« السابقةمتابعة »
freezing down-pour of contempt'c'est le ridicule qui tue'-might not a little sarcasm stifle this baby love?
Enthusiasm claims companionship. Anstruther was too enthusiastic to dispense with sympathy.
It is wonderfully pretty,' he said, turning to his companion.
'Wonderfully!' answered Florence with a half-contemptuous smile. 'Less indulgent critics than ourselves would prefer the proper tune: our little friend introduces a few graces of her own, for which no one but herself is responsible; but then, O what a little innocent she looks!'
'I like the song,' said Anstruther bluntly, not the least inclined to be laughed out of his admiring mood. 'Don't you ?'
'No,' said Florence, with a tiny modulation of tone, which bespoke a change of tactics, it is too sentimental by far, and its sentiment is not the kind for me.' 'You are always answered the other. you mean.'
Tell me what
'Well,' Florence said, languidly playing with her fan, as if halfwrapped in thought, 'I mean that my ideal hero is not a cold, unbending, unimpassioned struggler towards unearthly sublimity: the icy mountain tops are good to look at, not to live upon.'
'And yet,' objected the other, 'you are sufficiently aspiring, or rumour wrongs you.'
'I am,' said Florence, unconsciously lapsing into a seriousness no longer entirely assumed; 'but then the ambition I like must have its human side, its moments of tender infirmity, its natural cravings.'
'Upon my word,' said Anstruther, puzzled by so sudden a display of feeling, we are becoming very solemn. Suppose you give us another song?'
'No,' insisted Florence, 'I will sing no more-I am not in the humour. Tell me, Captain Anstruther, does one not, as time goes on, get to care about success less, and friendship more?'
"The hero of Excelsior,' said Anstruther, apparently thought not.'
'Yes,' said Florence strongly, ' and that is why I detest him. Some poor girl with whom, in some less exalted mood, he had probably flirted disgracefully, meets him halfway and entreats him to remain
Stay, she cried, and rest Your weary head upon this breast;' and then he is wretch enough to go away and leave her. Depend upon it, he died not more of the snowstorm outside than of a heart of ice within.'
Florence, always an actress, pressed her hand to her heart, and breathed an unsuspected tenderness into the lines; action and tone alike, though half in joke, were full of pathos. Anstruther, an experienced judge of such affairs, became at once aware that his companion was not quite her usual self. What in the world could she be wanting? Upon what new mood of her flighty temperament had he suddenly stumbled? With the inquisitive daring of a Columbus in sight of unknown land, he hoisted every sail and steered, without an instant's hesitation, for the strange region which Fortune had suddenly brought within his ken.
'O! but,' he said, laughing, 'one has known people with the iciest hearts imaginable who yet seemed extremely flourishing.'
Seemed so,' Florence suggested, by this time keen for the defence of her new-formed theory. 'Depend upon it, they were in a bad enough way, if the truth was known. For my part, it seems the dreariest way of dying to have one's sentiment die first.'
'You seem in little enough danger of that,' said Anstruther. In old times, you know, we used to call you "la belle dame sans merci," because you laughed our tender moods to scorn.'
'Used I? Well now, to make amends, I will be frank. You cannot fancy how full of sadness those "old times you talk of are to
'A world of prodigies!' cried Anstruther. 'Sadness, indeed! and pray for what?'
'I scarcely know,' said the other
half-carelessly, half with an air of melancholy. For one thing perhaps because one doubts if one's old friends are still the same.'
She shot a glance at him-sharp, piercing, expressive-which in former times would have brought him to her feet. Anstruther however was entirely glance-proof, and had evidently no suspicion of the attack. For once it was the truth precisely that she had been telling: she felt weary, deserted, and horribly alone. The sight of lovers around her increased her sense of isolation; the man before her was, she knew, fretting to get away, and she tried in vain to keep him.
Positively,' he said, 'there is Mrs. Evelyn singing again-do let us go and listen.'
Already he was on his way towards the music, and Florence sat on alone, cherishing an angry mood. She was defeated; but need she thus tamely, thus helplessly to accept defeat? She was powerless to charm; but was plotting beyond her reach? Might not Anstruther by some contrivance or another still be forced to like her? Might not the moment of Nelly's triumph be at any rate delayed, and a chance, if nothing more, of ultimate success be left? Powers of ingenuity befriend her! Genius-spirit of intrigue come once again to her appeal, and grant to so practised a votary, if not satisfaction, at any rate revenge!
She turned restlessly from the table, and saw lying at her feet what seemed almost like an answer to her prayer. It was a note of Anstruther's, received that evening, glanced at on the journey from the dining-room to the ladies, and dropped, as retreating armies leave their baggage, in the hurry of his last escape. Florence pounced upon the prey, as if sure instinctively of its usefulness to her designs. That night she hurried away her maid, and, solitude at length obtained, was able without disturbance to read, ponder, and concoct.
'Dearest Jack,' the letter began, and plunged forthwith into the sort of careless chronicle of home affairs that a sister, not yet infected with a scribbling mood-fond and yet half
weary of the task enjoined by fondness-might compile for a soldierbrother's edification. It spoke of rides and visits, and a neighbouring dance, and the pleasant tittle-tattle of a country house. It scolded him laughingly as a good-for-nothing correspondent. When, it inquired, did he mean to be at home again? and what was Sharingham like? and was that horrid F. V. as great a flirt as ever? 'Mamma says you have much too good taste for her to be in the least afraid; and I am sure she is a million times too odious even to be flirted with; and please, the next time you are in Piccadilly, papa wants you to-,' and then followed a list of commissions which Anstruther's filial piety might perhaps endure, but wearisome to be recounted. So two sides were filled with rambling talk: next breaking off-they are all calling me to come out,' the writer said, so goodbye, you dear old Jack. Remember mamma's good advice and do not join Florence Vivien's flock of geese. Some day the fated "she" will be forthcoming, till then you must love no one but your loving Georgie.' 'Love no one but your loving Georgie'-the words stood by themselves upon the newly begun page, and Florence read them musingly over and over again, considering to what account they might best be turned. Was she horrid, and odious, and a flirt; and, as the letter put it, not dangerous to a man of taste? How unbearable the calm, half-indifferent, half good-natured contempt that the words implied-how just a pretext for unscrupulous hostilities! Was this the way that Anstruther had dared to talk-Anstruther, who once was contented to accept the rôle of a despairing admirer? She tore off the leaf, fitted it carefully into its envelope, buried the other half in the most secret corner of her desk, and, as she had an evil reputation, resolved to deserve it.
Anstruther the next morning declared himself in absolute despair. Had any one seen a letter of his? He had got it last night, caught but a glimpse of its contents, which Florence's song had fairly driven out of his head; and where in the
world it could have flown to was the problem he invited everybody to try to solve.
'Now, young ladies,' Florence cried, laughing, 'here is a brilliant chance for the sharpest pair of eyes, and an admirable employment for you all till luncheon-a letter, evidently extremely interesting, lost; and Captain Anstruther's eternal gratitude to the lucky discoverer. I will be cryman. O yes! O yes! get me a bell, please, Mr. Erle, and let me begin at once.'
'Seriously,' said Anstruther, who remembered enough of its tone about Florence to wish it safe back in his own keeping-'seriously some fairy must have spirited it away. I had it in the drawing-room, I know, and not a vestige of it this morning can either the house-maids or I discover.'
'Perhaps,' suggested the Major, 'you lit your pipe with it at night?'
No,' said Anstruther, 'I was much too interested in Orley Farm to join the smokers. I was deep in the trial scene at two o'clock this morning.'
'Obviously,' cried Florence, it must have been the fairies. This is a haunted house, no doubt. But tell us, please, since it was so interesting, who was it from? and what was it about?'
Did I say it was interesting?' replied the other, blushing at the horrible thought that his sister's abuse of Florence might chance to meet her eye. 'Well, for one thing, it was full of commissions.'
to flutter, as one frightful conjecture after another presented itself; and yet, why should they be frightful? and what, after all, had Captain Anstruther's correspondents to do with her?
'I am going to be very industrious,' Florence said, as they found themselves alone in the drawingroom. 'We go to-morrow, and I have promised Mr. Erle to finish my sketch of the house.'
'And I,' said Nelly, 'am dying to get back to Orley_Farm-that poor, dear Peregrine! I never could have refused him.'
'I hope,' Florence said, as she arranged the table for her drawing, 'that Captain Anstruther has had the grace to bring it down-stairs again. Yes, here it is.'
Florence gave her the book. Fifty pages on-she knew right wellNelly must come upon something which would startle her more effectually than the best-contrived fictitious scene. How natural that at the end of the trial, where Anstruther left off last night, the missing envelope-yes, and half the letter too, it seemed-should have been left, in a careless mood, between the pages, the last drowsy act of a wearied reader! It lay open in its resting-place, sure to catch the eye, a lurking serpent ready, as Nelly's unsuspicious foot should tread upon its lair, to spring to light, and dart a deadly wound.
Nelly tried, and tried in vain, to throw herself into the tale. How suddenly its interest had died away. What were Lady Mason's fears or Sir Peregrine's perturbing love to the sharp, cruel anxiety that, while she pretended to ignore it, was every instant taking fuller possession of her mind? She read the lines resolutely through, and for all the ideas they brought her she might as well have read them backward. She looked at the pictures, and she saw only a single figure-kind, gentle, tender, and O, how far handsomer than the best that ever Mr. Millais drew! She made believe that nothing was hurting her, and all the while there was a little thought that stung and stung till the agony was too keen to bear in silence. A
little thought?-it was all Nelly's world that trembled in the scale. Pleasure, such as she had never before felt-devotion such as she had never dreamed of-something that it was rapture to have, and death to be without-an opening Paradise of unimagined happiness-was it, or was it not, her own? 'What was Captain Anstruther to her?' she had asked herself before. Everything, she felt now, that separates the two extremes of misery end joy. 'From whom did the letter come, and what was it about?'-dreadful question! There was one answer, Nelly acknowledged, shuddering, which would make it well for her to go up into her bedroom, bid good-bye to everything, and die upon the spot.
'Is not Lady Mason well drawn?' Florence asked, dipping her paint brush in the water? 'How sweet she looks, coming away from the court-house!'
'Yes,' Nelly answered, suddenly recalled to her ostensible employment; 'poor thing, how dreadful to have a secret!'
"They are troublesome possessions, no doubt,' said Florence carelessly, getting up to look at her drawing in a new light. Talking of secrets-I wonder what Captain Anstruther's this morning was.'
'Was there a secret?' Nelly said, blushing, with a horrible conviction that Florence knew her thoughts.
'Do people stammer, and equivocate, and turn red for nothing?' Florence asked. "Commissions," indeed! does that sound like the truth?'
'Doesn't it?' said Nelly, more and more alarmed. 'I'm sure I did not know.'
'And yet,' said the other, 'you of all people have a good right to be inquisitive.'
"I?' asked her companion, with more tell-tale cheeks than ever. 'What do you mean?'
I mean,' Florence answered, sitting down leisurely again to her picture, that if there were a secret, of the kind such people's as Captain Anstruther's generally are, he would be behaving rather unfairly to a certain little friend of mine; but then, you know, he is notorious.'
'Notorious?' said Nelly, as scared as if some shocking apparition had been suddenly disclosed.
'He is a licensed heart-breaker,' cried Florence with a laugh. 'A great many men in the Guards have licences of that sort, and make the most of them.'
'Do they?' asked Nelly, trying, panic-stricken as she was, to smile, and what then?'
'Well,' answered her tormentor, 'I think if I were she I should be a little discreet, because men like so to be amused, and what is fun for them is not very dignified for us, is it?'
'Have you noticed anything, then?' inquired the other in the greatest fright, with the guilty consciousness that she had been flirting a great deal more than was discreet.
'Noticed!' cried Florence with a laugh; 'you think, I suppose, that nobody's eyes are of any good but your own. It struck me sometimes that you wished to be observed.'
The cruel words pierced and stung, and Nelly could scarcely find heart enough to answer. What had she felt about her intimacy with Anstruther? Only the carelessness of enjoyment too thorough to be always watchful of on-lookers; but in how horrid a light had Florence seen her behaviour! Was it possible that it could be fairly so interpreted? Nelly hoped not, but her spirits sank at the very thought.
'I assure you,' she said, setting herself to read again, as if to break off a disagreeable talk, that you are perfectly mistaken. Circumstances have made us intimate, but that is all.'
'Oh!' Florence answered, with a tone of acquiescence, quite content not to prolong the conversation. Enough for all purposes had, she knew, been already said.
And so Nelly, her spirits by this in complete confusion, read on undisturbed, and came before long on that, which made her bend, for concealment sake, close over the book; and forcing back a sob of horrified surprise, shut it quietly up, and feigning some excuse, steal quietly up-stairs-as some little stricken fawn might creep into the under
wood-and there sit, quiet and tearless, and fearful of even Margaret's intrusion, face to face with a trouble the very sight of which had seemed almost to stun her, and which, as she looked at it, grew every moment darker and blacker and more entirely unendurable. Florence meanwhile, before she finished her sketch, took good care that the missing document, its function now fulfilled, should be transferred to a safer custody than the pages of Orley Farm, and was pleased to see Anstruther when next he came into the room, hopelessly turning over its leaves in despairing search of that which half an hour ago she had placed safely away under lock and key.
'I give it up,' he cried at last, sitting down beside her, and assuming the sort of confidential air which to some women is the worst of compliments. And pray where is your companion?'
Up stairs, learning her catechism,' Florence answered with a laugh. 'Would you like me to hear you yours?'
'By all means,' cried Anstruther. 'What is it that you want to know?'
'But first,' said the other, 'you must be christened. Let me see, I think you shall be Baby-hunter.'
'Anything you please,' said Anstruther; only what does Babyhunter mean?'
'La chasse aux enfants a favourite amusement with enterprising sportsmen of the Household Brigade. You were baby-hunting, you know, when you came in here."
'To be sure,' answered Anstruther, no longer pretending not to know the point of Florence's attack. 'And the prey unluckily is fled. Well, you will admit that the babies are sometimes very interesting.'
‘O, so interesting,' cried Florence -the scornfullest irony ringing through her tones. 'Dear little creatures! The first germ of intellect, how nice to watch it! and all their pretty ways!'
'Yes,' Anstruther said, resolved to be quits with his companion; and then their simplicity, what a charm it is!'
'So far more picturesque than common-sense,' Florence broke in, as if warming with a congenial theme. Everything is eloquence that comes from rosy lips; and the babies shine so in conversation.
FLORENCE AND MARGARET.
Sing of the nature of women, and then the song shall be surely full of variety, old crotchets, and most sweet closes: it shall be humorous, grave, fantastic, amorous, melancholy, sprightly, one in all, and all in one.
No, timorous martyr, descending
into an arena of hungry lions could have looked forward with more thorough consternation to the encounter than did Nelly to the prospect of reappearing in public, and having to behave as though the morning's discovery were cancelled from her thoughts. It is terrible, no doubt, to be eaten alive; but
there are degrees of shyness for which any form of death, however tragical, would scarcely be a bad exchange. Besides her heaviness of heart, Nelly felt exquisitely embarrassed. The catastrophe which had overtaken her seemed too sudden, overwhelming, tremendous, not to be discernible to other eyes besides her own. Florence knew,