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but little opportunity for development. Is there anything more cramping than the routine of thorough-bred provincialism? Bucolic habits resemble the bandages which the Chinese tie round their women's feet; the feet are perfect enough when first swathed; it is the growth that produces the deformity.
The stile over which it was necessary to climb to enter Lorton Wood was reached. I bade George good-bye and turned my face homewards.
It was half-past two. I thought of Kate; recalling my promise to her, my resolution to sacrifice my feelings to her happiness, I could not make up my mind to return to Ivy Lodge. My love, so long secretly cherished, now that I was alone, now, too, that the reaction of feeling following my frivolous talk with George had set in, welled up and flooded my heart. I felt angry, full of bitterness. A sense of humiliation seized me. My love had been snatched from me; I thought my superiority—that superiority of mind, of affection, of instinct, which I claimed with cynical egotism for myself—had been defeated without a struggle triumphed over by the merest of physical attributes— yellow hair that would turn grey, lustrous eyes which would grow dim, pouting lips which would become parched. My evil spirit for the time possessed me-made foolish, contemptible, my resolution to be true to my sister-that sister who was now my rival-nay, who was worse-who was my victor. Was it possible that she had guessed my love? Most possible that she had; most possible that she had dissembled her discernment the better to woo from my heart the love that had made it light-the hope that had turned its thoughts into song.
How unreasonable I was! But are we not all unreasonable when we are disappointed? For a long time a storm raged within me. I felt myself to be the most wretched, the most humiliated of women. Sometimes I hoped that Major Rivers had never guessed my love; sometimes I hoped that he knew it. My aspirations vibrated between passion and reason. Eventually my very inconsistency calmed me by an abrupt exposure of my folly. Who has not heard in moments of idle passion a peremptory "Peace !" commanded? The inexplicable accents sounded, and the tumbling ocean of my thoughts grew smooth. I seated myself on a mound beneath the shade of a tree on the roadside, and fixed my eyes on the sky with a gaze soliciting for my heart something of the serenity of the deep darkling blue.
The silence, the rich ripe autumnal smell upon the air, the splendour of the sun's light, made solemn by being the effulgence of a dying glory, completed the conquest of my passion commenced by my reason. This acknowledgment of the beauty with which I was surrounded was the expression of my repentance. The repose took an almost articulate expression; I seemed to listen with steadfast eyes and
pallid face to reproving accents made sad by sympathy with my own melancholy.
Presently I rose. The time was long past three. I walked slowly along the somewhat devious road and gained the garden-gate as a church clock struck four. As I closed the gate after me the hall-door opened, and Major Rivers came out. Behind him I saw the gleam of Kate's hair. There seemed a fatality in this abrupt rencontre. Had I been five minutes earlier I might have slipped to my bedroom without my arrival being guessed.
Nature's adjustments are always unexpected. There are persons to whom every movement of her's comes like the confrontment of a formidable exigency.
Picture to yourself a middle-aged man, tall, dark, keen-eyed, with the firm mouth and composure of face and manner which a clever American writer considers to be the chief mark of a gentleman. He was dressed in a frock-coat that fitted his symmetrical and muscular form to perfection. He raised his hat with a singularly graceful
gesture as he saw me.
"We were speaking of you but a minute ago, Miss Holmes," he said, shaking my hand with the composure of a courtier. "Kate was quietly reproaching you for your prolonged absence."
This was the first time I had heard him call her Kate. It sounded oddly on my ears, like a human voice at sea, or the song of a bird at night.
"We have done without you though, Maggie," said Kate, with a happy smile.
"I suspected you would," I said.
"I was just about leaving," remarked the Major; "but now that you have come I hope I may be permitted to remain a little longer. Kate, shall we go into the garden with your sister, and tell her all the news?"
"By all means. But first let me fetch my hat." And she bounded out of sight like a child acting on a promise.
"I have secured your sweet sister for my wife, after a tough conflict with your aunt," said the Major, approaching me by a stride. "Have I your congratulations ?"
"You both have," I replied, trying to return his steady gaze, but finding my glance wander to the skies beyond.
"Were you surprised when you heard I had proposed ?"
"Ah! now you are going to be cynical.
I am never surprised at
any folly.' Is that what you were going to say?"
"Here is Kate," was my answer.
She came through the door, and stood by the side of her betrothed. She had fixed a small Italian velvet hat on her head with a black
feather that curled like a swart shadow round the back of her shining hair. She had never looked more sweetly pretty. Her beautiful eyes seemed filled with a constant surprise, and her half-parted lips helped out the expression of girlish wonderment. She reminded me of a dove soothed into pleasurable alarm by the caressing of a gentle hand. "Kate," said the Major, as we moved away," is it not fair, now that I am to be your sister's brother, that she should be polite to me? Don't open your eyes so wide. They are too anticipatory. They make me think I say more than I mean."
"How can I help opening my eyes when you ask such questions?" answered Kate. "Has Maggie been rude to you?"
"By implication. That is, she gave me a short answer with a long meaning."
"I said No when I meant No," I exclaimed.
"I asked her," continued the Major, "if she had been surprised to hear of my offer of marriage. No!' she answered, with the same depth of meaning in the monosyllable as the parish clerk gives to the word Amen."
"If you continue to be personal, Major Rivers," I said, "I shall leave you. I am quick at taking a hint, and shall conclude you want to terrify me off the preserves of love."
He laughed, and Kate looked grave, not clearly apprehending my meaning.
"I shall suspect," I went on, "that you want to quarrel with one sister that you may turn with additional relish to the other; like the man who burnt his mouth that he might enjoy the luxury of iced water."
Reader, you may be surprised at my volubility. But it was obvious I could not remain silent since I had volunteered to accompany them into the garden. It was imperative that I should reply to questions-that I should defend myself from friendly assaults; that, in short, I should act in such manner as if I had the freest, lightest heart in the world. It required an effort to do so, and the very effort made the result extreme.
"Don't accredit me with courage enough to quarrel with you, Miss Maggie," said the Major. "I am too old a hand at fighting not to know that the policy of war is the policy of life. I always conciliate the powerful."
I disliked the turn the conversation was taking. It was always my misfortune as a girl to provoke personalities. The merest dialogue generally ended with me in a sort of colloquial hand-to-hand fight, and my victories were always humiliating. I caution my sex against the reputation of wit. A witty woman is looked upon by men as a sort of intellectual Aunt Sally, whom they consider themselves privileged to pelt with sticks.
"Let us go and sit in the arbour," said Kate. "If Aunt Emma sees us walking together she will think we are abusing her. Oh, Maggie!" she continued, as we seated ourselves on a rustic seat in a pretty little alcove, well screened by a drapery of festooning creepers; "it was such fun with Aunt Emma. Last night, when we talked of Major Rivers' proposal you would have thought that she would have eaten him up when he presented himself; instead of which she was wonderfully polite."
Vinegar and water, instead of pure vinegar," said the Major.
"She began by preaching a sermon, but all very politely," continued Kate.
"She spoke against men," said the Major.
"Of course she gave us plenty of her wit," said Kate. stroke was, that a bad thought is like a decayed tooth, that sets the whole jaw aching, though the rest of the teeth be sound."
Which," said the Major, "was meant to apply to men who marry girls for any other reason than for themselves. Their intentions may be correct, but a want of genuine love is the decayed tooth. Well, she's right."
"She ended her sermon," said Kate, "by remarking that there are men like nuts-when you crack them you find the kernel half powder."
"She recommended a metaphorical cracking of a man by a girl before she accepted him," exclaimed the Major with comical solemnity, "just to see that there was no decay within. She might have gone a step further, and recommended a physical cracking of his head. That would ensure a peaceable future."
"I am glad,” I said, "that the preliminaries' went off smoothly. My aunt is a stubborn woman."
"Very different from her son George," said the Major. we'll not honour her with any further discussion. She has fulfilled her guardianly duties; has given me her niece, and—what condition, think you, she has imposed on our marriage?"
"I can't guess.
"We must be married privately, she said. There must be no breakfast, no friends, no toilette."
A painful blush fired my cheeks. "It is impossible that she can be in earnest," I exclaimed.
"She is in earnest though," said the Major. "Kate must allow herself to be launched without a single streamer flying, without a singlo salvo fired. But what does it matter? We'll raise a cheer amongst ourselves. If it will not be boisterous it will be sincere."
"I am sure she would have given way, had you opposed her," said Kate, with a melancholy pout. "But I do believe you like the idea of a private marriage."
"I confess I do, little one," he answered, toying with her hands. "Look at the comfort of privacy. You are not called upon to cry, nor I to speak. Above all, you are spared a final obligation to your aunt her rude dismissal gives a conscience to the luxury of hate."
I rose, seeing the caressing gesture. What I had heard annoyed me. Had Kate requested a private marriage it would have been well; for my own part I could have wished her to be married so; but to have privacy thrust upon her; to be despatched into the world without the sympathy of a ceremony-for the breakfast, the gathering of friends, the speeches, the whole entourage of the wedding, form in reality so many sympathies to a young girl, and embody indeed one of the many superstitions to which she recurs in after life-all this filled me with humiliation and anger. My selfishness urged me into demanding for my sister some preparation for this great event of her life. I determined to see my aunt at once, and left the arbour. Kate called after me, asking me to remain; but I rejected the implied compliment and hastened away, feeling that I had stayed too long with them as it was.
I WALKED towards the house, and entered it impetuously; but as I opened the door my valour forsook me.
For what was I about to ask? For a marriage ceremony that would cost many pounds-not a wedding that would cost a few halfcrowns. What right had I to make such a demand? Who was my sister, that I could demand for her a better treatment than such as my aunt would probably exhibit towards a faithful servant?
Dependence, helplessness, poverty, cowed me. Still I determined to see Aunt Emma, though to approach her in a very different manner from what I had contemplated in my first movement of anger. The facility with which Major Rivers seemed to have secured her sanction suggested that he had put and left her in a good temper. Her amiability would certainly pass ere the evening came; and I thought it wisest to avail myself of a chance that might not occur again.
I therefore mounted to my room, courageous with a spirit more serviceable than my first temper had inspired. I took off my things, smoothed my hair, and went in quest of my aunt. I knew where to find her. She was in her room, of course-her bedroom-to which she regularly resorted every afternoon, to read a portly volume of Presbyterian tracts. I had properly timed myself; her reading would be over; and she would now be meditating her latest acquisition of piety. I knocked at the door.