beginning to come to the conclusion," she said, turning down the corners of that undulating mouth of hers in a rather disgusted way, "that it is quite possible to have too much of a good thing. I sometimes have the incivility to fancy that I should not at all mind trying to live without them, a bit, for a change. They're too kind, don't you know?"

"Not for me," says sociable Maggie stoutly, "I agree with Alexander Selkirk :

"Oh, Solitude, where are thy charms?"

"Now, yesterday," pursues Kate, trying meanwhile cruelly to induce Tip to growl by pulling his elementary tail, "I could have cursed them, circumstantially, with pleasure, if it had not been wicked. When I had just established myself so comfortably by the fire, with my book, and then to hear that unfailing rat-atat-tat, that comes as regularly as the baker's and the butcher's ring. I knew that peace had fled to the realms above, then."

"Ah," said Maggie, with the shadow of a mild sneer, "I'm not such a superior creature as you, you know. I like to see my fellow-creatures now and then. I confess, indeed, I can hardly see too much of them to please my own taste."


'Well, tastes differ," replies Kate. “That's all very lucky and right, you know. I'd rather never see a human face, all the year round, except my own, of course; it's always pleasant to see that looking at one, in the glass; always except when one's nose gets red."

Young ladies are proverbial for not meaning exactly what they say, in any case. I don't think Kate exactly hated the "human face divine," as she protested she did. Habit is second nature, too, as everybody knows. One gets, almost always, rather to like what comes into one's day's work every day for a good long time together. I think even Kate (little as she thought it) would have missed her snub-faced cousins, if they had ceased to come bustling in, cheery and laughing, with their vast animal spirits and their four black hats, with their frequent black feathers, to provide which many a Gallinacean fowl must have gone tailless. Anyhow, like them or not, Kate had to swallow

a good dose of them in these sharp winter days. As their remonstrating brother had said, they were always dropping in, either together or severally, to learn a new stitch, to borrow the last number of somebody's new novel, or with some other such Lilliputian excuse. Now, the Chesters, as I have before stated, were wonderful hands at scraps of news, quite wonderful. I never knew their equal; one girl used to come rather near them, but not up to them, and she died young; they had a knack of retailing a small thing, so as to make it seem good-sized, by dint of pleasant little well-salted additions and comments. Now, however high-souled and fine and above sublunary matters we may be, or fancy ourselves, I think myself that there are few of us, whether old or young, man or maid, who do not care a little bit to hear whether Mr. Smith is going to marry Miss Brown, or whether Mr. Robinson does really bully that poor starved-looking wife of his, as they say, or whether (best of all this) that odd story about young Snooks and the Irish girl can have any truth in it, or whether it is only slander. Man is so entirely dependent on man; so much a part, so little a whole, that I do not believe he is intended to be so self-sufficing and self-contained, so like a snail in his portable house, as some folks say. I think he is intended to take a little interest in his neighbours' concerns; not a spiteful Paul Pry interest, but a genuine, well-wishing, hearty one. Maggie was honest, at least on this score. She owned that news in the abstract, news as news, was dear to her; it was a pleasant sauce to the every-day solids of household and sensible business talk. She did not see why a slight appetite for gossip need, of necessity, abase the female mind, which was made for small things, which had to be uncomfortably stretched to take in big ones; why it need unfit one to enjoy the high and the good and the beautiful that one meets with in books. They need not clash these two things-this iron and this pottery vessel. But, then, Maggie was a benighted creature, who did not set up to be anything but a fairly intelligent woman, who thought the world not at all a bad sort of place, and liked to suck as much

pleasure out of it as her innocent woman lips could get. Kate, I am ashamed to say, for I liked Kate a great deal the best in most things, was in this a small humbug. She affected to be lifted up many miles in air above her cousins' matrimonial and erotic (not erratic) talk. She would get a book, and pretend to read it, finding the conversation below her intellect; but before long the book would drop out of the white fingers, the eyes would shine with very unfeigned interest, and the lips would frame some question that showed she had been listening all the time, despite the book, and the highsouled contempt for "such rubbish." Young women are such unconscious hypocrites. George Chester, though he rebuked his sisters pretty smartly for their proneness to frequent the little house standing back from the road, with the laurestine bushes before it, was not, by any means, free from the same weakness himself; he somehow found himself turning in at that white gate very often, in the gloaming of those short December days. He would drop in to afternoon tea; that was mostly the excuse. Now George had been wont to turn up his massive square nose in a manner not intended by nature at the mere mention of this illegitimate interloper between luncheon and dinner, had given it as his opinion, and that of the th generally, that any man must be a muff who, as a habit, indulged in it; but I suppose George had altered his mind now, or else was content to be a muff, which, by-the-by, is a thing that no man that ever yet lived thought himself to be. Yes, George sauntered down that little sheltered drive very often. The maid got to know his face, with the tawny moustache, and the wide mouth that was mostly laughing under it, almost as well as she did her own. Up the little narrow stairs, into the warm scented room, almost every day of his life; and, moreover, did not get a cold shoulder turned to him by any means when he got there; got, on the contrary, a very frank, hearty welcome, though he did come so often. A chair by the fire, in which nobody else ever sat when he was present, and which was fast getting the pleasant home-sounding name of

"George's chair;" Tip, wagging and fawning and wriggling his body into the shape of a comma about his feet, as soon as his face shows itself inside the door; Maggie looks up from her work, and smiles, and says, "How d'ye do, George," and looks down again--blushes mostly. She's not exactly in love with this young man ; I'll tell any one who is curious upon this point that much. He is such a slippery fish that she fears it would be rather a losing bargain to think of loving him; so she holds her heart back with the small strings of prudence and caution, which may go snap any moment. It is just a chance whether she fall head over ears into this dangerous pond, or wisely skirt the edge, and walk away. She may do one; she may do the other. Time will show. Kate does not care twopence about this man-not half, nor a quarter twopence; of course not. She does not care, never again will care for anybody in such a shape, but that big dark blackguard in the Coldstreams, with the rings of brown hair, and the teeth that gleam so white in the wicked curving smile; the big blackguard, who has unfortunately got a wife already, and would like so much to ignore her. But for all that, Kate also blushes when George comes up and shakes hands with her, and asks how she is getting on stupid, meaningless blushes, that signify just nothing, that there is no accounting for; blushes that inspire their perpetrator with a desire to tear off her lying cheeks, and lead George and his sisters to false conclusions. She blushes, and sparkles too, up at him. The blushes are involuntary; the sparkles are not; runs down, sometimes very unnecessarily, and opens the hall-door for him, when she sees him coming; stands talking a few minutes in the passage, her grey draperies hanging ghostly round her in the dim, uncertain light; does not seem in any hurry to return to the warm-peopled drawing-room. She practises several other little wiles; I forget now exactly what they were. Wiles they were, however, indubitably-nefarious little flirt as she is.

This is the sort of scene that any disembodied spirit (for no one hampered with a body could without a ladder well have got up to the win

dow to look in) might have beheld towards five o'clock, on one of these brief winter days, when the sun hardly got up before he went in his laziness to bed again a smallish room, with a pleasant odour of tea in it, an odour not very hard to be accounted for, seeing that all the paraphernalia for tea was standing on the round table, with the shabby-coated books, and the work-boxes; no candles or gas, nothing that made one feel any oppressive obligation to do something; nothing but firelight; two or three girl shapes indistinctly seen looming in different comfortable attitudes about the room; girls with hats in their laps, that showed them to be but strangers, and birds of passage; Maggie standing up by the table, pouring out tea, that steams after its kind, fragrantly, standing up with the outline of her slight bending figure neatly cut out against the uncertain blaze; George in his own chair, leaning his head on his hand, gazing with a very contented aspect, first at one of his cousins, then at the other, out of a pair of eyes that had a good deal more brightness and twinkle in them than softness or profundity. Now for Kate. I always keep her to the last, because it is so sweet to me to talk of her, because I loved her. She never sits decorously on her chair like other people, when she can possibly help, nor is she doing so now all along on the rug she is lying, at George's feet, with her hands under her head, which head is resting on a cushion that she has tugged down off the sofa, with a view to making herself as comfortable as circumstances will permit. A very free-and-easy sort of way to be reposing in, no doubt; but then George was nothing but a cousin, so what did it matter? Perhaps Miss Kate was aware, or half aware, of how well this recumbent attitude displayed how utterly becoming it was to that lithe waning little figure, with its easy curvings and roundings. What a sin it seemed that that (as man called it) flawless form should ever have to grow skinny and bowed, or shapeless and unwieldy, in unsightly old age. We might have spared our silly apprehensions and regrets on that score. It was never given time to do either. Maggie finishes pouring out the tea, casts a reproachful look (unseen in the

semi-darkness) at the inattentive hero who does not offer to help her in handing the beverage sacred to washerwomen; snares the unhappy Tip into supporting himself unsteadily on his woolly hind quarters; further beguiles the accomplished quadruped into walking for about half a second on a pair of tottering hind legs in a manner feebly imitative of the human gait; listens with interest to some rather dull anecdotes narrated by George of the prowess of various dogs of his acquaintance, and more especially of the "tall doings" of a certain unparalleled bull terrier owned by Grattan of "ours;" interrupts at last the flow of his eloquence to say


Blount has made up his mind to exchange into the th. I forgot

to tell

you before." "Him," says George, patronizingly, "those young fellows are always for chopping and changing. I wonder you let him pitch upon the -th though; it was rather weak of you, was not it?"

"Why?" asks Maggie, her eyes growing round with surprise, and a misty vision of all the very naughty snares, dimly imagined by her to be lying in wait for all Her Majesty's servants, as soon as they donned the fatal red coat, flashing across her ignorant, innocent mind.

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

Oh, nothing particular," replied George, carelessly thrusting his hands deep into his coat pocket, "only they're popularly supposed to be rather a rapid lot, that's all."


Popularly supposed," repeats • Maggie, scornfully; "is that all. I never yet knew anything or anybody to be the least like what it was 'popularly supposed' to be."

"I know one fellow in the th," pursues George, "and a rattling good fellow he is, too. Always getting into hot water about some thing or other. Hampton is his name; one of the Hamptons of shire. Mad as a hatter; always was, his governor had to take him away from Eton for getting into some row or other with a bargee."

"Ah! what a rattling good fellow," says a mildly ironical voice from beneath him.

"Well, Kate, you may laugh," replies George, who is not fond of irony, not being good at it himself,

"but he is a rattling good fellow, for all that. What I was going to say about him now was, that a short time ago his tailor became so unpleasantly unremitting in his attentions, that he had to ask for three months' leave, and go to gaol. Poor old devil, he's in quod now." "In what?"

"In quod, in gaol, you know. I did not know it till a day or two ago, when I had a letter from him, dated, Gaol. However, he seems pretty jolly; says he has met a fellow he knows there, and that they manage between to kill time pretty tidily."

"You speak very coolly of it, as if it was a regular phase of military life. May I ask were you ever in quod, as you call it youself?"

"No," said George, pensively gazing into the fire, "but I had a near squeak for it once, very near. I say, Maggie," he continues, "what are the odds against that young hopeful you are so proud of, seeing the inside of one of those mansions, where Her Majesty entertains her subjects free of expense within the year?"


'Oh, George, don't say such cruel things," cries Maggie, distressed, and tears filled her simple eyes. The idea of Blount Chester in prison, like a murderer or a felon !"

Her notions of debtors' prisons are hazy; she imagines each insolvent gentleman solitary in his cell, and his walking exercise confined to the dreary promenade of the treadmill.

"What a pair of ravens you are," calls out Kate, lazily, from her lair running in her head, perhaps she had some recollection of a picture she had once seen of Cleopatra, in the posture she had chosen now. Certainly, even the Egyptian queen, "brow-bound with burning gold," could never, even under the purple canopy of her soft floating barge, lulled by the river breeze, blowing freshly from off old Nile, have looked more completely,

bewitchingly restful, than did this young person I am talking about.

[ocr errors]

Maggie, dear, never mind what he says. Blount will not go to the dogs any quicker for George's kind prognostications. George, bring me my tea."

"That I will," says George, with alacrity, and he jumps up suddenly, tumbles over Tip, and addresses to that injured animal one short, rude word, beginning with the letter d. Tip howls a little, as was expected of him, and is then soothed with bread and butter, and gradually calmed. Then George carries over Kate's tea with infinite care and solemnity; carries it over, and stands patiently by while she gazes up at him, too lazy for the slight exertion of taking it, laughing in the fire-light from under her half-closed, drowsy lids.

"Don't be so silly, Kate," says Maggie, rather tartly. "You are getting too old for those infantine airs."

So Kate draws herself slowly into a sitting posture, and says, resuming the former topic of conversation

"Poor old Blount, I hope he'll be a good boy; not too good a boy though, I don't like very good boys, they're mostly very dull ones. Sowing wild oats is a disagreeable expression, but I don't think there is generally much to be liked in those who never had any to sow. They are mostly negative sort of characters. Don't you think so?"

"I don't know," said George, bluntly, looking rather shocked, "but I don't think that's a very nice sentiment for a young woman, Kate."

"Isn't it?" said Kate, languidly, "well, I never was strong at nice sentiments. Wicked men are the pleasantest, you must own," she said, thinking of one wicked man, and so thinking a tender light came into her eyes, and George thought the tender light was for him, and was more misguided than ever.

[merged small][merged small][merged small][ocr errors][merged small]

aren't allowed to have harems in England, don't you think so?"

It is a great mistake making love to two sisters at once. It is difficult at first, and impossible afterwards. The balance will incline to one side or the other, try as one may to keep them even. It did not yet appear whether Maggie's or Kate's side of the scales would go down and win the day. George tried hard to be quite impartial. If he had been unable to resist the temptation of squeezing Maggie's hand, or at least one or two of her fingers, when she handed him something he immediately tried to compensate it by going, and sitting very close to Kate, and gazing at her with a longing, despairing gaze, which his wellfeatured square face could assume at will. Or else, vice versa. Kate's hand squeezed, and Maggie gazed at. But it would not do he felt; and he was beginning to get rather uneasy on the score, to think of "hooking it," as he phrased it, back to Aldershott. I don't think he got any Kudog from either of his dear friends, for his impartiality, it made them feel rather irritated against him, on the contrary. As for Maggie, she could not help thinking within her own heart, that after the tremendous catastrophe her sister had met with in the love line, she ought to have done with men for ever, ought to have subsided quietly, into the blighted, retired from-the-world line. Kate did not look at things in the same light at all, as may be imagined. Because she had been more unfortunate than any woman ever had been since Ariadne; because she was not a bit happy now was no reason why she should not try and amuse herself a little with the small shreds of amusement that came in her way. When a woman knows within herself that though she is not regularly beautiful, she has got within herself a gift of odd, inexplicable power to draw man to her; she likes to use that gift; to keep it from getting mouldy; to prove to herself, practically, that it is not lessening, or getting damaged. Very commonplace of her, you'll say. Yes, very; but then she was commonplace. I told you so before. She had more faults than I could count on my fingers. She did not care for this man, so I said a page or two

ago; but no one would have believed that she did, but she laid herself out so to please him. One day she even went the length of unplaiting with swift, warm fingers, all the wavy coils of that fuzzy hair that a painter would have gone wild about, let the ruddy treasure fall heavy round her throat, because he had affected to doubt its being all her own; had asked her, as a favour, to prove her right of possession in it, by this infallible proof. She was heartily ashamed, certainly, the moment she had done it, and twisted it up again pretty quickly, into a big, untidy, loose knot; but for all that, she did it, and because he asked her, too. It wounded her vanity that this one dull young man stood out so stiffly against her, shilly-shallied and livered so weakly between Maggie and her. He should like her best, she vowed, internally, one day when she felt more reckless and ill-conducted than usual. Yes, he should, by hook or by crook; that she was bent on; and then the little villain thought of Dare, and cried, and kissed the battered photograph rather more severely than usual. George knew that Kate had a district; knew in what direction it lay; had been down somewhere over there once, a year or two ago, to ferret out a man said to keep a stock of inestimable pugs on sale; he knew, also, her usual hour for emerging from the obscurity of her low haunts into the brilliancy and well-flagged glory of the Highstreet. Kate had told him all this, whether with any ulterior object or no, I'll not say. I do not want to make out the child worse than she was; anyhow, whether she intended anything to come of this information or not, something, a not very important something indeed, did come of it, and on this wise, it fell out. Kate was coming back, after her custom, about her usual hour, one heavyclouded, angry-looking December afternoon, out of the scene of those labours which she had taken upon her, as a sort of penance, a sort of safeguard against going utterly to the bad, as she often felt a mad impulse to go in her strong despair and life weariness; was coming back rather sober and solemn. She was tired, too, and cold; her fingers were numb, because being still haunted by a big basket,

« 上一页继续 »