and that therefore I must have my rents."
"I know well enough what ye mane," says the man, with increasing insolence. "But I'd have you know this, that maybe before long ye'll whistle another tune. There's them I could mention, as has their eye upon ye, an' will keep it there till justice is done."
"Meaning, until I give up Coole itself to the mob," says the squire, with a sneer.
"Ay, even that, it may be," says the man, with unswerving defiance.
"You dare to threaten me?" says The Desmond, throwing up his head haughtily, and drawing some steps nearer to his tenant.
"I only say what is likely to prove truth before long," returns the man, sturdily, and giving in an inch. "That we'll have no more tyranny, but will have a blow for our rights, if we swing for it."
"You can shoot me when and where you like," says Desmond, with a shrug. "But I am afraid it will do you no good."
"It will be a lesson to the others," says the man between his teeth.
"To you others,—yes; because it will make my heir somewhat harder on you than I am. The Desmonds never forgive. However, that is more your lookout than mine. A last word, though: if you were not the consummate idiots this last revolt has proved you, you would see how you are being led astray by a few demagogues (a butcher's boy, perchance, or an attorney's clerk pushed by you from absolute obscurity into a Parliament ashamed to acknowledge them), who will save their skins at the expense of yours at the last, and who meanwhile thrive royally upon the moneys you subscribe!"
"That's a damned lie for ye," says Donovan losing his temper altogether.
At this outbreak The Desmond rises slowly, and, ringing the bell, calmly pares his nails until a servant comes in answer to his summons.
"Ask Mr. Brian to come here for a moment," he says, calmly, not lifting his eyes from the fourth finger of his left hand, upon the nail of which he is just now employed.
Brian lounging in, in a few moments, his uncle pockets his penknife, and, waving his hand lightly in Donovan's direction, says, gravely,—
"This man, Donovan, will be one of your tenants, some time, Brian,"—plainly, he has forgotten all about his determination to marry again, and so dispossess his nephew of Coole and other things, or else one glance at Monica's portrait (in which she had appeared so unlike her mother) has done wonders: "it is therefore as well you should learn his sentiments towards his landlord, especially as he is apparently the mouthpiece of all the others. Oblige me, Donovan, by repeating to Mr. Brian all you have just said to me."
But the man is far too clever a lawyer to commit himself before a third party.
"I have nothing to say," he answers, sullenly, "but this, that times are hard an' money scarce, an'——"
"We will pass over all that. It is an old story now; and, as you decline to speak, I will just tell you again, I intend to have my rent on Monday, and if I don't I shall evict you."
"Ay! as you evicted Ned Barry last month, throwing him on the open road, with his wife beside him, an' a baby not a month old."
"Nonsense! the child was six months old, and Barry was better able to pay than any tenant I have, and more willing, too, until this precious Land League tampered with him. He has proved he had the money since, by paying a sum to Sullivan yonder for board and lodging that would have kept him in his own house for twice the length of time he has been there. I know all about it: I have made it my business to find it out."
"Ye're mighty well informed entirely," says Donovan with a wicked sneer.
"If you can't keep a civil tongue in your head, you had better leave this room," says Brian, flushing darkly and making a step towards him.
"Who are you, to order me about?" says the man, with a fierce glance. "Ye're not my master yet, I can tell ye, an' maybe ye never will be."
"Leave the room," says Brian, white with rage, pointing imperiously to the door.
"Curse ye!" says the man; yet, warned by the expression on Brian's face, he moves in a rebellious manner to the door, and so disappears.
* * * * *
"They are the most unpleasant peasantry in the world," says the squire, some hours later,—the words coming like a dreary sigh through the clouds of tobacco-smoke that curl upwards from his favorite meershaum.
He and Brian and Owen Kelly are all sitting in the library, the scene of the late encounter, and have been meditating silently upon many matters, in which perhaps Love has the largest share, considering his votaries are two to one, when the squire most unexpectedly gives way to the speech aforesaid.
"The women are very handsome," says Mr. Kelly.
"Handsome is as handsome does," says the squire with a grunt.
"Don't the Protestant tenants pay?" asks Owen, presently, who is in a blissful state of ignorance about the tenant-right affair generally.
"They're just the worst of the lot," says old Desmond, testily: "they come whimpering here, saying they would gladly pay, but that they are afraid of the others, and won't I let them off? and so forth."
"I wonder," says Brian, dreamily,—it is very late, and he is in a gently, kindly, somnolent state, born of the arm-chair and his pipe,—"I wonder if one was to give in to them entirely, would they be generous enough to——"
"If you can't talk sense," interrupted his uncle, angrily, "don't talk at all. I am surprised at you, Brian! Have you seen or noticed nothing all these years, have you been blind to the state of the country, that you give sound to such utter trash? Pshaw! the weakly sentiment of the day sickens me."
"But suppose one was to humor them. I am not alluding to you, my dear George," to his uncle,—"I know you have humored them considerably,—but I mean landlords generally: would not peace be restored? That fellow Donovan to-day was beyond doubt impertinent to the last degree; but of course he meant nothing: they would, I should think, hesitate, in their own interest, before falling foul of you."
"You don't understand them as I do," says the squire, slowly.
"I still think peace, and not war, should be instilled into them," says Brian. "Too many landlords are harsh and unyielding in an aggravated degree, when a little persuasion and a few soft words would smooth matters. They, of course, are visited with the revenge of the League, whilst such as you escape."
These complacent words are still upon his lips, he has had time to lean back in his chair with the languid air of one who has given to the world views not admitting of contradiction, when a sharp whirring noise is heard, followed by a crash of broken glass and the dull thud of a bullet that has found its home in the wall right opposite the squire. Right opposite Brian, too, for they had been side by side with Owen Kelly, fortunately not quite, but very nearly, opposite.
For a moment nobody quite knows what has happened, so sudden is the thing; and then they spring to their feet, full of the knowledge that a bullet has been fired into their midst.
It had passed right over The Desmond's shoulder, close to his ear, between him and Brian, and had grazed the sleeve of Kelly's coat, who, as I have said, was sitting almost opposite.
With an oath Brian rushes to the window, tears open the shutters, throws up the sash, and jumps down into the garden, followed by Kelly and the Squire.
It is a dark night, murky and heavy with dense rain-laden clouds, and so black as to render it impossible to see one's hand before one. Search after a while is found to be impossible and the cowardly would-be assassin so far is safe from arrest. Dispirited and indignant, they return to the room they left, to discuss the outrage.
"Now, who will preach to me of peace again?" says the squire turning to Brian a face pale with excitement.
"Not I," says Brian, with a face pale as his own, and eyes that burn fiercely with the wrath of an incomplete revenge.
"I retract every foolish word I said a few minutes since. Henceforth it shall be war to the knife between me and my tenantry, as well as yours."
"War to the bullet would be more in harmony," says Mr. Kelly, seriously. He has extracted the bullet in question from the wall with the aid of a stout penknife, and is now regarding it mournfully as it lies in the palm of his hand. "Don't you think they take a very unfair advantage of you?" he says, mildly. "They come here and shoot at you; why don't you go to their cabins and shoot at them?"
"Let them keep their advantage," says Brian, disdainfully. "We shall conquer at last, no matter how many lives it costs us."
"At all events, they won't get a glimpse of the white feather here," says the squire, who is looking quite ten years younger. There is nothing like a row for an Irishman, after all.
"Still, I think I wouldn't sit with my back to that window any more, if I were you," suggests Mr. Kelly, meekly, seeing the squire has sunk into his usual seat again.
"It will be a bad winter, I fear," says the squire shaking his head.
"A lively one, no doubt. I quite envy you. I should rather like to stay here and see you through it. My dear sir, if you and that enormous chair are inseparables, let me entreat you to move it at least a little to the left."
"'I love it, I love it, and who shall dare To chide me from loving this old arm-chair?'"
quotes the squire, with quite a jolly laugh. "Eh? well, Kelly, this is hardly a pleasant time to ask a fellow on a visit, and I expect you'll be glad to get back to more civilized parts; but we'll write and tell you how we're getting on, my lad, from time to time. That is, as long as we are alive to do it."
"You shall hear of our mishaps," says Brian laughing too.
"It is rather inhospitable of you not to take the hint I have thrown out," says Kelly, with a faint yawn. "Won't you ask me to spend this winter with you?"
"My dear fellow, you really mean it?" says Brian, looking at him.
"Oh, yes, I really mean it. Excitement of the sort I have been treated to to-night seldom comes in my way. I should like to see this affair through with you."
"You're a brave lad!" says the squire; "but there is always a risk in this kind of thing, and it is quite probable you will have the roof burned over your head one of these dark nights to come. You will have to chance that if you stay, as I intend to persevere with these blackguardly tenants and fight it out with them to the last."
"To the very last," says Brian, regarding his friend meaningly.
"That's why I'm staying," returns his friend, languidly. Which is half, but not the whole, truth, as the fact that Mrs. Bohun and her cousin Hermia are going to spend the winter at Aghyohillbeg has a good deal to do with it too.
How rations fall short in the enemy's camp; and how Monica, armed with a strange ammunition, marches into the hostile land.
"Did ye hear, miss? Oh, faix, there's terrible news, ma'am!" says old Timothy, trotting into the breakfast-room at Moyne the following morning, his face pale with excitement.
"You alarm me, Ryan! what is it?" says Miss Priscilla, laying down her fork.
"Oh, it's beyant everything, ma'am! Oh, the blackguards o' the world! It was last night, miss, it happened. The ould squire, there below, was sittin' in his library, as paceable as ye plaze, ma'am, when they fired a bullet at him, an' shot him an' wounded Misther Brian——No, be the powers, I b'lave I'm wrong; they kilt Misther Brian an' wounded the Squire; an' there's the greatest commotion ye iver see down below, miss."
For one awful moment Monica thinks she is going to faint. A mist rises between her and Timothy's face; his voice sounds far away, in the next county as it were, and then ceases altogether. Then a sharp sting of pain rushing through her veins rouses her, and sends the blood back with a tumultuous haste to cheek and neck and brow. The pain is short but effective, and is, indeed, nothing more than a pinch of a pronounced type, administered by the watchful Kit, with a promptitude very creditable to her.
"He is exaggerating," says the astute Kit, in a subdued whisper apparently addressed to her plate. "Don't believe him; take courage; and, at all events, remember their eyes are upon you!" Her tone is great with mystery and kindly encouragement. More revived by it than even by the pinch, Monica takes heart of grace, and listens with maddening impatience for what is yet to come. Glancing at Miss Priscilla, she can see that her aunt is as pale as death, and that her hands are trembling excessively. Miss Penelope is looking with anxiety at her, whilst trying to elicit the truth from Ryan.
"Collect yourself, Ryan," she says, severely. "Who was killed?"
"No one outright, I'm tould, miss,—but——"
"Then who is wounded?"
"The bullet went right through them, miss."
"Through both! But that is impossible. I must beg you again to collect yourself, Timothy; all this is most important, and naturally Miss Blake—that is, we—are much upset about it. Through whom did the bullet go?"
"The ould squire an' his nephew, miss."
"Through their bodies?" cries Miss Penelope, throwing up hope and both her hands at the same time.
"No, ma'am, jist between them, as it might be between you an' Miss Priscilla now." He illustrates the real truth as he says this.
"Bless me, man! sure they weren't touched at all so," says Miss Penelope.
"No more they were, miss. Sorra a bit, praise be——"
"Then why did you say they were killed?" says Terence, indignantly, who has been stricken dumb by the appalling fate of his dear Desmond.
"An' sure how much nearer could they be to it? What saved thim, but maybe the hitch of a chair? Oh! wirrasthrue this day!" says old Ryan, beginning to cry.
"Timothy sit down directly. Terence get him a glass of whiskey," says Miss Penelope. "Now, don't excite yourself, Timothy; you know it is very bad for you at your age. Take time, now. Collect yourself!"
"Have the assassins been discovered?" asks Miss Priscilla, in a trembling tone.
"No, miss. But I'm tould the polis is very eager afther 'em."
"Was nobody hurt, Timothy?"
"No one, ma'am."
Here Monica, feeling the relief greater than she can support, gives way to a dry but perfectly audible sob.
"Don't be afeard, miss, dear," says old Ryan, with heartfelt but most ill-judged sympathy: "the young gentleman is all right. Not a single scratch on him, they say; so you needn't be cryin' about him, honey."
"Miss Monica is in no wise anxious about Mr. Brian Desmond," says Miss Priscilla, recovering from her nervousness with as much haste as though she had been subjected to an electric shock. "She is only distressed—as I am—by these lawless proceedings."
"An' we hear they're boycotted, too, ma'am," says old Ryan, still oppressed with news that must be worked off. "John Bileman, the Protestant baker in the village they always dealt wid, has been forbidden to give 'em another loaf, and the butcher is threatened if he gives 'em a joint, an' the Clonbree butcher has been telegraphed to also, miss, an' there's the world an' all to pay!"
"Do you mean that they are going to treat him as they did Mr. Bence Jones?" says Miss Penelope, indignantly.
"Troth, I believe so, ma'am."
"Will Mr. Brian have to milk the cows?" says Terence, at which astounding thought both he and Kit break into merry laughter until checked by Monica's reproachful gaze. How can they laugh when Brian may be starving?
"Faix, it's awful, miss; an' the ould man to be wantin' for things now,—he that allus kep' a fine table, to spake truth of him, and liked his bit an' sup amazin', small blame to him. I'm thinkin' 'tis hungry enough he'll be now for the future, the crathur! Oh, wirra! wirra!" says Timothy, sympathetically, as he shambles towards the door.
When he is gone, Miss Priscilla turns upon Terence and Kit.
"I must say, I think your mirth at such a time most unseemly," she says. "I am glad Monica takes no part in it. Terence, did you go up to the widow Driscoll with my message this morning?"
She had evidently expected him to say "no," because her tone is considerably mollified when she speaks again.
"Was she pleased, do you think?"
"She said so, perhaps?"
"Then what did she say? I wish, my dear boy, you would try to be a little less reticent."
"She said, 'Her duty to you, aunt, and her very coarse veins were worse than ever.'"
"She said very coarse, aunt, and I suppose she knows more about them than any one else."
He has a very sweet face, and it is more than usually so as he says all this.
"And her son, how is he, poor soul?" asks Miss Penelope, as Miss Priscilla withdraws, beaten, into the background.
"His duty to you, too, and 'he is better, but has been much afflicted with the egg-cups for the last two days.'"
"The what!" says Miss Penelope, shifting her pinceneze uneasily, and looking perplexed in the extreme.
"Oh, Terry! how can you be so silly?" says Kit, with another merry laugh.
"How am I silly?" with an impassible countenance. "Young Driscoll is silly, of course, and evidently looks upon part of the breakfast-ware as enemies of some sort. But that is not my fault."
"Hiccoughs he must have meant, my dear," says Miss Priscilla, hastily. "Dear—dear—dear! what a terrible shock he—they—must have got last night at Coole!"
* * * * *
When day is deepening into eventide, Monica, finding Kit alone, kneels down beside her, and lays her cheek to hers.
All day long she has been brooding miserably over her lover's danger, and dwelling with foolish persistency upon future dangers born of her terrified imagination.
She had been down to their trysting-place at the river, hardly hoping to find him there, yet had been terribly disappointed when she had not found him, Brian at that very moment being busy with police and magistrates and law generally.
"What is it, ducky?" says Kit, very tenderly, laying down her book and pressing her pretty sister close to her.
"Kit," says Monica, with tearful eyes, "do you think it is all true that Timothy said this morning about their—their starving at Coole? Oh Kit, I can't bear to think he is hungry!"
"It is dreadful! I don't know what to think," says Kit. "If nobody will sell them anything, I suppose they have nothing to eat."
At this corroboration of her worst fears, Monica dissolves into tears.
"I couldn't eat my chicken at lunch, thinking of him," she sobs. "It stuck in my throat."
"Poor sweet love!—it was dry," says Kit, expanding into the wildest affection. She kisses Monica fondly, and (though you would inevitably have suffered death at her hands had you even hinted at it) is beginning to enjoy herself intensely. Once again this luckless couple look to her for help. She is to be the one to raise them from their "Slough of Despond,"—difficult but congenial task! "Then you have been existing on lemon tart and one glass of sherry since breakfast time?" she says, with the deepest commiseration. "Poor darling! I saw it; I noticed you ate nothing except the tart. You liked that, didn't you?"
"I didn't," says Monica. "I hated it. And I was a cruel, cold-hearted wretch to touch it. But it was sweet—and—I—it—somehow disappeared."
"It did," says Kit, tenderly.
"Oh, Kit, help me!"
"You mean you want to take him something wherewith to stave off the pangs of hunger," says the younger Miss Beresford, with that grandeur of style she usually affects in moments of strong excitement, and with the vigor that distinguishes her. "I see; certainly." She grows abstracted. "There's a leg of mutton hanging in the larder, with some fowl, and a quarter of lamb," she says, presently. "But I suppose if we took them, Aunt Priscilla would put us in the hue and cry."
"It mustn't be thought of. No, no; think of something else."
"Bread, then. Ordinary, of course, very ordinary, but yet the staff of life."
"I couldn't take him anything so nasty as mere bread," says Monica, in despair. "But, if cook would make us a cake——"
"A big one, with currants! The very thing!" says Kit, with decision. "And she will never betray us. Reilly, in little affairs of this kind,—though sadly wanting where soups are concerned,—is quite all she ought to be."
"When will it be baked? He must get it to-night," says Monica, who is evidently afraid her lover, if not succored, will die of want before morning.
"Leave all to me," says Kit, flitting away from her through the gathering gloom to seek the lower region and its presiding goddess.
Leaving all to Kit means that when dinner is over, about half-past eight, the two Misses Beresford may be seen crossing the boundary that divides Moyne from Coole with anxious haste and a hot cake.
This last is hugged to Monica's breast, and is plainly causing her the greatest inconvenience. It is a huge cake, and has to be carried parcelwise, being much too big for the smaller basket they had, and much too small for the bigger. But Monica—though it is heavy beyond description (though, I hope, light in every other way for the sake of Reilly's reputation) and still appallingly hot—trudges along with it bravely, resisting all Kit's entreaties to be allowed to share the burden.
* * * * *
"Who are those coming towards us through the elms down there?" says Mr. Kelly, suddenly.
He and Brian Desmond are sitting upon a garden seat outside the dining-room windows, enjoying an after dinner cigar.
"There?" says Brian, following his glance. "Eh?—What?" There is a second pause, then, rising to his feet with much precipitancy, he flings his cigar to the winds, and, before Owen has time to recover from his astonishment at these proceedings, is well out of sight. A turn in the lawn has hidden Brian and the advancing figures from his view.
"Monica!" says Desmond, as he reaches her; "what has brought you here at this hour? My darling! how pale and tired you look!"
"She has been much perturbed," says Kit, solemnly. She has been meditating this remark for some time.
"We heard all about last night," murmurs Monica, with a sweet troubled face, out of which her eyes look into his, full of a tender pathos, like violets drowned. "And you were not at the river this afternoon, and so I came here to find you, and——" Her voice trembles ominously.
"I was obliged to be with the sergeant and the other men all day," says Desmond, hurriedly. "Do not blame me, my love. When I went to the river towards evening it was then of course too late. I meant to go up to Moyne when the moon was up——But what have you got there, dearest?" pointing to the enormous thing she is still holding tightly to her breast.
She colors and hesitates; seeing which, the faithful Kit comes once more to the rescue.
"It's a cake!" she says, with a nod of her sleek head. "We knew of you being boycotted, and we thought you would be hungry, so we brought it to you. But," eyeing him with disfavor, and as one might who feels herself considerably done, "you are evidently not. You are looking just the same as ever, and not a bit pinched or drawn, as people are when they are found starved in garrets."
"Yes, I was afraid you would get nothing to eat," says Monica, timidly. There is in her lovely eyes a certain wistfulness suggestive of the idea that she hopes her cake has not been made in vain.
Mr. Desmond, seeing it, grasps the situation.
"I am hungry," he says; and I hope, and think, the gentle lie will be forgiven him. "We have had nothing in the house all day but bread, and that is not appetizing."
"There!" says Monica, turning to Kit with sparkling eyes, "I told you he wouldn't like bread."
"But," goes on Desmond, with a view to making her future happier, "to-morrow all will be right again. We know of a few faithful people who will smuggle us in all we may require. So do not be unhappy about me again. Sweetheart, what a terrible weight you have been carrying!"
"It is a fine one, isn't it?" says Kit. "But give it to me now, Monica," taking the cake from her, "while you talk to Brian: when you are ready to come home, I can give it to him."
So saying, this inestimable child withdraws herself and Monica's offering to a safe distance, and pretends for the remainder of the interview an absorbing interest in some wild flowers growing near.
"I have only a moment to stay," says Monica, nervously. "I shall be missed; and now I have seen you safe and unhurt," with a very sweet smile, "I shall be able to sleep. But all day long I have been haunted by timid thoughts," she sighs.
"I doubt it was a sorry day for you, that first one when we met," says Desmond, remorsefully. "I have brought you only trouble. By and by you will regret you ever knew me."
"Do not say that. I have no regrets,—none! Even if—if—we cannot be—" reddening vividly, "more to each other than we are now, I can still be happy in the thought that you love me and are near me, and that I can sometimes, in spite of every one—" with a recklessness that sits very funnily upon her—"see you."
"But we shall be more to each other, Monica," says the young man, earnestly. "We shall be all in all to each other. No human being has the right to separate two hearts for the sake of a mere whim."
"There are so many things. But now, indeed, I must go. Good-night."
"Good-night, my own. But I shall go with you as far as the boundary fence."
"No, no, indeed!"
"But indeed I shall!" and of course he has his own way, and parts from her and Kit there, and answers her parting injunction "to take care of himself for her sake"—this last very low—with a lingering lover's kiss, and watches the two slight figures with a beating heart, until they are out of sight.
Then, picking up the cake, he goes back again to where Mr. Kelly is still awaiting him.
How Monica's gift receives due attention, and is thoroughly appreciated; and how a torpedo falls into a morning-room at Moyne.
"Well," says Kelly, "was it Miss Beresford?"
"Yes, and her sister. I saw them back to the boundary fence, but they would let me go no farther. It was rather——"
"What on earth have you got there?" says his friend, sticking his eyeglass in his eye, and staring with bent head and some suspicion at the mysterious thing in Desmond's arms.
"This! oh, ah! yes." Then, desperately, "Kelly, if you laugh at it I'll never forgive you."
Mr. Kelly drops the eyeglass and looks afflicted.
"My dear fellow, do I ever laugh?" he says.
"Well, it—it's a cake!" says Brian, who (in spite of the warning just delivered to his friend) is now indulging in wild mirth and can scarcely speak for laughter. "She—Monica—heard we were boycotted, and, thinking we were starving, the dear angel! she brought this up herself to us."
"Desmond, I'm ashamed of you," says Kelly, who has not moved a muscle of his face. "Such an action as hers calls for reverence,—not this unseemly gayety."
"It's not the action I'm laughing at," says Brian, still convulsed; "it's the cake. The action is divine—the cake hot!" Here he sinks upon the garden-seat again, as if exhausted, and dries his eyes.
"I see nothing to laugh at in that, either. It seems an excellent cake, and, as you say, hot," says Mr. Kelly, prodding it meditatively with his finger,—"a merit in a cake of this sort, I should say; and nicely browned, too, as far as I can see. I can see, too, that it is quite the biggest cake I ever made acquaintance with. Another merit! Did she carry it herself all the way?"
"All the way, poor darling! and just because she was afraid we should be hungry." Mr. Desmond's laughter has subsided, and he now looks rather absent. "It quite weighed her down," he says, in a low tone.
"Poor child! I said yesterday, you remember, that I thought her one of the nicest girls I have met. The cake has finished me. I think her now the nicest." He says this with a cheerful conscience. Between girls and widows a deep margin lies.
"But what are we to do with it?" says Brian, regarding the cake, which is now lying upon the garden seat, with a puzzled expression.
"Say a repentant tenant—no, that sounds like tautology—say a remorseful tenant brought it to you."
"That wouldn't do at all."
"Then say you found it in the garden."
"Nonsense, Kelly! they don't grow. Think of something more plausible."
"Give me time, then." As he speaks he absently breaks off a piece of the cake and puts it in his mouth. Desmond, in quite as abstracted a manner, does likewise. Silence ensues.
"I think the idea was so sweet," says Desmond, presently, his thoughts being (as they should be) with Monica.
"As honey and the honeycomb!" says Mr. Kelly, breaking off another piece, with a far-off, rapt expression.
"She said she couldn't be happy, thinking we were hungry. Her dear heart is too big for her body."
"Her cake is certainly," says Mr. Kelly: here he takes a third enormous pinch out of it, and Desmond follows his example.
"I didn't tell her we had had dinner," says Brian. "It would have taken the gloss off it."
"Off this?" pointing to the smoking structure between them. "I don't believe it."
"No, the deed."
"It's a capital cake," says Mr. Kelly, pensively, who has been eating steadily since the first bite. "After all, give me a good sweet, home-made cake like this! Those bought ones aren't to be named in the same day with it. There is something so light and wholesome about a cake like this."
"Wholesome!" doubtfully: "I don't know about that. What I like about it is that it is hot and spongy. But, look here, you haven't yet said what we are to do with it."
"I think we are doing uncommonly well with it," says Kelly, breaking off another piece.
"But what are we to do with the remains, provided we leave any, which at present seems doubtful?"
"Keep, them, of course. You ought to, considering she gave it you whole as a present."
"You are right: no one shall touch a crumb of it save you and me," says Mr. Desmond, as though inspired. "Let us smuggle it up to my room and keep it there till it is finished."
"I feel as if I was at school again with a plum-cake and a chum," says Mr. Kelly.
"Well, come and follow me up with it now, and distract my uncle's attention if we meet him."
"To my room or yours?" insinuatingly.
"To mine," firmly.
"I'd take the greatest care of it, if you like to trust it to me," with what Kit would certainly have termed "an obliging air."
"I don't doubt you," sardonically. "But certainly not. It was given to me, and I feel myself bound to look after it."
"Pity we can't have it petrified," says Mr. Kelly, thoughtfully. "Then you might hang it round your neck as a trophy." At this they both laugh, and finally the trophy, after much difficulty is satisfactorily stored away.
* * * * *
It is a fortnight later, and desolation has overtaken Monica. Brian has passed out of her active life, has ceased from that seeing and hearing and that satisfaction of touch that belong to a daily intercourse with one beloved. Only in thought can she find him now. He has gone upon that threatened journey to those detested estates of his in Westmeath.
Yesterday he went; and to-day as she wakes it seems to her that a cold and cruel mist has wrapped her world in its embrace. We never know how we prize a thing until we lose it (N. B.—Mark the novelty of this idea;) and now, for the first time, Monica finds herself fully awake to the fact of how necessary Desmond is to her everyday happiness.
She had gone down to the river-side to bid him farewell, and had been calm, almost careless, throughout the interview,—so calm that the young man's heart dies within him, and a latent sense of hope deferred had made it sick.
But just at the very last she had given way, and had flung herself into his embrace, and twined her arms around his neck,—dear, clinging arms—and had broken into bitter weeping. And—
"Don't be long, Brian! don't be long!" she had sobbed, with deep entreaty, and with such a tender passion as had shaken all her slender frame.
So they had "kissed and kissed," and parted. And Desmond, though sad as man may be at the thought that he should look upon her face no more for four long weeks, still left her with a gladder heart than he had ever known. Her tears were sweet to him, and in her grief he found solace for his own.
And, indeed, as the days flew by, they found the pain of absence was checkered by dreams of the reunion that lay before them; and each day, as it was born, and grew, and died, and so was laid upon the pile of those already gone, was a sad joy to them, and counted not so much a day lost as one gained.
"We take no note of time but from its loss." This loss in the present instance was most sweet to Monica and her lover. To them Time was the name of a slow and cruel monster, whose death was to be desired.
And now the monster is slain, and to-day Brian will return to Coole. A few lines full of joyful love and glad expectancy had been brought to her yesterday by the sympathetic Bridget, who affected an ignorance about the whole matter that utterly imposed on Monica, who would have found a bitterness in sharing her heart's secret with her maid. Yet Bridget knows quite as much about it as she does. To Kit alone has Monica unburdened her soul, and talked, and talked, and talked, on her one fond topic, without discovering the faintest symptom of fatigue in that indefatigable person.
Yes, to-day he comes! Monica had risen with the lark, unable to lie abed with the completion of a sweet desire lying but a few short hours away from her, and had gone through the morning and afternoon in a dreamy state of tender anticipation.
Yet surely not short, but of a terrible length, are these hours. Never has the old clock ticked with such maddening deliberation; yet—
"Be the day weary, or never so long, At length it ringeth to evensong;"
and at last the old clock, tick it never so slowly, must bring round the hour when she may go down to the river to meet her love again.
But the relentless Fates are against her, and who shall interfere with their woven threads? As though some vile imp of their court had whispered in Miss Priscilla's ear the whole story of her forbidden attachment, she keeps Monica in the morning-room with her, copying out certain recipes of a dry nature, that could have been copied just as well to-morrow, or next year, or never.
As the hour in which she ought to meet her lover comes and goes by, the poor child's pulses throb and her heart beats violently. Kit has gone to the village, and so cannot help her. All seems lost. Her eyes grow large and dark with repressed longing, her hand trembles.
"There, that will do, dear child; thank you," says Miss Priscilla, gratefully, folding up the obnoxious papers and slipping them into the davenport.
It is now quite half an hour past the time appointed by Desmond in his letter. Monica, rising impetuously, moves towards the door.
"Is the writing at an end?" Miss Penelope's voice comes to her from the other end of the room, with a plaintive ring in it. It casts despair upon the hopes that are kindling afresh within her bosom. "Dear, dear! I'm so glad! Monica, come to me, and help me with this wool. It has got so entangled that only bright eyes like yours," with a loving smile, "can rescue it from its hopeless state."
Poor Monica! after one passionate inclination to rebel, her courage fails her, and she gives in, and taking the tangled skein of wool (that reminds her in a vague, sorrowful fashion of her own hapless love story) between her slender fingers, bends over it.
Her cheeks are aflame. Her eyes are miserable but tearless. It all seems too cruel. There sits Aunt Priscilla at the davenport, with a smile of triumph on her lips, as she finds her accounts right to a halfpenny. Here sits Aunt Penelope fanning herself with soft complacency, because the day, though of September, is sultry as of hot July. And all this time Brian is walking impatiently to and fro upon the tiny beach, thinking her cold, unloving, indifferent, watching with straining, reproachful eyes the path along which she ought to come.
This last thought is just too much. A great fire kindles in her beautiful eyes; the spirit of defiance seizes on her gentle breast; her lips quiver; her breath comes from between them with a panting haste. "Yes! she will go to him, she will!" She rises to her feet.
Just at that moment the door is flung wide open, and Desmond enters the room.
How the Misses Blake receive the nephew of their sworn foe—How Monica at all hazards proclaims her truth—And how Miss Priscilla sees something that upsets her and the belief of years.
One moment of coma ensues. It is an awful moment, in which nobody seems even to breathe. The two Misses Blake turn into a rigidity that might mean stone; the young man pauses irresolutely, yet with a sternness about his lips that bespeaks a settled purpose not to be laid aside for any reason, and that adds some years to his age.
Monica has turned to him. The tangled wool has fallen unconsciously from her hands to her feet. Her lips are parted, her eyes wide: she sways a little. Then a soft rapturous cry breaks from her, there is a simultaneous movement on his part and on hers; and then—she is in his arms.
For a few moments speech is impossible to them: there seems nothing in the wide world but he to her, and she to him.
Then he lifts her face, and looks at her long and eagerly.
"Yes, I have found you again, my love,—at last," he says.
"Ah! how long it has seemed!" whispers she, with tears in her eyes.
The old ladies might have been in the next county, so wrapt are they in their happy meeting. Their hearts are beating in unison; their souls are in their eyes. She has reached her home,—his breast,—and has laid her heart on his. The moment is perfect, and as near heaven as we poor mortals can attain until kindly death comes to our aid.
It is but a little moment, however. It passes, and recollection returns. Monica, raising her head, sees the two Misses Blake standing side by side, with folded, nerveless hands, and fixed eyes, and horror-stricken faces. Shrinking still closer to her lover, Monica regards them with a troubled conscience and with growing fear. She is at last discovered, and her sin is beyond redemption.
She trembles in Desmond's arms, and pales visibly. But the frantic beating of her heart against his renders him strong and bold. He throws up his head, with the action of one determined to fight to the death. No one shall ever take her from him. He is only too anxious to enter the lists and do battle for his love.
And then, as his eyes light upon his foes, his spirit dies. Poor old ladies, so stupefied, so stricken! are they not already conquered? Looking at the frail front they present, he feels his weapons must be blunted in this fight, his gloves anything but steel.
A terrible silence fills the room,—a silence that grows almost unbearable, until at length it is broken by Miss Priscilla. Her voice is low, and hushed and broken.
"Monica, why did you deceive us?" she says.
There is reproach, agonized disappointment, in her tone, but no anger.
To these poor old women the moment is tragical. The child of their last years—the one thing they had held most dear and sacred—has proved unworthy, has linked herself with the opposition, has entered the lists of the enemy. They are quite calm, though trembling. Their grief is too great for tears. But they stand together, and there is a lost and heart-broken look about them.
Monica, seeing it, breaks away from her lover's restraining arms, and, running to Miss Priscilla, falls down on her knees before her, and, clasping her waist with her soft, white arms, bursts into bitter tears. She clings to Miss Priscilla; but the old lady, though her distress is very apparent, stands proudly erect, and looks not at her, but at Desmond. The tears gather slowly in her eyes—tears come ever slowly to those whose youth lies far behind—and fall upon the repentant sunny head; but the owner shows no sign of forgiveness; yet I think she would have dearly liked to take the sweet sinner in her arms, to comfort and forgive her, but for the pride and wounded feeling that overmastered her.
"Your presence here, sir, is an insult," she says to Desmond, meaning to be stern; but her grief has washed away the incivility of her little speech and has left it only vaguely reproachful. Desmond lowers his head before her gaze, and refrains from answer or explanation. A great sorrow for the defencelessness of their sorrow has arisen in his breast for these old aunts, and killed all meaner thoughts. I think he would have felt a degree of relief if they had both fallen upon him, and said hard things to him, and so revenged themselves in part.
Monica is sobbing bitterly. Not able to endure her grief, Desmond, going even to the feet of Miss Priscilla, tries to raise her from the ground. But she clings even more closely to Miss Priscilla, and so mutely refuses to go to him.
A pang, a sudden thought, shoots through him, and renders him desperate. Will they be bad to his poor little girl when he is gone? will they scold her?
"Oh, madam," he says to Miss Priscilla, with a break in his voice, "try to forgive her; be gentle with her. It was all my fault,—mine entirely. I loved her, and when she refused to hear me plead my cause, and shrunk from me because of that unhappy division that separates my family from yours, and because of her reverence for your wishes, I still urged her, and induced her to meet me secretly."
"You did an evil deed, sir," says Miss Priscilla.
"I acknowledge it. I am altogether to blame," says Desmond, hastily. "She has had nothing to do with it. Do not, I beseech you, say anything to her when I am gone that may augment her self-reproach." He looks with appealing eyes at Miss Blake, his hand on Monica's shoulder, who has her face hidden in a fold of her aunt's gown.
"Sir," says Miss Priscilla, drawing herself up, with a touch of old-world grandeur in her manner, but a sad tremulousness in her tone, "my niece has been with us now for some time, and we have dared to hope she has been treated in accordance with the great love we feel for her."
"The great love," echoes Miss Penelope, gently. Though deeply distressed, both old ladies are conscious of a subdued admiration for the young man, because of the tenderness of his fears for his beloved.
"But if," says Miss Priscilla, with a mournful glance at the pretty bowed head—"if she thinks we have failed in our love towards her, as indeed it seems it may be, by your finding it necessary to ask us to treat her with kindness in this trouble,—we can only say to her that we regret,—that we——" Here she breaks down, and covers her sad old face with her trembling hands.
Monica springs to her feet.
"Oh, auntie!" she says, a world of love and reproach and penitence in her voice. She throws her arms round her aunt's neck; and, Miss Priscilla clasping her in turn, somehow in one moment the crime is condoned, and youth and age are met in a fond embrace.
"Go, sir," says Miss Priscilla, presently, without lifting her eyes. There is so much gentleness in her tone that the young man is emboldened to ask a question.
"You will permit me to come to-morrow, to—to—plead my cause?" he says, anxiously.
Miss Priscilla hesitates, and a pang of apprehension rushes through his heart. He is almost in despair, when Miss Penelope's voice breaks the oppressive silence.
"Yes. Come to-morrow," she says, pressing Miss Priscilla's arm. "To-day we are too tired, too upset. To-morrow let it be."
"I thank you madam," says Desmond, humbly; and then he turns to go, but still lingers, with grieved eyes fixed on Monica.
"Monica, you will give me one parting word?" he says, at last, as though the petition is wrung from him.
Still holding Miss Priscilla's hand, she turns to him, and, raising her other arm, places it softly round his neck. Holding them both thus, she seems the embodiment of the spirit that must in the end unite them. Her position compels her to throw back her head a little, and she smiles at him, a sad little smile, but bright with love and trust.
"Not a parting word," she says, with a sweetness so grave as to be almost solemn.
"You will be true to me?" says Desmond, reckless of listeners. He has his arms round her, and is waiting for her answer with a pale, earnest face. Something in the whole scene touches the two kindly old maids with a sense of tender reverence.
"Until my death," says the girl, with slow distinctness, laying her head against the gray sleeve of his coat.
A great wave of color—born of emotion and love that is stronger than the grave—sweeps over his face. He stoops and lays his lips on hers. When he is gone, Monica turns suddenly upon Miss Priscilla.
"Do not say a word to me!" she cries, feverishly; "I could not bear it—now. I may have done wrong, but I am not sorry for it. I love him. That should explain everything to you; it means all to me! Nothing can alter that! And I will have nothing said,—nothing; and——"
"Nothing shall be said, dear child," says Miss Penelope, gently. "Everything shall be as you wish with regard to us. Can you not trust us to spare you where we can?"
"I am ungrateful. I must go and think it all out," says Monica, stoutly, pressing her hands against her head. She turns away. A little cry breaks from Miss Priscilla.
"Oh! not without kissing us too, Monica!" she says, in a broken voice, holding out her arms to her niece. Monica throws herself into them.
* * * * *
Long and eager is the discussion that follows on the girl's disappearance.
The two Misses Blake, side by side, argue (with what they erroneously term dispassionate calmness) the case just laid before them.
"I don't know what is to be done," says Miss Priscilla, at length: "all I do know is that, for her sake, consent will be impossible."
"And what is to be said to him to-morrow? He looks so earnest, so—full of her. What is to be said to him?"
"So his uncle looked at her mother," says Miss Priscilla, with a terrible bitterness; "and what came of that? Is this young man to steal from us our best and dearest—as he did? Be firm, Penelope. For her sake crush this attachment before the fickleness that is in his blood asserts itself to break her heart."
"I fear it will be broken either way," says Miss Penelope, who has a secret hankering after all true lovers.
"At least her self-respect will be spared, and for that she will thank us later on. She must give him up!"
"Priscilla," says Miss Penelope, in a low tone, "supposing she refuses to do it?"
"When I have fully explained the matter to her, she will withdraw her refusal," says Miss Priscilla, very grandly, but her expression is not up to her tone in anyway. It is, indeed, depressed and uncertain.
"He struck me as being a very attractive young man," ventures Miss Penelope absently.
"Humph!" says Miss Priscilla.
"And—but that would be impossible in one of his name—a very lovable young man," says Miss Penelope, timidly.
"Hah!" says Miss Priscilla: this ejaculation is not meant for surprise or acquiescence, but is merely a warlike snort.
"And very loving, too," says Miss Penelope, dreamily. "I never saw such eyes in my life! and he never took them off her."
"Penelope," says Miss Priscilla, with such a sudden and awful amount of vehemence as literally makes Miss Penelope jump, "I am ashamed of you. Whatever we—that is" (slightly confused) "you may think about that young man, please keep it to yourself, and at least let me never hear you speak of a Desmond in admiring terms."
So saying, she stalks from the rooms and drives down to the village to execute a commission that has been hanging over her for a fortnight, and which she chooses to-day to fulfil, if only to prove to the outer world that she is in no wise upset by the afternoon excitement.
Yet in a very short time she returns from her drive, and with a countenance so disturbed that Miss Penelope's heart is filled with fresh dismay.
"What is it?" she says, following Miss Priscilla into her own room. "You have heard something further; you have seen——"
"Yes, I have seen him—young Desmond," says Miss Priscilla, with an air of much agitation. "It was just outside the village, on my way home; and he was carrying a little hurt child in his arms, and he was hushing it so tenderly; and—the little one was looking up in his face—and he kissed it—and——Why isn't he a bad, wicked young man?" cries Miss Priscilla, in a frenzy of despair, bursting into tears.
How Miss Priscilla is driven to enter Coole—How she there receives an important proposal, but with much fortitude declines it—And how The Desmond suffers more from a twinge of conscience than from a bullet.
In the morning, a certain amount of constraint prevails with every one. Kit is, of course, aware of all that has happened, and of the day's expected visitor for Monica, who has refused to come down to breakfast, and who is as unsettled and miserable as she well can be. Kit has espoused her cause con amore, and is (I need hardly say) ready for open war at a moment's notice. She has indeed arranged a plan of action that will bring her on the battle-field at a critical moment to deliver a speech culled from some old novels in her room and meant to reduce both her aunts to annihilation.
When breakfast is over she disappears to study her part afresh, and the Misses Blake, too, separate and go to their own rooms, with an air of careful unconcern, that would not have imposed upon a one-year babe.
When again they reappear, they seem desirous of avoiding each other's glances, whereupon it occurs suddenly to everybody that they have both put on their very best silk gowns and lace caps, and have in fact got themselves up with elaborate care to receive—a Desmond! No wonder they are ashamed of themselves!
Still keeping up the outward symptoms of supreme indifference, they seat themselves in the drawing-room, Miss Penelope attacking her knitting with tremendous vigor, whilst Miss Priscilla gets apparently lost in the pages of "Temple Bar." Monica, sliding in presently like a small ghost, in her clinging white gown, slips into a seat in the window that overlooks the avenue, and hides herself and her pretty anxious face behind the lace curtains.
An hour glides by with aggravating slowness; and then a sound of wheels upon the gravel makes Monica's heart beat almost to suffocation. The two Misses Blake, suddenly forgetful of their role of unconcern, start from their seats and go to the window where Monica now is standing. A brougham and pair of horses drive up to the door, and a young man, opening the door, springs to the ground. It is Desmond.
"To come here in a close carriage!" says Miss Priscilla, with much contempt. "Is he afraid of catching cold, I wonder? I never heard of such foppery in my life."
"He is not a fop," says Monica, indignantly, and then she catches sight of her lover's face, and something in it awakes within her a prescience of coming evil.
Then the drawing-room door is thrown open with rather unceremonious haste, and the young man, entering, goes straight to where Miss Priscilla is standing, merely taking and holding Monica's hand as he reaches her, but addressing to her neither word nor look. He seems greatly agitated, and altogether unlike the man who stood here yesterday and almost defied them. His face is very pale, and full of honest grief and indignation.
"My uncle is at death's doors," he says in a voice that quivers with rage and excitement. "Coming home late last night he was shot at by some ruffians from behind the blackthorn hedge on the Coole road. He wants you Miss Blake" (to Priscilla). "He is asking for you. You will not refuse to come to a man who may be dying for all we know! I have brought the carriage for you, and I implore you not to delay, but to come to him at once."
Miss Priscilla has sunk into a chair, and is quite colorless; Miss Penelope clasps her hands.
"Oh, poor George!" she says, involuntarily, almost unconsciously. His present danger has killed remembrance of all the angry years that stand between to-day and the time when last she called him by his Christian name.
"When did it happen? How?" asks Monica, tightening her fingers round his, and trembling visibly.
"About ten o'clock last evening. Both Kelly and I were with him, and a groom. Two shots were fired. Kelly and I jumped off the dog-cart and gave chase and succeeded in securing one of them. There were four altogether, I think. We did not know my uncle was wounded when we ran after them, but when we came back we found Murray the groom holding him in his arms. He was quite insensible. I left Kelly and Murray to guard our prisoner, and drove my uncle home myself. He is very badly hurt. Miss Blake," turning again to Miss Priscilla, "you will come with me?"
"Oh, yes, yes," says Miss Priscilla, faintly.
"And I shall go with you, my dear Priscilla," says Miss Penelope, heroically. "Yes, you will want me. To find yourself face to face with him after all these years of estrangement and in so sad a state will be distressing. It is well I should be on the spot to lend you some support."
Miss Priscilla lays her hand on her arm.
"I think I shall go alone, Penelope," she says, falteringly. For one moment Miss Penelope is a little surprised, and then in another moment she is not surprised at all. But I believe in her heart she is a good deal disappointed: there is a flavor of romance and excitement about this expedition she would gladly have tasted.
"Well, perhaps it will be better so," she says, amiably. "I am glad he has sent for you. He will be the easier for your forgiveness, though he cannot obtain hers, now. Come upstairs: you should not keep Mr. Desmond waiting." There is a kindly light in her eyes as she glances at the young man. And then she takes Miss Priscilla away to her room, and helps her carefully with her toilet, and accepts the situation as a matter of course, though in her secret soul she is filled with amazement at The Desmond's sending for Miss Priscilla even though lying at death's door.
And indeed when the old man had turned to Brian and asked him to bring Miss Blake to Coole, Brian himself had known surprise too, and some misgivings. Was he going to make her swear never to give her consent to his (Brian's) marriage with her niece? or was he going to make open confession of that dishonorable action which caused Miss Blake's pretty stepsister to suffer dire tribulation, according to the gossips round?
"I should like to see Priscilla Blake," the old squire had said, in a low whisper, his nephew leaning over him to catch the words, and then he had muttered something about "old friends and forgiveness," that had not so easily been understood.
"You shall see her," the younger man says, tenderly. "I'll go for her myself. I am sure she won't refuse to come."
"Refuse!" There is something in the squire's whisper that puzzles Brian.
"I am certain she will not," he repeats, mechanically, whilst trying to translate it. But the look has faded from the old man's face, and his tone is different, when he speaks again.
"If she is afraid to come," he says, generously, having evidently settled some knotty point of inward discussion to his entire satisfaction, "tell her from me that I am ready and willing to forgive all."
"You mean you are anxious to obtain her forgiveness," says Brian, with the kindly intention of assisting the old man's wandering imagination.
"Eh?" says the squire, sharply. "What d'ye mean, Brian? Speak, lad, when I desire you."
"Look here, George! if you excite yourself like this, you know what the consequences will be," says Brian, sharply, in his turn. "I only meant that, as you—er—jilted their stepsister, I suppose you are anxious to obtain their pardon, now you feel yourself pretty low. But I'd advise you to wait and see about that when you have recovered your strength a little."
"And you believed that old story too!" says the poor squire, forlornly. "I didn't jilt her at all, Brian. It was she jilted me!"
"What!" says Brian, turning to see if the bullet had touched his brain instead of his ribs.
"'Tis true. I tell you, that girl broke my heart. She was the prettiest creature I ever saw, with soft dove's eyes, and a heavenly smile, and no more heart than that," striking the post of the old-fashioned bedstead with his uninjured arm. "I gave myself up to her, I worshipped the very ground she walked on, and within a fortnight of our wedding she calmly wrote to tell me she could not marry me!"
"Giving a reason?"
"No. Even she, I presume, could not summon sufficient courage to tell the wretch she had deluded of her love for another. She gave me no reason. She entreated me, however, to keep silence about the real author of the breach between us,—that is, herself. I was the one to break off our engagement! I was to bear all the blame! She implored me to conceal her share in it, and finally demanded of me, as a last favor, that I would give the world to understand I had thrown her over."
"A charmingly disinterested specimen of womankind," says Brian, raising his brows.
"And this to me," says The Desmond, an indignant sob making his weak voice weaker,—"a man who had always kept himself straight in the eyes of the world. I was required to represent myself as a low, despicable fellow, one of those who seek a woman's affections only to ignore them at the sight of the next pretty face."
"But you refused to comply with her request?" says Brian, hastily.
"No, sir, I didn't," says the squire, shame struggling with his excitement. "On the contrary, I gave in to her in every respect. I believe at that time I would cheerfully have allowed myself to be branded as a thief if she had desired it and if it would have saved her one scrap of discomfort. She was afraid of her sisters, you see. I blamed them then, Brian, but I think now her fear of them arose from the fact that they were as true as she was——Well, well!"
"This is indeed a revelation," says Brian.
"Yes; you wouldn't think they would behave like that, would you?" says Mr. Desmond, eagerly.
"Who? The Misses Blake?" says Brian, startled.
"Yes. It wasn't like them to keep silent all these years, and let me bear the brunt of the battle, when they knew I was innocent and that it was their own flesh and blood who was in fault. Yet they turned their backs upon me, and have treated me ever since as though I were in reality the miscreant they have succeeded in making me out."
"There is a terrible mistake somewhere," says Brian. "They do verily believe you to be the miscreant you describe."
"Brian, come here!" says the old man, in an ominously calm tone. "Do you mean to tell me Priscilla Blake believes me guilty of having behaved dishonestly to her sister Katherine? You positively think this?"
"I know it," says Brian, who feels it is better to get out the plain unvarnished truth at once.
"You have no doubt? Think, Brian; think."
"I needn't.—There is no doubt on my mind."
"Then she deceived us all," says the squire, in a stricken tone. Then he roused himself again. He seems to have recovered his strength wonderfully during the past hour. "Go, get me Priscilla Blake," he says. "Hurry, boy! hurry! I must make it right with her before I die."
"Before you recover, you mean," says Brian, cheerily. "There! lie down now, and keep yourself quiet, or you won't be looking your best when she comes."
* * * * *
And now Miss Priscilla has come, and is standing beside the bed of her quondam friend, looking down upon him with dim eyes.
"I am sorry to meet you again like this, George Desmond," she says, at last, in tones meant to be full of relentless displeasure, but which falter strangely.
"She made as great a fool of you as of me, Priscilla," is the squire's answer, whose tired mind can only grasp one thought,—the treachery of the woman he had loved! And then it all comes out, and the letter the false Katherine had written him is brought out from a little secret drawer, bound round with the orthodox blue ribbon, and smelling sadly of dust, as though to remind one of all things, of warmest sweetest love, of truest trust, and indeed of that fair but worthless body from whose hand it came, now lying mouldering and forgotten in a foreign land.
"Oh, I wouldn't have believed it of her!" says Miss Priscilla, weeping bitterly. "But there must have been something wrong with her always, though we could never see it. What an angel face she had! But the children, they speak terribly of her, and they say—that she—and James Beresford—did not get on at all."
"Eh?" says the squire. He rises himself on his sound elbow, and quite a glow of color rushes into his pallid cheeks. When, with a groan of self-contempt, he sinks back again, and the light in his eye (was it of satisfaction?) dies.
"You have met Brian," he says presently. "What do you think of him, Priscilla? He is a good lad,—a very good lad."
"He looks it," says Miss Priscilla, shortly.
"He does," heartily. "Well, I'm told this boy of mine is in love with your girl."
"Who told you?" says Miss Priscilla.
"Brian himself," says the Squire.
"I like that in him," says Miss Priscilla. "Well, George, if you will look upon that as settled, so shall I."
"So be it," says the squire—"Eh, my dear? but doesn't it make us feel old to be discussing the love-affairs of these young things, when it seems only yesterday that we—that you and I, Priscilla——"
"That is all buried long ago: don't rake it up. It died when first your eyes fell on her," says Miss Blake, hurriedly.
"I was a fool," says the squire. "But, somehow, since I have been talking to you, I don't think I'm going to die this time, and old scenes came back to me, and—I suppose it is too late now, Priscilla?"
There is no mistaking his meaning.
"Oh, yes; a whole lifetime too late," says Miss Priscilla, with a soft, faint blush that would not have misbecome a maiden in her teens. "But I am glad we are friends again, George."
She pressed his hand with real affection, and then colors again warmly, as though afraid of having discovered herself in the act of committing an indiscretion. Could that gentle pressure be called forward, or light, or unseemly? Terrible thought!
"So am I, my dear," says the squire. And then again, "You won't think of it, then, Priscilla?"
"No, no," says Miss Blake, feeling flattered at his persistence, and then she actually laughs out loud, and The Desmond laughs too, though feebly; and then the doctor comes in again, and Miss Priscilla goes home, to tell Miss Penelope, in the secrecy of her chamber, and with the solemnity that befits the occasion, all about the squire's proposal, its reception, and its rejection.
Be assured no minutest detail is forgotten; Miss Penelope is soon in possession of every smallest look and word connected with it, and deeply gratifying is the manner in which the great news is received by that gentle maiden.
"Though late in the day, Penelope," says Miss Priscilla, as a sort of wind-up to her recital, "it was an offer of marriage any woman might be proud of, be she young or old; and he meant it, too. He was quite pressing. Twice he asked me, although my first was a most decided 'No.'"
"It seems terrible, your having been so cold to him, poor fellow!" says Miss Penelope, with a regretful sigh for the griefs of the rejected Desmond.
"What could I do?" says Miss Priscilla, with an air of self-defence. This thought, that she can actually be accused of having treated the sterner sex in a hardhearted fashion, is cakes and ale to her.
"We must not talk of this, Penelope," she says, presently. "It would be unfair. It must never transpire through us that George Desmond laid his heart and fortune at my feet only to be rejected."
To her these old-world phrases sound grand and musical and full of fire and sentiment.
"No, no," says Miss Penelope, acquiescing freely, yet with a sigh; she would have dearly liked to tell her gossips of this honor that has been done her dear Priscilla. And, after all, she has her wish, for the story gets about, spread by the hero of it himself.
The squire, tired, no doubt, of keeping secrets, and perhaps (but this in a whisper) grateful to her because of her refusal, goes about everywhere, and tells people far and near of his offer; so that when their friends flock to Moyne, and, giving The Desmond as their authority for it, accuse Miss Priscilla of her refusal, and she still, with maidenly modesty, parries their questions, Miss Penelope, feeling herself absolved from further reticence, comes to the front and gives them a full and true account of the wonderful event.
"Yes, Priscilla might indeed have reigned as queen at Coole had she so wished it, and well graced the position too," winds up Miss Penelope, on all these occasions, with much pride and dignity.
Brian, who had been busy all the morning swearing informations, and so forth, with Mr. Kelly and the groom, before magistrates and others, coming into his uncle's room about half an hour after Miss Blake's departure, finds him considerably better both in mind and in body, though feeble in spirit, as is only natural. Indeed, the bullet had done him little harm, causing merely a flesh-wound, but the shock had been severe to a man of his years.
"Come here, Brian; I want to tell you something," he says, as the young man leans over him.
"You are not to talk," says his nephew, peremptorily.
"If you won't listen to me, I'll send for Bailey, the steward," says the squire. "Nonsense! it does me good." And then he tells him all the particulars of Miss Priscilla's visit relating to his engagement with Katherine Beresford, with one reservation.
"It is all right between us now," he says, in a pleased tone. "She told me everything, and it appears we were both sadly taken in, though I don't wish to say anything against her even now. I daresay she had her own grievances, poor soul; and indeed Priscilla said——"
Here he pauses, and a guilty flush covers his pale face. He hesitates, and then beckons Brian to come even nearer.
"Look you, lad! I'm not quite at ease even yet. There's something wrong here!" laying his hand upon his heart.
"Is it pain?" asks his nephew, anxiously. "I told you you were talk——"
"No, no, boy. It's only mental pain. I want to be ashamed of myself, and I can't. I'm feeling a satisfaction about something that I shouldn't. It's not right, Brian. It's not a gentlemanly feeling, but I can't curb it. The more I think of it, the more pleased I feel. Eh? You don't look as if you understood me."
"I don't, much," confesses Brian, seating himself on the edge of the bed. "You see, you haven't told me what it is all about."
"It is about Katherine Beresford. Priscilla told me, and I should like to tell you. I say, Brian, you won't throw it in my teeth, now, when I'm better, eh?"
"I swear I won't," says Brian.
"Well, she told me Katherine had a regular devil of a life with her husband, and I'm glad of it! There!" says the squire; after which disgraceful confession he regularly scrambles under the bedclothes, with a view to hiding his shame and his exultation from public view.
Brian fairly roars with laughter. At the sound of his welcome mirth, the old man slowly emerges from the sheets again, and looks at him doubtfully, but with growing hope.
"She had the best of it, of course; any one would have the best of it with James Beresford," he says. "But she couldn't have been altogether comfortable; that's what I mean. I don't want you to think I should rejoice at her having received bad treatment at her husband's hands. He had all the bad treatment to himself, I expect."
"So do I," says Brian, who is laughing still.
"And you don't think so badly of me for it?" says the Squire, anxiously.
"Not I," says Brian.
"Still, it's rather a mean sort of feeling, isn't it, now? It's very low—eh?"
"Low or not," says Brian, with decision, "I'm perfectly certain if it was my case I should feel just like that myself."
"You're the comfort of my life, Brian," says his uncle, gratefully; and then he indulges in a covert smile himself, after which he drops off into a slumber, sound and refreshing.
How Madam O'Connor gives her opinion on certain subjects—How Fay electrifies an entire audience—And how Olga makes up her mind.
It is growing towards evening, and as yet at Aghyohillbeg they have not grown tired of discussing the terrible event of last night.
"When I called just now, Priscilla Blake was with him," says Madam O'Connor. "Brian told me The Desmond had sent for her. I suppose the old quarrel about Katherine will be patched up now, and I shouldn't wonder if our two lovers, Monica and Brian, get married quite comfortably and in the odor of sanctity, after all."
"I suppose they couldn't have managed it without the old people's consent," says Mrs. Herrick, who is rocking herself lazily to and fro in a huge American chair.
"Nonsense, my dear!" says Madam, throwing up her chin. "Accredit them with some decent spirit, I beg of you. Of course they would have got married whether or not,—there is nothing like opposition for that kind of thing, and no doubt would have enjoyed it all the more for the fun of the thing, because there must be an excitement in a runaway match unknown to the orthodox affair."
"I don't think I should like to run away," says Olga Bohun; "there is always a difficulty about one's clothes."
"What's the good of being in love if you can't get over a few paltry obstacles?" says Madam, whose heart is still young. "Well, I expect we shall have a gay wedding here before long, and be able to give that pretty child our presents without any trouble."
"How long the day has been!" says Olga, with a little affected yawn, meant to reduce Ulic Ronayne to despair, who is sitting in a distant window touching up one of her paintings. "I don't know when I have been so bored,—no one to speak to. Madam, darling, you shall never go out again without me; remember that. Nobody has called,—I suppose they are afraid of being shot,—not even Owen Kelly; and one would like to see him and Brian, to make sure they are all there."
"Talk of somebody," says Madam, looking out of the window, "here comes Owen."
As Olga puts her hand in his presently, she says, laughing,—
"Madam O'Connor says you are, in polite language, his sable majesty himself. So you must be, to escape as you did last night. Now tell us all about it. We have heard so many garbled accounts that a real one will set our minds at rest."
Then he tells them all about it, dropping as though unconsciously into a low chair very close to Hermia's.
"So, you see," he says, when he had finished, "it might have been a very sensational affair, and covered us all with glory, only it didn't."
"I think it did," says Mrs. Herrick, gently. She doesn't raise her eyes from her work to say this, but knits calmly on; only a very careful observer could have noticed the faint trembling of her fingers, or the quivering of her long, downcast lashes.
"How can you say such a thing, Owen?" says Olga. "Look at all the cases we have known where the assassins have got away quite free, and here we have the principal secured."
"Yes, that was very clever of Brian," says Mr. Kelly.
"Did he capture him, then, single-handed? Were not you with him? Were you in no danger of your life, too?" exclaims Hermia, with such unwonted animation that every one looks at her. She takes no notice of their regard, but fixes her kindling eyes on Kelly, who, in returning her mute protest, forgets that any other more open answer may be required of him. Then she lets her eyes fall from his, and her face grows calm and statuesque again, and only the rapid clicking of her needles show the perturbation of the mind within.
"Did the fellow give you much trouble, Kelly?" asks Ronayne, who in his secret soul is bitterly regretful he had not been on the scene of action.
"Not he, the fool!" says Mr. Kelly, with something approaching a smile. "Brian fired his revolver and grazed his arm slightly,—a mere scratch, you will understand,—and the miserable creature rolled upon the ground, doubled himself in two, and, giving himself up as dead, howled dismally. Not knowing at that time that the poor squire was hurt, Brian and I roared with laughter: we couldn't help it, the fellow looked so absurd."
They all laugh at this, but presently Olga, holding up her finger, says, seriously,—
"Owen, recollect yourself. You said you laughed. Oh! it can't be true."
"I regret to say it is," says Mr. Kelly, with intensest self-abasement. "For once I forgot myself; I really did do it; but it shan't occur again. The exquisite humor of the moment was too much for me. I hope it won't be placed to my account, and that in time you will all forgive me my one little lapse."
"Well, Owen, you are the drollest creature," says Madam O'Connor, with a broad sweet smile, that is copied by Olga and Ronayne. Mrs. Herrick remains unmoved, and her needles go faster and faster: Mr. Kelly stares at them uneasily.
"They'll give out sparks in another minute or so," he says, warningly, "and if they do there will be a general conflagration. Spare me that: I have had enough excitement for a while."
Mrs. Herrick lets her knitting fall into her lap.
"The squire may be thankful he got off so easily," says Madam O'Connor at this moment.
"He may, indeed," says Kelly. "Fay," to the child who is standing at a distance gazing thoughtfully with uplifted head at the blue sky without, "what are you wondering about now?"
The child turns upon him her large blue eyes, blue as Nankin china, and answers him in clear sweet tones, indifferent to the fact that every one in the room is regarding her.
"I was wondering," she says, truthfully, "why Ulic says his prayers to Olga."
A most disconcerting silence follows this speech. Madam hums a tune; Mrs. Herrick loses herself in her knitting; but Mr. Kelly, who is always alive, says "Eh?"
"I saw him," says Fay, dreamily.
Olga, who is as crimson as the heart of a red rose, makes here a frantic but subdued effort to attract the child's attention; Mr. Kelly, however, gets her adroitly on to his knees before she can grasp the meaning of Olga's secret signals.
"Where did you see him?" he says, mildly.
"In the summer-house, this morning. He was kneeling down before her, just as I kneel to mamma, and he had his head in her lap, and he was whispering his prayers. I could not hear what he said." At this instant an expression of the most devout thankfulness overspreads Mrs. Bohun's features. "But they were very long prayers; and I think he was sorry for something he had done."
"I haven't a doubt of it," says Mr. Kelly, mournfully. "Go on, my child."
"I'm not your child; I'm mamma's," says Fay, firmly; but, having so far vindicated her mother's character, she goes on with her tale: "When he got up he didn't look a bit better," she says. "He looked worse, I think. Didn't you, Ulic?" addressing the stricken young man in the window. "And I always thought it was only children who said their prayers to people, and not the grown-up ones. And why did he choose Olga? Wasn't there mamma? And wasn't there Madam? You would have let him say his prayers to you, Madam, wouldn't you?" turning placidly to her hostess.
"I should have been only too charmed,—too highly flattered," says Madam, in a stifled tone; and then she gives way altogether, and breaks into a gay and hearty laugh, under cover of which Olga beats an ignominious retreat.
Mr. Ronayne, feeling rather than seeing that his colleague in this disgraceful affair has taken flight, puts down his brushes softly and jumps lightly from the open window to the grass beneath. Then with a speed that belongs to his long limbs, he hurries towards that corner of the house that will lead him to the hall door: as he turns it, he received Olga almost in his arms.
"You here?" she says. "Oh, that terrible child!"
"She didn't understand, poor little soul." And then, as though the recollection overcomes him, he gives away to uncontrollable mirth.
"Such unseemly levity!" says Mrs. Bohun, in a disgusted tone; but, after the vaguest hesitation, she laughs too.
"Come to the orchard," says Ronayne; and to the orchard they go. Here, finding a rustic seat at the foot of a gnarled and moss-grown apple-tree, they take possession of it.
"It is very unfortunate," says Olga, with a sigh. Her fair hair is being blown like a silver cloud hither and thither and renders her distractingly pretty.
"You mean our betrayal by that child?"
"Yes. I hope it will cure you of ever being so silly as to go on your knees to any woman again."
"I shall never go on my knees to any woman but you, whether you accept or reject me."
"I am sure I don't know how I am ever to face those people inside again." Here she puts one dainty little finger to her lips and bites it cruelly.
"There is nothing remarkable in having one's accepted lover at one's feet."
"But you are not that," she says, lifting her brows and seeming half amused at his boldness.
"By one word you can make me so."
"Can I? What is the word?"
This is puzzling; but Mr. Ronayne, nothing daunted says,—
"You have only to say, 'you are,' and I am."
"It isn't Christmas yet," says Mrs. Bohun: "you shouldn't throw conundrums at me out of season. It is too much? 'you are and I am.' I couldn't guess it, indeed; I'm anything but clever."
"If you say the 'I will,' you will find the solution to our conundrum at once."
"But that is two words."
"Olga, does the fact that I love you carry no weight with it at all."
"But do you love me—really?"
"Need I answer that?"
"But there are others, younger, prettier."
"Nonsense! There is no one prettier than you in this wide world."
"Ah!" with a charming smile, "now indeed I believe you do love me, for the Greek Cupid is blind. What a silly boy you are to urge this matter! For one thing I am older than you."
"A year or two."
"I will not listen. 'Stony limits cannot hold love out:' why, therefore, try to discourage me?"
"But you should think——"
"I think only that if you will say what I ask you, I shall be always with you, and you with me."
"What is your joy is my fear. Custom creates weariness! And—'the lover in the husband may be lost!'"
"Ah! you have thought of me in that light," exclaims the young man, eagerly. "Beloved if you will only take me, you shall find in me both a lover and husband until your life's end."
The smile has died from Olga's lips; she holds out her hands to him.
"So be it," she says gravely.
"You mean it?" says Ronayne, as yet afraid to believe in his happiness.
"Yes. But if ever you repent blame yourself."
"And if you repent?"
"I shall blame you too," she says, with a sudden return to her old archness.
"And you will refuse Rossmoyne?"
She laughs outright at this, and glances at him from under drooping lashes.
"I can't promise that," she says, with carefully simulated embarrassment—"because——"
"What?" haughtily, moving away from her.
"I did so yesterday."
"Oh, darling, how cruelly I misjudged you! I thought—I feared——"
"Never mind all that. I know—I forgive you. I've a lovely temper," says Olga, with self-gratulation.
"Why did you refuse him? Was it," hopefully, "because you didn't like him?"
"N—o. Not so much that—as——" again this shameless coquette hesitates, and turns her head uneasily from side to side, as though afraid to give utterance to the truth.
"What? Explain, Olga," says her lover, in a fresh agony.
"As that I——loved you!" returns she, with a heavenly smile.
His arms close round her, and at this moment she lets all her heart be seen by him. The mocking light dies out of her eyes, her face grows earnest. She lets her heart beat with happy unrestraint against his. The minutes fly, but time was never made to be counted by blissful lovers.
A gong sounding in the distance rouses them from their contented dreaming.
"I must go and tell Hermia," she says, starting to her feet: "that is the dressing-bell."
"You won't let her influence you against me?"
"Nobody could do that." She moves away from him, and then runs back to him again and lays her arms round his neck.
"You are more to me now than Hermia and the world!" she says, softly.
Yet presently, when she finds herself in Hermia's calm presence, her courage somewhat fails her. It is not that she for a moment contemplates the idea of having to give up her lover, but she is afraid of her cousin's cold disparagement of both him and her.
"I have just promised to marry Ulic," she says, plunging without preface into her story, with a boldness born of nervous excitement.
"To marry him! Why, I thought you looked upon him as a mere boy! Your 'baby,' you used to call him."
"Probably that is why I have accepted him. A baby should not be allowed to roam the world at large without some one to look after him."
"Do you love him, Olga?"
"Yes, I do," says Olga, defiantly. "You may scold me if you like, but a title isn't everything, and he is worth a dozen of that cold, stiff Rossmoyne."
"Well, dearest, as you have given him the best part of you,—your heart,—it is as well the rest should follow," says Mrs. Herrick, tenderly. "Yes, I think you will be very happy with him."
This speech is so strange, so unexpected, so exactly unlike anything she had made up her mind to receive, that for a moment Olga is stricken dumb. Then with a rush she comes back to glad life.
"'Do I wake? do I dream? are there visions about?'" she says. "Why, what sentiments from you! You have 'changed all that,' apparently."
"I have," says Hermia, very slowly, yet with a vivid blush. Something in her whole manner awakes suspicion of the truth in Olga's mind.
"Why," she says, "you don't mean to tell me that——Oh, no! it can't be true! and yet——I verily believe you have——Is it so, Hermia?"
"It is," says Hermia, who has evidently, by help of some mental process of her own, understood all this amazing farrago of apparently meaningless words.
There is a new sweetness on Mrs. Herrick's lips. One of her rare smiles lights up all her calm, artistic face.
"After all your vaunted superiority!" says Olga, drawing a deep sigh. "Oh, dear!" Then, with a wicked but merry imitation of Mrs. Herrick's own manner to her, she goes on!—
"You are throwing yourself away, dearest. The world will think nothing of you for the future; and you, so formed to shine, and dazzle, and——"
"He will be a baronet at his father's death," says Mrs. Herrick, serenely, with a heavy emphasis on the first pronoun; and then suddenly, as though ashamed of this speech, she lets her mantle drop from her, and cries, with some tender passion,——
"I don't care about that. Hear the truth from me. If he were as ugly and poor as Mary Browne's Peter, I should marry him all the same, just because I love him!"
"Oh, Hermia, I am so glad," says Olga. "After all what is there in the whole wide world so sweet as love? And as for Rossmoyne,—why, he couldn't make a tender speech to save his life as it should be made; whilst Ulic—oh he's charming!"
How Monica's heart fails her; and how at last Hope (whose name is Brian) comes back to her through the quivering moonlight.
And now night has fallen at last upon this long day. A gentle wind is shivering through the elms; a glorious moon has risen in all its beauty, and stands in "heaven's wide, pathless way," as though conscious of its grandeur, yet sad for the sorrows of the seething earth beneath. Now clear, now resplendent she shines, and now through a tremulous mist shows her pure face, and again for a space is hidden,
"As if her head she bow'd Stooping through a fleecy cloud."
Miss Priscilla, with a sense of now-found dignity upon her, has gone early to bed. Miss Penelope has followed suit. Terence, in the privacy of his own room, is rubbing a dirty oily flannel on the bright barrels of his beloved gun, long since made over to him as a gift by Brian.
Kit is sitting on the wide, old-fashioned window-seat in Monica's room at her sister's feet, and with her thin little arms twined lovingly round her. She is sleepy enough, poor child, but cannot bear to desert Monica, who is strangely wakeful and rather silent and distraite. For ever since the morning when he had come to carry Miss Priscilla to Coole, Brian has been absent from her; not once has he come to her; and a sense of chill and fear, as strong as it is foolish, is overpowering her.
She rouses herself now with a little nervous quiver that seems to run through all her veins and lets her hand fall on Kit's drooping head.
"It grows very late. Go to bed, darling," she says, gently.
"Not till you go," says Kit, tightening the clasp of her arms.
"Well, that shall be in a moment, then," says Monica, with a stifled sigh. All through the dragging day and evening she has clung to the thought that surely her lover will come to bid her "good-night." And now it is late, and he has not come, and——