« السابقةمتابعة »
of course, and Florence's mother; and both would probably ere now have pointed the cruel darts of ridicule at the disappointment of a too courageous love. Captain Anstruther knew, for Nelly, as she looked back upon the visit, recalled too many words and looks which were meant and accepted as frank avowals of what it seemed now disgraceful to have so much as hinted at; and if Captain Anstruther, why not his confidential friend, his close adviser in a delicate affair, the natural depositary of an amusing secret, the experienced connoisseur of flirtations -the cold, glittering, sarcastic, Erle? Now that she thought over her visit, with this key to its incidents, how often, she remembered, had both men seemed to find some comic aspect in what she said and did; what expressive looks of private intelligence had passed between them as Anstruther, less and less careful of concealment, had flattered her with some new politeness or devised some bolder pretext for the prosecution of his suit. More than once she had heard them laughing on the terrace as they strolled there together-how humiliating to think that, more likely than not, the laugh was at her, and at the alacrity with which she accepted the proffered homage! What tricks might not the two, in cruel fun, have been playing upon her, and with what a foolish credulity had she allowed herself to be entrapped! With what hypocritical seriousness had Erle again and again, as if by the merest hazard, sent her and Captain Anstruther in to dinner together, when all three knew perfectly well how much the pleasure of the repast would be enhanced by that arrangement! How ready and joyful an accomplice had Nelly been; an accomplice, as it had turned out, in a joke at her own expense! How ambrosial those dinners had seemed; how pleasant the talk, how more than pleasant her companion! and Anstruther, meanwhile, was amusing himself, as he would in any other house where he chanced to be a guest; and at the very moment he enjoyed her familiarity was in his heart, no
doubt, deriding it as childish or condemning it as unrefined!
And if other people were amused must not Margaret have been absolutely scandalized. Nelly had once essayed to tell her of the Count's escapade, and her sister's look of horror and shame had warned her not to tell too much. Margaret had seemed to shrink from the very mention of it, as if the mere idea were a misery and a disgrace; a stain-though scarcely more substantial than a passing shadow— upon her unsullied purity of thought, a sort of insult which it was dishonourable even to have thought of. Nelly, startled at so serious a view of what seemed to her a commonplace offence, had let her recital fade away into indistinctness, and her sister had never invited her to be more explicit. There are some things so unutterably repugnant to one's taste that the faintest outline is enough to warn us from the annoyance of a second look. Margaret, Nelly felt certain, banished the remembrance of Malagrida, as an unclean thing, driven forth in shame and loathing from the sacred precinct of an innocent mind. But, with so fastidious a delicacy, what must she not have thought of the indecorous ease with which Nelly, grown up now to woman's estate-a mother-a widow -had allowed herself to be the sport of a soldier's careless wooing? Nelly's execuse to her own mindthat she had fallen unawares in love-that Anstruther's society was irresistibly delightful-was one that it seemed disgraceful, impossible, to trust to Margaret's ear. She would forgive it, no doubt, as she could any other infirmity; but it would be the commiserating indulgence of a strong high nature to weakness which it could neither sympathize with nor understand. It must-Nelly resigned herself to the sad conviction with a gush of tears-be the severance of intimacy and a death-blow to the esteem without which love itself can scarcely long survive. How all the world had turned against her! She scanned her moral horizon, and could discern no ray of light. She was disappointed — ah, how
bitterly! and her disappointment was not without disgrace. sently the luncheon bell rang; and fearful above everything of attracting attention, she dried her eyes, rallied her fast-failing courage, and uncertain still as to the demeanour which would most become her, hurried with palpitating heart downstairs to meet her fate.
Nobody, it was a relief to find, seemed conscious of there being anything the matter. Anstruther unblushingly offered her some cold chicken, and inquired if she meant to be among the riders. Erle was as courteous as ever. Her grandfather's face the most truthful of barometers-bespoke no symptom of disturbance. Margaret's compassion, if compassion it was, wore the frankest, merriest, least constrained air imaginable.
'Not ride, dear!' she cried, when Nelly hesitated about the afternoon, and whispered to her that she would rather stay with her, 'and our last day at Sharingham. And such a day! why, Nelly, what can have bewitched you? Fly away and put on your habit, or you will have everybody waiting for you. Grandpapa and Mrs. Vivien and I are going to follow you in the carriage, and we will bring the baby for your express satisfaction.'
'Oh, but please,' petitioned Erle, 'I want to drive too.
'Then, Mr. Erle,' said Margaret, 'you will have to take the baby in your lap.'
'To be sure,' cried the other, too glad of admission on any terms. 'I believe I am a first-rate nurse. Are you a good hand at babies, Anstruther?'
'Captain Anstruther,' said Florence, 'do you hear? Are you fond of babies? Mr. Erle inquires.'
'Of course,' said Anstruther, with a laugh. But little doves are my especial hobby.' And thereupon Florence laughed too in the most meaning way, and Nelly felt a horrible certainty that there was some fresh secret which concerned herself, but in which her companions did not choose that she should participate. More frightened than ever, and with a heavier
VOL. LXIX. NO. CCCCIX.
heart, she hurried to her room, and there equipped herself, as if for execution, in a costume which Anstruther, in his confidential utterances to Erle, was never weary of eulogizing as the very perfection of simplicity and grace. Nelly's present mood, however, was far too serious for any study of the picturesque, and she drew what cold comfort she might from the reflection that in a world of troubles some few days of unmixed enjoyment had been allowed her, and that her present annoyances, poignant as they were, could not, from the force of circumstances, endure beyond a single afternoon.
A grievous afternoon, however, it proved. Florence was in a persecuting mood, and seemed to understand the exact way in which her companion's discomfort might be rendered least endurable. Again and again she betrayed Nelly into some embarrassment, and left her to get out of it as best she could. Again and again Nelly found herself stammering and blushing and in a scrape, and feeling as if she would give worlds to be anywhere but where she was; and Florence scornfully aware of her predicament.
Anstruther, unconscious of the
game which was being played around him, vexed at the loquacity of one of his companions and the silence of the other, began to be more nearly sulky than either of them had imagined possible. What in the world, he wondered, as he rode moodily along at Nelly's side, could have bewitched this simplest, merriest, least suspicious of beings into so pensive, so almost repellant a mood? What sudden nervousness was it that made her stumble in conversation, hesitate in the commonest reply, stop short at the least approach to any joke? On the other hand, the fiend himself, with a legion of loquacious imps, had seized on Florence's tongue, and kept it going-rattle, rattle-with a seemingly almost Satanic exemption from fatigue. Erle's excessive dislike to her had often surprised him, but now it seemed natural enough. Her hard merciless mirth, her confiden
tial airs, the never-ceasing flow of badinage, the inveterate gossip, how wearisome they seemed! What an impertinent assumption of superior worldly wisdom; what trampling on the other's meekness; what uncongenial merriment; what laborious attempts to please! Upon the whole, how evident the intention of Nature that rides should be conducted téte-à-tête!
"You go to-morrow too?' Florence asked at last.
No,' said the other; 'I stay to console Erle for the departure of more important guests. You have no idea how nice it is with everybody gone.'
'Nice and dull, I dare say,' cried the other. But tell me how are our friends the Berringtons? Shall you be there this summer?'
'I believe I shall,' Anstruther said, in no humour to be catechized. 'What beautiful turf for a canter!'
And the interesting Georgina?' continued the inquisitress, heedless of her victim's endeavour to escape.
'Still as interesting as ever,' said the other, in a tone which implied, as he meant it should, his determination to answer nothing more.
Take care, Mrs. Evelyn, or you will be among the ruts.'
Nelly had already heard too much and was out of reach, trusting to her pony's legs for deliverance from a conversation which was, she knew, devised expressly to torment her. Anstruther, as he galloped after her, was conscious of a sudden access of admiration, which threw all former enthusiasm into the shade, and resolved that it would be mere criminal weakness to allow another day to pass without a vigorous attempt to secure so choice a possession as his own.
Late that night Margaret tapped at Nelly's door, and found her wide awake, disarrayed, dishevelled, tearful, and evidently in the greatest need of consolation.
'My darling,' she said, surprised, 'what is the matter?'
'Nothing,' Nelly answered, with the most woe-begone attempt at a smile. 'I was just going to bed.'
"You have something which troubles you,' said Margaret, with
the gentle decisiveness of a good doctor; 'come, tell me all about it.'
Nelly, too frightened to have volunteered a confession, was not altogether sorry to have it forced from her, but hovered still on the brink of so alarming a disclosure, unable to take the final plunge.
'Do I look very bad?' she asked, with a little laugh that went to her sister's heart, so sad it sounded.
'As bad as possible,' said Margaret, stroking back her hair from her brow; and how hot your forehead is! Who is it, I wonder, that has been troubling you? 1?'
'Well, Margaret,' said the other, 'do you know, I have a great trouble, and Florence Vivien makes it hard to me to bear. Don't you think I've been behaving very badly all the time we have been here ?'
'Badly?' cried her sister, in amazement. 'Why, Nelly, who put the idea into your head? Come, come, if that is all I can comfort you at once.'
'Oh, but it is not all,' said the other. You heard about the letter this morning that Captain Anstruther lost. Well, I found it by accident in Orley Farm, which he had been reading, and-and-I am the most miserable person in the world!'
"I am quite puzzled,' Margaret said. Tell me; you found the letter-and then?'
'Florence observed it,' Nelly said, quite losing her presence of mind, as the inevitable revelation could no longer be postponed; 'observed, I mean, that Captain Anstruther and I were friends-you noticed it too?'
But about the letter?' Margaret said, eluding an inquiry which she thought might best be left unanswered; why did that make you unhappy?'
'I saw the end,' Nelly said, 'by accident, of course; and thensomehow-it shocked me to find that Captain Anstruther was only in joke—and▬▬▬▬’
You were not in joke,' said Margaret, taking her hand kindly. 'My darling little Nelly, but what was it you saw?'
Only a word or two,' said her sister; but Florence explained
them. They were talking about it this afternoon during the ride.'
'About what?' asked Margaret, more than ever puzzled by the other's partial confession.
'About her,' Nelly said, coming at last to the real core of her affliction.
'It was signed, "Your loving Georgie," and that means Georgie Berrington, Florence says; and, Margaret, do you know, I feel as if I were going to die very soon-and I hope I shall. I was praying for that when you came in.'
'Dear, dear,' said Margaret, too much taken by surprise by her sister's story to be prepared with a suggestion. 'What can I do to help you?'
There is no help,' Nelly answered, shaking her head disconsolately, and relapsing again into the lachrymose plight in which her sister had at first found her. 'No help for me, because it will break my heart, Margaret. I never can bear it.'
'But are you sure?' her sister asked, by no means convinced by what she had heard, yet afraid of even hinting encouragement. 'How did Florence know? Did she say positively who "Georgie" meant?"
Yes-no,' said Nelly, as she went back into the afternoon, and distinguished between her inferences and other people's facts; but she warned me to take care; and when I heard him talk of the Berringtons to-day, I saw it all distinctly.'
'Well, but,' said her sister, 'you must not be broken-hearted. After all, you have not been in love with Captain Anstruther for very long, have you?'
'Quite long enough to kill me now with disappointment,' said Nelly, suddenly infected with a decision and vehemence, the first-fruit of late-awakened passion. 'I loved him-I would die for him-I shall die for him. Was it not cruel to play with me as he did?'
That is a dreadful sort of cruelty indeed,' Margaret said, hesitatingly; for the doubt which filled her mind was one which it would have been the falsest mercy to allow Nelly to share, and she already saw her way to clear it up. But, dear, you
must not talk of dying, or wanting to die; you must bear it bravely.'
Nelly could frame no reply, but pressed her lips silently to her sister's in a long tearful embrace, as Margaret turned to leave her.
Good-bye,' she said; 'to-morrow we shall know better what to think.' Before to-morrow, she had resolved to herself, she would know the truth, cost what the knowledge might, and have learned from Florence's own lips the worst she had to tell of her sister's disappointment. Could it be that Florence was plotting, as once she had plotted against herself? Nelly's fragmentary story sounded strangely like it. Was a second intrigue in course of being acted out a second person's happiness at stake? And might entreaty, prayer, menace, suffice to drag the secret to light, to snap the threads of a half-concocted scheme? sacrifice, Margaret determined, could be too heavy for the chance. She stood for an instant in the passage, and nerved herself for what seemed the crowning annoyance of all that her acquaintance with Florence had involved. It was more than an annoyance to have to break through the safe, icy barrier of politeness, behind which she had entrenched herself, and enter a region where likes and dislikes, gratitude or resentment, approval or indignation—some glimpse of the inner nature-must needs be brought to light. It was an effort to have to confess her sister's weakness, and to stand, as it were, its champion against a well-remembered foe-a painful effort, and as Margaret reflected, she seemed for an instant scarcely able to bring herself to encounter it. She more than half suspected that Florence's suggestion was a false one. It must be a fierce, stormy process, she knew, by which the falsity could be exposed. There was that, too, in her mind in regard to Florence that made anything between a studied reserve and the out-rush of a flood of passion almost impossible; a vehement, deep-seated sense of wrong, the remembrance of mortal injury, that, tamed and fettered and kept out of sight like some fierce thing, was
nevertheless as much alive as ever, and would, if occasion offered, shake off its unwelcome restraint and rouse itself for actual rebellion. She had schooled herself to forgive, even to endure her ancient enemy; but it was a misfortune to be forced into the sort of confidential intercouse in which Florence's powers of annoyance would have freest play, and the torturing recollections of the past be most vividly recalled. For years she had thought of Florence as a foe, and now in another minute they would be face to face, battling in a warfare where every blow is apt to leave a mortal wound, and for the one thing in the world about which Margaret felt the reverse of courageous-her sister's heart.
Florence, deep in a novel, roused herself from the sofa at the sound of a knock, and welcomed the invader as best her wonderment allowed. Margaret looked grave, uneasy, determined, and would not, she well knew, have done her the honour of a visit without some weighty cause.
'Forgive me for disturbing you,' Margaret said; 'do you guess why I am come?'
Really,' said Florence, closing her novel with a resigned air, ‘I am ashamed to say I don't. Do sit down and tell me.'
'I have just heard of Captain Anstruther's engagement.'
"Yes?' said the other, as if encouraging her to proceed, with the slightest possible inquisitiveness in her accent.
The news came from you,' said Margaret, with a decisiveness that struck her hearer with a qualm; and I wanted to hear it from your lips. Is it true?'
'You are a little peremptory,' objected the other. Supposing, for instance, that I was not allowed, or did not choose to tell; or again, suppose I did not know.'
Is it true?' asked Margaret, not paying her companion's subterfuges the compliment of a moment's delay. You must know that much at least.'
thing, I have no doubt, which was eminently indiscreet; do not urge me to repeat the offence. You must know that I have forsworn gossip.'
'You will not tell me then?' Margaret said, in despair at the other's impregnability.
'I will tell you when I am engaged myself,' Florence answered, laughing. 'Such revelations are always best made by the people principally concerned. Tittle-tattle
gets one into such scrapes-does it not? Pray, if I am supposed to have hinted anything, erase it from your mind. After all, what has it to do with us?'
Margaret was silent, fairly baffled by the other's skilful fencing, and vexed almost beyond endurance by the secret insolence of her replies. Florence was too nimble an antagonist to be betrayed against her will into outspokenness, to let the secret, whatever it was, be wrested from her. That there was a secret, that it concerned Nelly, that Florence held the threads of some conspiracy against her, that in a single day now some irreparable mischief might be done-irreparable as in her own case, worse in so much as her sister was less able to endure it-all flashed into Margaret's mind, and goaded her to sudden action; anything was possible except acquiescence in so horrible an uncertainty. If Florence knew, if her knowledge were innocent, why should she refuse so studiously to tell? Margaret forgot her pride, and assumed the tone of a petitioner.
Please to tell me,' she said.
'No,' Florence answered, shaking her head with a half comic air; 'how curious you are! Wait till to-morrow morning, and Captain Anstruther himself will be sure to tell you the exact truth.'
'You are the evil genius of our family!' exclaimed the other bitterly, as she rose from her seat with a gesture of impatience. 'I have a charge to give you. know for what a weight of unhappiness you have to answer?'
Unhappiness?' asked the other, taking up her novel again in a sort