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nature, that the other day she was discovered reading Shakespeare after she was ready dressed and waiting for the carriage to go to her first ball: what better evidence could you have of an evenly balanced mind?'
A good-looking, but haggard, man of about twenty-seven sauntered by, nodding to Smith as he passed.
'That was Standish, one of the few Englishmen who have acted as seconds in a duel. He was once in a Lancer regiment, which he joined in India; but he ran into debt to such an extent when they came back to England that he had to leave the service, and now he is stranded. That tall, dark, handsome girl he is now speaking to goes by the name of the Mocking Bird. Probably she is repeating to Standish all the pretty things that were said to her at the ball last night; she likes people to know how much she is admired, and talks about her victims in a way which is half pity and half mimicry, either predominating according to her mood. I will introduce you to her when she passes again if I can; and if she is in a good temper she will give you many opportunities of admiring her eyes, which are really beautiful, and in a day or so she will tell you how many proposals she has had. Her temper is uncertain ; but they say that she has a kind heart, and that she would make an excellent queen of some half-civilised tribe.'
Suddenly we came upon Miss Mortimer and Jack and Bessie, whom Smith knew. We joined them, and walked two or three times up and down the terrace. The children captured Smith, and made him walk on with them in front, which gave me Miss Mortimer to myself.
How fair and bonnie she was! The rather tired look on her face when I saw her the day before had passed away, and all her soft pathetic sweetness had come back. She was very simply dressed in some dark colour, with no ornament except a little flower, which she seemed to have made more beautiful by wearing. What a contrast she was to the overdressed middle-class beauty who was walking in front of us, and who was known to have brought down twenty dresses to Varnestone, three of which at least she wore every day!
'The children were hoping to see you to-day; they are, as I told you they would be, delighted at having discovered a new cousin, and I wanted to thank you for the care you took of us all in the train yesterday.'
I felt a kind of sorrow that I had not been able to do more to deserve her thanks. I had only found a portmanteau, and prevented Jack from tumbling out of the window.
'Really, I don't think you have anything to thank me for. I had a pleasant journey instead of a dull one.'
How commonplace my words sounded when compared with my thoughts! If I had saved her life I felt that I should not have wanted kinder words from that sweet voice; it seemed to me such a waste that she should bestow them for the little I had done.
'They have been talking about you ever since,' she went on. 'Children always feel flattered when any one much older than themselves takes notice of them, and is as kind to them as you were yesterday.'
'What are they like? I never saw them before, though we are relations.'
'They are dear children on the
whole, and I am very fond of them. Jack is a compromise between two opposite passionsintense hatred of his lessons and devoted love for Bessie. Bessie is an odd girl; in some things she is so dull and matter-of-fact, and yet there is a vein of what is almost romance in her character: if you see much of her you will soon find out what I mean. But I did not know that it was so late; it is time for us to go in.'
She called Jack and Bessie, and said Adieu,' and left me wondering how many hours would have to pass before I saw her again.
So you know her,' said Smith, when we were alone.
'Only since yesterday in the train. I came down with them from London, and found out by an accident that Jack and Bessie were connections of mine.'
'What a perfect woman she is! and, though this is rather a bathos, neither forward nor shy, one of which almost every woman is now.'
'Have you known her long?'
'I knew her first when she was quite a child; her father was a clergyman living near where I lived once.
Her mother died
when she was very young, and she and her father lived together very happily until she was about twenty-one. He was a weak, helpless, though kind man, wrapped up in his books and in her; and when a widow, who wanted a home for her five children and another husband to bully, asked him to marry her, he had not strength of mind to refuse her. The children were at first inclined to be friendly with Aline Mortimer; but the stepmother, jealous of her contrast to her own five children, who were quite colourless in character, and merely tools in their mother's hands, soon put
a stop to this, and made them ignore her and snub her on every occasion. The poor father saw all this; and in secret, when his wife was out of the way, tried to make up for it. But it was little use; in a very few months after her father's second marriage she went out as a governess, just five years ago. For some time I lost sight of her; but I met her again a few months ago, just the same sweet graceful creature that she was in her happy days when she lived alone with her father. At first she went as finishing governess to the daughters of a Manchester cotton lord, but it was they who finished her. She never speaks of it; but I believe that the insults she had to put up with soon became so unendurable, that she left in a few weeks. Then Jack's mother, who, as you know, is an invalid, asked her to come and live with her. They had always been friends, but now they are like sisters. The care of those children has fallen chiefly upon her, owing to their mother's health. And here comes the Mocking Bird, one of whose merits is that she is such an admirable foil to Miss Mortimer; the one is everything the other is not.'
Her approaching voice could be heard talking about a man, a letter, and a bracelet.
The outline of that story is easily filled up. There was a man in some infantry regiment who had such a severe sunstroke in India, that he fell in love with her soon after he got back to the dépôt in England. Poor fellow ! I daresay he persecuted her, but she has taken her revenge since; the whole world knows about him now. There was every allowance to be made for him; for she has a way of looking at men as if she wanted to talk about the moon to them.'
I was presented to the Mocking Bird; but whether I did not please her, or whether she was angry at being interrupted at the thrilling part of the story where she sent back the bracelet, her temper was ruffled ; she seemed absorbed and bored, and made no effort at conversation beyond asking whom Smith and I had been talking to, and saying that she thought she knew her face. Smith became shy and monosyllabic; Standish alone was equal to the occasionwasn't it nearly time to be going back to luncheon? The band had ceased, the stream of dishevelled bathers came up no more from the shore, and soon the terrace was deserted except by the odd people who dine at four.
THE time at Varnestone passed by quickly. It was such a relief to wake up in the morning and remember that the examination was over; and that, instead of having to pack up little parcels of knowledge in the empty corners of my mind, with the hope, rather than the expectation, that they would remain there, I could do just what I liked all day and be perfectly idle. I got up when I felt inclined, and after breakfast strolled down to the pier and I waited until the train came in with the morning papers; and while lazily reading them and smoking, I appreciated the sweetness of doing nothing. Then the fleet of fishing-boats came in after their night's work if the tide suited, and watching them was better than algebra. So the mornings passed easily enough; I only wished that they had seemed as long as the mornings of the last few months before the examina
tion. Then I used to go up to the cliff to hear the band, wondering whether I should see Miss Mortimer there, and wondering if I should see her in the afternoon if she had not come out in the morning. Very few days passed in which I did not see her at all, but how long and dull they seemed! And yet when I was with her, Time was as swift-footed as Achilles. I haunted every place where I thought she might come; and when the evening of a day came in which I had not spoken to her, the morrow was so long in coming! And when it came, and I began to get angry and disgusted with everything from the fear of another day passing away without seeing her, and inclined to rush away from all the familiar spots where I had talked to her, and which were so hateful to me when I could not find her, then of a sudden she would appear, and if she let me be with her a little while, I soon could afford to laugh at my fears and angers.
The day before the examination list was published I happened to go down to the beach in the afternoon and found the children playing there, waiting till Miss Mortimer was ready to take them out for a walk. Jack had made a little pyramid of stones on the sands which the sea left bare just before low water, and called out to me to help him knock it down; 'only you must stand further back than I do, and not use very big stones, or it wouldn't be fair.' Bessie was making a bed of dry seaweed for her doll, who was supposed by a fiction to be very ill. Bessie,' I said, when the pyramid had been overthrown,' which do you love best, Miss Mortimer or your doll?'
'O, aunt Aline of course. At least I think so; but then, you see, I have her always with me, or
nearly always. But Dolly-why, the dogs at home sometimes think she is a rat and worry her, and then her arms bleed and I have to go to the carpenter for some more sawdust, and Jack will put her too near the fire that her face melts; all her nose is gone, and though I tried ever so long to make her a new nose out of a piece of wax candle, I couldn't get it to stick on properly. And I do think her hair is turning gray; somebody told me that people's hair turns gray when they have misfortunes. And so you see that I have to love her a great deal now; for if I didn't, and she died or got killed, I should feel that I had been unkind to her. But I love aunt Aline a great deal too, though she never gets put so near the fire that her face melts.'
As Undine could not receive a soul until she was loved, so in the child-world, of which we all were citizens once, they try to give life to their playthings by their love.
'Poor Dolly! Have you had her long?
'O, ever so long! Aunt Aline gave her to me that day we went for a picnic, or the day the black cat had some new little kittens, I forget which. And O, one of them was so pretty, with one black paw and such blue eyes, and with fur like a zebra, all stripes; but father had them all drowned in the red watering-pot, and I thought I should never be happy again. Then somebody gave me some coral beads, so I forgot about the kittens except when Mopsy mewed. Do you think aunt Aline will let us go out in a boat? Jack and I do so want to see something very 'tickularly. Here she is coming down the steps. O, do ask her if we may. We will promise to sit quite still all the time.'
Jack came up, and then they took hold of my hands and dragged me, a willing captive, to Miss Mortimer.
'Now, do ask her, please.'
'The children want me to ask you to let them go out in a boat; they have got something which they particularly want to see.' What is it, dears, that you want to see? The buoy beyond the harbour? You can see that better from the end of the pier.'
'No, we've seen that; we want to see the great big floating letters, and then we can be sure that the map is right.'
The big floating letters?' answered Miss Mortimer, in bewilderment. 'What do you mean, Jackie?'
'O, I see what they mean,' she went on, laughing, after a moment's pause. 'I showed them this coast on the map this morning, and some of the letters of the name of the Bay came quite close to the shore here, and I suppose they thought that the names of the different seas and bays are really to be found just as they are on the map, and that if they took a boat and rowed a little way out to sea they would find a big B floating about! No, dears, there are no letters on the sea as there are on the map, and so it would be no use your going out in a boat to try to find them.'
'Then how do the sailors know where they are if the names aren't there?'
'They find out in another way
which you wouldn't under
Jack went back disappointed to his pyramid, followed slowly by Bessie and the doll.
'I am afraid they will lose their faith in maps after this; I am always sorry when I have to rob children of their childish fancies and beliefs. The other day
Bessie asked me if the stars twinkled because the wings of angels passing between earth and heaven hid their light from us just for an instant. I had not the heart to tell her that it was not the reason, and so I said yes. Do you think that it was very wrong of me? I am sure that the pleasantest part of our lives is while those things remain unexplained which are mysterious and awe us.'
I told her what Bessie had said about her doll.
'Poor little woman! So I have a rival; but I do not feel jealous of her.'
We walked slowly along the path, which, fringed with tamarisk shrubs, skirts the shore just above high-water mark; while the children played about on the sands left bare by the ebbing tide. The afternoon was hot and sultry, it almost seemed as if the world was lying under an incantation. The sea was like satin; the haze had effaced the line of the horizon, which had nothing to mark it except the dim forms of a few idle ships that seemed to be floating in an ethereal ocean whose boundaries were hidden. The air was so still that the rattling of the becalmed fishing-boats' oars could be heard far away across the tranquil sea; the sails drooped from the yards, the charmed waves hardly had strength enough to sway the seaweed on the rocks; even the restless wings of the gulls were no longer hovering overhead.
'When shall you hear about your examination? she asked me.
'To-morrow morning the list comes out, and a friend of mine is going to telegraph the result to me.'
'And shall you stay on at Varnestone afterwards?'
I have not thought of anything that comes after to-morrow yet. Probably I shall stay here a few days more; but I shall be sorry to bring these pleasant days at Varnestone to an end. But everything must come to an end some time or other.'
'Have they been pleasant? I am sure that you will have many more in the future quite as pleasant.'
'But it is not likely that ever again I shall see you almost every day for weeks at a time. You do not know how much I shall miss you, Aline, you who are so winning and so beautiful-'
Hush, do not pay me compliments; I do not like them, and I know I do not deserve them; and besides, I always think that life is too short for us to waste our breath upon them.' And then after a short pause she went on with a tone of infinite gentleness in her voice, 'I am going to ask you never to speak to me like that again; I am sure you will do as I wish. You say that this has been a pleasant summer to you; so it has been to me; do not give me the pain of thinking that I have made you-unhappy. Try when you leave this to look back upon Varnestone with recollections that give you nothing but pleasure; but not that kind of pleasure which makes the present seem dull or irksome by comparison with the past. I think you will find this easier to do hereafter than you believe. You have everything before you, and I am sure that you will make a name for yourself, and that some day it will be as great an honour to know you as it has always been a pleasure. Now let us talk of something else. Tell me all your plans, and why you wish to be a soldier. I had an uncle in the army, almost the only relation