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Outside the bedroom the night was black and still. The small rain fell too softly to be heard in the garden; not a leaf stirred in the airless calm; the watch-dog was asleep, the cats were indoors; far or near, under the murky heaven, not a sound was stirring.
Inside the bedroom the night was black and still.
Miss Ladd knew her business as a schoolmistress too well to allow night-lights; and Miss Ladd’s young ladies were supposed to be fast asleep, in accordance with the rules of the house. Only at intervals the silence was faintly disturbed, when the restless turning of one of the girls in her bed betrayed itself by a gentle rustling between the sheets. In the long intervals of stillness, not even the softly audible breathing of young creatures asleep was to be heard.
The first sound that told of life and movement revealed the mechanical movement of the clock. Speaking from the lower regions, the tongue of Father Time told the hour before midnight.
A soft voice rose wearily near the door of the room. It counted the strokes of the clock—and reminded one of the girls of the lapse of time.
“Emily! eleven o’clock.”
There was no reply. After an interval the weary voice tried again, in louder tones:
A girl, whose bed was at the inner end of the room, sighed under the heavy heat of the night—and said, in peremptory tones, “Is that Cecilia?”
“What do you want?”
“I’m getting hungry, Emily. Is the new girl asleep?”
The new girl answered promptly and spitefully, “No, she isn’t.”
Having a private object of their own in view, the five wise virgins of Miss Ladd’s first class had waited an hour, in wakeful anticipation of the falling asleep of the stranger—and it had ended in this way! A ripple of laughter ran round the room. The new girl, mortified and offended, entered her protest in plain words.
“You are treating me shamefully! You all distrust me, because I am a stranger.”
“Say we don’t understand you,” Emily answered, speaking for her schoolfellows; “and you will be nearer the truth.”
“Who expected you to understand me, when I only came here to-day? I have told you already my name is Francine de Sor. If want to know more, I’m nineteen years old, and I come from the West Indies.”
Emily still took the lead. “Why do you come here?” she asked. “Who ever heard of a girl joining a new school just before the holidays? You are nineteen years old, are you? I’m a year younger than you—and I have finished my education. The next big girl in the room is a year younger than me—and she has finished her education. What can you possibly have left to learn at your age?”
“Everything!” cried the stranger from the West Indies, with an outburst of tears. “I’m a poor ignorant creature. Your education ought to have taught you to pity me instead of making fun of me. I hate you all. For shame, for shame!”
Some of the girls laughed. One of them—the hungry girl who had counted the strokes of the clock—took Francine’s part.
“Never mind their laughing, Miss de Sor. You are quite right, you have good reason to complain of us.”
Miss de Sor dried her eyes. “Thank you—whoever you are,” she answered briskly.
“My name is Cecilia Wyvil,” the other proceeded. “It was not, perhaps, quite nice of you to say you hated us all. At the same time we have forgotten our good breeding—and the least we can do is to beg your pardon.”
This expression of generous sentiment appeared to have an irritating effect on the peremptory young person who took the lead in the room. Perhaps she disapproved of free trade in generous sentiment.
“I can tell you one thing, Cecilia,” she said; “you shan’t beat ME in generosity. Strike a light, one of you, and lay the blame on me if Miss Ladd finds us out. I mean to shake hands with the new girl—and how can I do it in the dark? Miss de Sor, my name’s Brown, and I’m queen of the bedroom. I—not Cecilia—offer our apologies if we have offended you. Cecilia is my dearest friend, but I don’t allow her to take the lead in the room. Oh, what a lovely nightgown!”
The sudden flow of candle-light had revealed Francine, sitting up in her bed, and displaying such treasures of real lace over her bosom that the queen lost all sense of royal dignity in irrepressible admiration. “Seven and sixpence,” Emily remarked, looking at her own night-gown and despising it. One after another, the girls yielded to the attraction of the wonderful lace. Slim and plump, fair and dark, they circled round the new pupil in their flowing white robes, and arrived by common consent at one and the same conclusion: “How rich her father must be!”
Favored by fortune in the matter of money, was this enviable person possessed of beauty as well?
In the disposition of the beds, Miss de Sor was placed between Cecilia on the right hand, and Emily on the left. If, by some fantastic turn of events, a man—say in the interests of propriety, a married doctor, with Miss Ladd to look after him—had been permitted to enter the room, and had been asked what he thought of the girls when he came out, he would not even have mentioned Francine. Blind to the beauties of the expensive night-gown, he would have noticed her long upper lip, her obstinate chin, her sallow complexion, her eyes placed too close together—and would have turned his attention to her nearest neighbors. On one side his languid interest would have been instantly roused by Cecilia’s glowing auburn hair, her exquisitely pure skin, and her tender blue eyes. On the other, he would have discovered a bright little creature, who would have fascinated and perplexed him at one and the same time. If he had been questioned about her by a stranger, he would have been at a loss to say positively whether she was dark or light: he would have remembered how her eyes had held him, but he would not have known of what color they were. And yet, she would have remained a vivid picture in his memory when other impressions, derived at the same time, had vanished. “There was one little witch among them, who was worth all the rest put together; and I can’t tell you why. They called her Emily. If I wasn’t a married man—” There he would have thought of his wife, and would have sighed and said no more.
While the girls were still admiring Francine, the clock struck the half-hour past eleven.
Cecilia stole on tiptoe to the door—looked out, and listened—closed the door again—and addressed the meeting with the irresistible charm of her sweet voice and her persuasive smile.
“Are none of you hungry yet?” she inquired. “The teachers are safe in their rooms; we have set ourselves right with Francine. Why keep the supper waiting under Emily’s bed?”
Such reasoning as this, with such personal attractions to recommend it, admitted of but one reply. The queen waved her hand graciously, and said, “Pull it out.”
Is a lovely girl—whose face possesses the crowning charm of expression, whose slightest movement reveals the supple symmetry of her figure—less lovely because she is blessed with a good appetite, and is not ashamed to acknowledge it? With a grace all her own, Cecilia dived under the bed, and produced a basket of jam tarts, a basket of fruit and sweetmeats, a basket of sparkling lemonade, and a superb cake—all paid for by general subscriptions, and smuggled into the room by kind connivance of the servants. On this occasion, the feast was especially plentiful and expensive, in commemoration not only of the arrival of the Midsummer holidays, but of the coming freedom of Miss Ladd’s two leading young ladies. With widely different destinies before them, Emily and Cecilia had completed their school life, and were now to go out into the world.
The contrast in the characters of the two girls showed itself, even in such a trifle as the preparations for supper.
Gentle Cecilia, sitting on the floor surrounded by good things, left it to the ingenuity of others to decide whether the baskets should be all emptied at once, or handed round from bed to bed, one at a time. In the meanwhile, her lovely blue eyes rested tenderly on the tarts.
Emily’s commanding spirit seized on the reins of government, and employed each of her schoolfellows in the occupation which she was fittest to undertake. “Miss de Sor, let me look at your hand. Ah! I thought so. You have got the thickest wrist among us; you shall draw the corks. If you let the lemonade pop, not a drop of it goes down your throat. Effie, Annis, Priscilla, you are three notoriously lazy girls; it’s doing you a true kindness to set you to work. Effie, clear the toilet-table for supper; away with the combs, the brushes, and the looking-glass. Annis, tear the leaves out of your book of exercises, and set them out for plates. No! I’ll unpack; nobody touches the baskets but me. Priscilla, you have the prettiest ears in the room. You shall act as sentinel, my dear, and listen at the door. Cecilia, when you have done devouring those tarts with your eyes, take that pair of scissors (Miss de Sor, allow me to apologize for the mean manner in which this school is carried on; the knives and forks are counted and locked up every night)—I say take that pair of scissors, Cecilia, and carve the cake, and don’t keep the largest bit for yourself. Are we all ready? Very well. Now take example by me. Talk as much as you like, so long as you don’t talk too loud. There is one other thing before we begin. The men always propose toasts on these occasions; let’s be like the men. Can any of you make a speech? Ah, it falls on me as usual. I propose the first toast. Down with all schools and teachers—especially the new teacher, who came this half year. Oh, mercy, how it stings!” The fixed gas in the lemonade took the orator, at that moment, by the throat, and effectually checked the flow of her eloquence. It made no difference to the girls. Excepting the ease of feeble stomachs, who cares for eloquence in the presence of a supper-table? There were no feeble stomachs in that bedroom. With what inexhaustible energy Miss Ladd’s young ladies ate and drank! How merrily they enjoyed the delightful privilege of talking nonsense! And—alas! alas!—how vainly they tried, in after life, to renew the once unalloyed enjoyment of tarts and lemonade!
In the unintelligible scheme of creation, there appears to be no human happiness—not even the happiness of schoolgirls—which is ever complete. Just as it was drawing to a close, the enjoyment of the feast was interrupted by an alarm from the sentinel at the door.
“Put out the candle!” Priscilla whispered “Somebody on the stairs.”
The candle was instantly extinguished. In discreet silence the girls stole back to their beds, and listened.
As an aid to the vigilance of the sentinel, the door had been left ajar. Through the narrow opening, a creaking of the broad wooden stairs of the old house became audible. In another moment there was silence. An interval passed, and the creaking was heard again. This time, the sound was distant and diminishing. On a sudden it stopped. The midnight silence was disturbed no more.
What did this mean?
Had one among the many persons in authority under Miss Ladd’s roof heard the girls talking, and ascended the stairs to surprise them in the act of violating one of the rules of the house? So far, such a proceeding was by no means uncommon. But was it within the limits of probability that a teacher should alter her opinion of her own duty half-way up the stairs, and deliberately go back to her own room again? The bare idea of such a thing was absurd on the face of it. What more rational explanation could ingenuity discover on the spur of the moment?
Francine was the first to offer a suggestion. She shook and shivered in her bed, and said, “For heaven’s sake, light the candle again! It’s a Ghost.”
“Clear away the supper, you fools, before the ghost can report us to Miss Ladd.”
With this excellent advice Emily checked the rising panic. The door was closed, the candle was lit; all traces of the supper disappeared. For five minutes more they listened again. No sound came from the stairs; no teacher, or ghost of a teacher, appeared at the door.
Having eaten her supper, Cecilia’s immediate anxieties were at an end; she was at leisure to exert her intelligence for the benefit of her schoolfellows. In her gentle ingratiating way, she offered a composing suggestion. “When we heard the creaking, I don’t believe there was anybody on the stairs. In these old houses there are always strange noises at night—and they say the stairs here were made more than two hundred years since.”
The girls looked at each other with a sense of relief—but they waited to hear the opinion of the queen. Emily, as usual, justified the confidence placed in her. She discovered an ingenious method of putting Cecilia’s suggestion to the test.
“Let’s go on talking,” she said. “If Cecilia is right, the teachers are all asleep, and we have nothing to fear from them. If she’s wrong, we shall sooner or later see one of them at the door. Don’t be alarmed, Miss de Sor. Catching us talking at night, in this school, only means a reprimand. Catching us with a light, ends in punishment. Blow out the candle.”
Francine’s belief in the ghost was too sincerely superstitious to be shaken: she started up in bed. “Oh, don’t leave me in the dark! I’ll take the punishment, if we are found out.”
“On your sacred word of honor?” Emily stipulated.
The queen’s sense of humor was tickled.
“There’s something funny,” she remarked, addressing her subjects, “in a big girl like this coming to a new school and beginning with a punishment. May I ask if you are a foreigner, Miss de Sor?”
“My papa is a Spanish gentleman,” Francine answered, with dignity.
“And your mamma?”
“My mamma is English.”
“And you have always lived in the West Indies?”
“I have always lived in the Island of St. Domingo.”
Emily checked off on her fingers the different points thus far discovered in the character of Mr. de Sor’s daughter. “She’s ignorant, and superstitious, and foreign, and rich. My dear (forgive the familiarity), you are an interesting girl—and we must really know more of you. Entertain the bedroom. What have you been about all your life? And what in the name of wonder, brings you here? Before you begin I insist on one condition, in the name of all the young ladies in the room. No useful information about the West Indies!”
Francine disappointed her audience.
She was ready enough to make herself an object of interest to her companions; but she was not possessed of the capacity to arrange events in their proper order, necessary to the recital of the simplest narrative. Emily was obliged to help her, by means of questions. In one respect, the result justified the trouble taken to obtain it. A sufficient reason was discovered for the extraordinary appearance of a new pupil, on the day before the school closed for the holidays.
Mr. de Sor’s elder brother had left him an estate in St. Domingo, and a fortune in money as well; on the one easy condition that he continued to reside in the island. The question of expense being now beneath the notice of the family, Francine had been sent to England, especially recommended to Miss Ladd as a young lady with grand prospects, sorely in need of a fashionable education. The voyage had been so timed, by the advice of the schoolmistress, as to make the holidays a means of obtaining this object privately. Francine was to be taken to Brighton, where excellent masters could be obtained to assist Miss Ladd. With six weeks before her, she might in some degree make up for lost time; and, when the school opened again, she would avoid the mortification of being put down in the lowest class, along with the children.
The examination of Miss de Sor having produced these results was pursued no further. Her character now appeared in a new, and not very attractive, light. She audaciously took to herself the whole credit of telling her story:
“I think it’s my turn now,” she said, “to be interested and amused. May I ask you to begin, Miss Emily? All I know of you at present is, that your family name is Brown.”
Emily held up her hand for silence.
Was the mysterious creaking on the stairs making itself heard once more? No. The sound that had caught Emily’s quick ear came from the beds, on the opposite side of the room, occupied by the three lazy girls. With no new alarm to disturb them, Effie, Annis, and Priscilla had yielded to the composing influences of a good supper and a warm night. They were fast asleep—and the stoutest of the three (softly, as became a young lady) was snoring!
The unblemished reputation of the bedroom was dear to Emily, in her capacity of queen. She felt herself humiliated in the presence of the new pupil.
“If that fat girl ever gets a lover,” she said indignantly, “I shall consider it my duty to warn the poor man before he marries her. Her ridiculous name is Euphemia. I have christened her (far more appropriately) Boiled Veal. No color in her hair, no color in her eyes, no color in her complexion. In short, no flavor in Euphemia. You naturally object to snoring. Pardon me if I turn my back on you—I am going to throw my slipper at her.”
The soft voice of Cecilia—suspiciously drowsy in tone—interposed in the interests of mercy.
“She can’t help it, poor thing; and she really isn’t loud enough to disturb us.”
“She won’t disturb you, at any rate! Rouse yourself, Cecilia. We are wide awake on this side of the room—and Francine says it’s our turn to amuse her.”
A low murmur, dying away gently in a sigh, was the only answer. Sweet Cecilia had yielded to the somnolent influences of the supper and the night. The soft infection of repose seemed to be in some danger of communicating itself to Francine. Her large mouth opened luxuriously in a long-continued yawn.
“Good-night!” said Emily.
Miss de Sor became wide awake in an instant.
“No,” she said positively; “you are quite mistaken if you think I am going to sleep. Please exert yourself, Miss Emily—I am waiting to be interested.”
Emily appeared to be unwilling to exert herself. She preferred talking of the weather.
“Isn’t the wind rising?” she said.
There could be no doubt of it. The leaves in the garden were beginning to rustle, and the pattering of the rain sounded on the windows.
Francine (as her straight chin proclaimed to all students of physiognomy) was an obstinate girl. Determined to carry her point she tried Emily’s own system on Emily herself—she put questions.
“Have you been long at this school?”
“More than three years.”
“Have you got any brothers and sisters?”
“I am the only child.”
“Are your father and mother alive?”
Emily suddenly raised herself in bed.
“Wait a minute,” she said; “I think I hear it again.”
“The creaking on the stairs?”
Either she was mistaken, or the change for the worse in the weather made it not easy to hear slight noises in the house. The wind was still rising. The passage of it through the great trees in the garden began to sound like the fall of waves on a distant beach. It drove the rain—a heavy downpour by this time—rattling against the windows.
“Almost a storm, isn’t it?” Emily said
Francine’s last question had not been answered yet. She took the earliest opportunity of repeating it:
“Never mind the weather,” she said. “Tell me about your father and mother. Are they both alive?”
Emily’s reply only related to one of her parents.
“My mother died before I was old enough to feel my loss.”
“And your father?”
Emily referred to another relative—her father’s sister. “Since I have grown up,” she proceeded, “my good aunt has been a second mother to me. My story is, in one respect, the reverse of yours. You are unexpectedly rich; and I am unexpectedly poor. My aunt’s fortune was to have been my fortune, if I outlived her. She has been ruined by the failure of a bank. In her old age, she must live on an income of two hundred a year—and I must get my own living when I leave school.”
“Surely your father can help you?” Francine persisted.
“His property is landed property.” Her voice faltered, as she referred to him, even in that indirect manner. “It is entailed; his nearest male relative inherits it.”
The delicacy which is easily discouraged was not one of the weaknesses in the nature of Francine.
“Do I understand that your father is dead?” she asked.
Our thick-skinned fellow-creatures have the rest of us at their mercy: only give them time, and they carry their point in the end. In sad subdued tones—telling of deeply-rooted reserves of feeling, seldom revealed to strangers—Emily yielded at last.
“Yes,” she said, “my father is dead.”
“Some people might think it long ago. I was very fond of my father. It’s nearly four years since he died, and my heart still aches when I think of him. I’m not easily depressed by troubles, Miss de Sor. But his death was sudden—he was in his grave when I first heard of it—and—Oh, he was so good to me; he was so good to me!”
The gay high-spirited little creature who took the lead among them all—who was the life and soul of the school—hid her face in her hands, and burst out crying.
Startled and—to do her justice—ashamed, Francine attempted to make excuses. Emily’s generous nature passed over the cruel persistency that had tortured her. “No no; I have nothing to forgive. It isn’t your fault. Other girls have not mothers and brothers and sisters—and get reconciled to such a loss as mine. Don’t make excuses.”
“Yes, but I want you to know that I feel for you,” Francine insisted, without the slightest approach to sympathy in face, voice, or manner. “When my uncle died, and left us all the money, papa was much shocked. He trusted to time to help him.”
“Time has been long about it with me, Francine. I am afraid there is something perverse in my nature; the hope of meeting again in a better world seems so faint and so far away. No more of it now! Let us talk of that good creature who is asleep on the other side of you. Did I tell you that I must earn my own bread when I leave school? Well, Cecilia has written home and found an employment for me. Not a situation as governess—something quite out of the common way. You shall hear all about it.”
In the brief interval that had passed, the weather had begun to change again. The wind was as high as ever; but to judge by the lessening patter on the windows the rain was passing away.
She was too grateful to her friend and school-fellow, and too deeply interested in her story, to notice the air of indifference with which Francine settled herself on her pillow to hear the praises of Cecilia. The most beautiful girl in the school was not an object of interest to a young lady with an obstinate chin and unfortunately-placed eyes. Pouring warm from the speaker’s heart the story ran smoothly on, to the monotonous accompaniment of the moaning wind. By fine degrees Francine’s eyes closed, opened and closed again. Toward the latter part of the narrative Emily’s memory became, for the moment only, confused between two events. She stopped to consider—noticed Francine’s silence, in an interval when she might have said a word of encouragement—and looked closer at her. Miss de Sor was asleep.
“She might have told me she was tired,” Emily said to herself quietly. “Well! the best thing I can do is to put out the light and follow her example.”
As she took up the extinguisher, the bedroom door was suddenly opened from the outer side. A tall woman, robed in a black dressing-gown, stood on the threshold, looking at Emily.
The woman’s lean, long-fingered hand pointed to the candle.
“Don’t put it out.” Saying those words, she looked round the room, and satisfied herself that the other girls were asleep.
Emily laid down the extinguisher. “You mean to report us, of course,” she said. “I am the only one awake, Miss Jethro; lay the blame on me.”
“I have no intention of reporting you. But I have something to say.”
She paused, and pushed her thick black hair (already streaked with gray) back from her temples. Her eyes, large and dark and dim, rested on Emily with a sorrowful interest. “When your young friends wake to-morrow morning,” she went on, “you can tell them that the new teacher, whom nobody likes, has left the school.”
For once, even quick-witted Emily was bewildered. “Going away,” she said, “when you have only been here since Easter!”
Miss Jethro advanced, not noticing Emily’s expression of surprise. “I am not very strong at the best of times,” she continued, “may I sit down on your bed?” Remarkable on other occasions for her cold composure, her voice trembled as she made that request—a strange request surely, when there were chairs at her disposal.
Emily made room for her with the dazed look of a girl in a dream. “I beg your pardon, Miss Jethro, one of the things I can’t endure is being puzzled. If you don’t mean to report us, why did you come in and catch me with the light?”
Miss Jethro’s explanation was far from relieving the perplexity which her conduct had caused.
“I have been mean enough,” she answered, “to listen at the door, and I heard you talking of your father. I want to hear more about him. That is why I came in.”
“You knew my father!” Emily exclaimed.
“I believe I knew him. But his name is so common—there are so many thousands of ‘James Browns’ in England—that I am in fear of making a mistake. I heard you say that he died nearly four years since. Can you mention any particulars which might help to enlighten me? If you think I am taking a liberty—”
Emily stopped her. “I would help you if I could,” she said. “But I was in poor health at the time; and I was staying with friends far away in Scotland, to try change of air. The news of my father’s death brought on a relapse. Weeks passed before I was strong enough to travel—weeks and weeks before I saw his grave! I can only tell you what I know from my aunt. He died of heart-complaint.”
Miss Jethro started.
Emily looked at her for the first time, with eyes that betrayed a feeling of distrust. “What have I said to startle you?” she asked.
“Nothing! I am nervous in stormy weather—don’t notice me.” She went on abruptly with her inquiries. “Will you tell me the date of your father’s death?”
“The date was the thirtieth of September, nearly four years since.”
She waited, after that reply.
Miss Jethro was silent.
“And this,” Emily continued, “is the thirtieth of June, eighteen hundred and eighty-one. You can now judge for yourself. Did you know my father?”
Miss Jethro answered mechanically, using the same words.
“I did know your father.”
Emily’s feeling of distrust was not set at rest. “I never heard him speak of you,” she said.
In her younger days the teacher must have been a handsome woman. Her grandly-formed features still suggested the idea of imperial beauty—perhaps Jewish in its origin. When Emily said, “I never heard him speak of you,” the color flew into her pallid cheeks: her dim eyes became alive again with a momentary light. She left her seat on the bed, and, turning away, mastered the emotion that shook her.
“How hot the night is!” she said: and sighed, and resumed the subject with a steady countenance. “I am not surprised that your father never mentioned me—to you.” She spoke quietly, but her face was paler than ever. She sat down again on the bed. “Is there anything I can do for you,” she asked, “before I go away? Oh, I only mean some trifling service that would lay you under no obligation, and would not oblige you to keep up your acquaintance with me.”
Her eyes—the dim black eyes that must once have been irresistibly beautiful—looked at Emily so sadly that the generous girl reproached herself for having doubted her father’s friend. “Are you thinking of him,” she said gently, “when you ask if you can be of service to me?”
Miss Jethro made no direct reply. “You were fond of your father?” she added, in a whisper. “You told your schoolfellow that your heart still aches when you speak of him.”
“I only told her the truth,” Emily answered simply.
Miss Jethro shuddered—on that hot night!—shuddered as if a chill had struck her.
Emily held out her hand; the kind feeling that had been roused in her glittered prettily in her eyes. “I am afraid I have not done you justice,” she said. “Will you forgive me and shake hands?”
Miss Jethro rose, and drew back. “Look at the light!” she exclaimed.
The candle was all burned out. Emily still offered her hand—and still Miss Jethro refused to see it.
“There is just light enough left,” she said, “to show me my way to the door. Good-night—and good-by.”
Emily caught at her dress, and stopped her. “Why won’t you shake hands with me?” she asked.
The wick of the candle fell over in the socket, and left them in the dark. Emily resolutely held the teacher’s dress. With or without light, she was still bent on making Miss Jethro explain herself.
They had throughout spoken in guarded tones, fearing to disturb the sleeping girls. The sudden darkness had its inevitable effect. Their voices sank to whispers now. “My father’s friend,” Emily pleaded, “is surely my friend?”
“Drop the subject.”
“You can never be my friend.”
“Let me go!”
Emily’s sense of self-respect forbade her to persist any longer. “I beg your pardon for having kept you here against your will,” she said—and dropped her hold on the dress.
Miss Jethro instantly yielded on her side. “I am sorry to have been obstinate,” she answered. “If you do despise me, it is after all no more than I have deserved.” Her hot breath beat on Emily’s face: the unhappy woman must have bent over the bed as she made her confession. “I am not a fit person for you to associate with.”
“I don’t believe it!”
Miss Jethro sighed bitterly. “Young and warm hearted—I was once like you!” She controlled that outburst of despair. Her next words were spoken in steadier tones. “You will have it—you shall have it!” she said. “Some one (in this house or out of it; I don’t know which) has betrayed me to the mistress of the school. A wretch in my situation suspects everybody, and worse still, does it without reason or excuse. I heard you girls talking when you ought to have been asleep. You all dislike me. How did I know it mightn’t be one of you? Absurd, to a person with a well-balanced mind! I went halfway up the stairs, and felt ashamed of myself, and went back to my room. If I could only have got some rest! Ah, well, it was not to be done. My own vile suspicions kept me awake; I left my bed again. You know what I heard on the other side of that door, and why I was interested in hearing it. Your father never told me he had a daughter. ‘Miss Brown,’ at this school, was any ‘Miss Brown,’ to me. I had no idea of who you really were until to-night. I’m wandering. What does all this matter to you? Miss Ladd has been merciful; she lets me go without exposing me. You can guess what has happened. No? Not even yet? Is it innocence or kindness that makes you so slow to understand? My dear, I have obtained admission to this respectable house by means of false references, and I have been discovered. Now you know why you must not be the friend of such a woman as I am! Once more, good-night—and good-by.”
Emily shrank from that miserable farewell.
“Bid me good-night,” she said, “but don’t bid me good-by. Let me see you again.”
The sound of the softly-closed door was just audible in the darkness. She had spoken—she had gone—never to be seen by Emily again.
Miserable, interesting, unfathomable creature—the problem that night of Emily’s waking thoughts: the phantom of her dreams. “Bad? or good?” she asked herself. “False; for she listened at the door. True; for she told me the tale of her own disgrace. A friend of my father; and she never knew that he had a daughter. Refined, accomplished, lady-like; and she stoops to use a false reference. Who is to reconcile such contradictions as these?”
Dawn looked in at the window—dawn of the memorable day which was, for Emily, the beginning of a new life. The years were before her; and the years in their course reveal baffling mysteries of life and death.
Francine was awakened the next morning by one of the housemaids, bringing up her breakfast on a tray. Astonished at this concession to laziness, in an institution devoted to the practice of all virtues, she looked round. The bedroom was deserted.
“The other young ladies are as busy as bees, miss,” the housemaid explained. “They were up and dressed two hours ago: and the breakfast has been cleared away long since. It’s Miss Emily’s fault. She wouldn’t allow them to wake you; she said you could be of no possible use downstairs, and you had better be treated like a visitor. Miss Cecilia was so distressed at your missing your breakfast that she spoke to the housekeeper, and I was sent up to you. Please to excuse it if the tea’s cold. This is Grand Day, and we are all topsy-turvy in consequence.”
Inquiring what “Grand Day” meant, and why it produced this extraordinary result in a ladies’ school, Francine discovered that the first day of the vacation was devoted to the distribution of prizes, in the presence of parents, guardians and friends. An Entertainment was added, comprising those merciless tests of human endurance called Recitations; light refreshments and musical performances being distributed at intervals, to encourage the exhausted audience. The local newspaper sent a reporter to describe the proceedings, and some of Miss Ladd’s young ladies enjoyed the intoxicating luxury of seeing their names in print.
“It begins at three o’clock,” the housemaid went on, “and, what with practicing and rehearsing, and ornamenting the schoolroom, there’s a hubbub fit to make a person’s head spin. Besides which,” said the girl, lowering her voice, and approaching a little nearer to Francine, “we have all been taken by surprise. The first thing in the morning Miss Jethro left us, without saying good-by to anybody.”
“Who is Miss Jethro?”
“The new teacher, miss. We none of us liked her, and we all suspect there’s something wrong. Miss Ladd and the clergyman had a long talk together yesterday (in private, you know), and they sent for Miss Jethro—which looks bad, doesn’t it? Is there anything more I can do for you, miss? It’s a beautiful day after the rain. If I was you, I should go and enjoy myself in the garden.”
Having finished her breakfast, Francine decided on profiting by this sensible suggestion.
The servant who showed her the way to the garden was not favorably impressed by the new pupil: Francine’s temper asserted itself a little too plainly in her face. To a girl possessing a high opinion of her own importance it was not very agreeable to feel herself excluded, as an illiterate stranger, from the one absorbing interest of her schoolfellows. “Will the time ever come,” she wondered bitterly, “when I shall win a prize, and sing and play before all the company? How I should enjoy making the girls envy me!”
A broad lawn, overshadowed at one end by fine old trees—flower beds and shrubberies, and winding paths prettily and invitingly laid out—made the garden a welcome refuge on that fine summer morning. The novelty of the scene, after her experience in the West Indies, the delicious breezes cooled by the rain of the night, exerted their cheering influence even on the sullen disposition of Francine. She smiled, in spite of herself, as she followed the pleasant paths, and heard the birds singing their summer songs over her head.
Wandering among the trees, which occupied a considerable extent of ground, she passed into an open space beyond, and discovered an old fish-pond, overgrown by aquatic plants. Driblets of water trickled from a dilapidated fountain in the middle. On the further side of the pond the ground sloped downward toward the south, and revealed, over a low paling, a pretty view of a village and its church, backed by fir woods mounting the heathy sides of a range of hills beyond. A fanciful little wooden building, imitating the form of a Swiss cottage, was placed so as to command the prospect. Near it, in the shadow of the building, stood a rustic chair and table—with a color-box on one, and a portfolio on the other. Fluttering over the grass, at the mercy of the capricious breeze, was a neglected sheet of drawing-paper. Francine ran round the pond, and picked up the paper just as it was on the point of being tilted into the water. It contained a sketch in water colors of the village and the woods, and Francine had looked at the view itself with indifference—the picture of the view interested her. Ordinary visitors to Galleries of Art, which admit students, show the same strange perversity. The work of the copyist commands their whole attention; they take no interest in the original picture.
Looking up from the sketch, Francine was startled. She discovered a man, at the window of the Swiss summer-house, watching her.
“When you have done with that drawing,” he said quietly, “please let me have it back again.”
He was tall and thin and dark. His finely-shaped intelligent face—hidden, as to the lower part of it, by a curly black beard—would have been absolutely handsome, even in the eyes of a schoolgirl, but for the deep furrows that marked it prematurely between the eyebrows, and at the sides of the mouth. In the same way, an underlying mockery impaired the attraction of his otherwise refined and gentle manner. Among his fellow-creatures, children and dogs were the only critics who appreciated his merits without discovering the defects which lessened the favorable appreciation of him by men and women. He dressed neatly, but his morning coat was badly made, and his picturesque felt hat was too old. In short, there seemed to be no good quality about him which was not perversely associated with a drawback of some kind. He was one of those harmless and luckless men, possessed of excellent qualities, who fail nevertheless to achieve popularity in their social sphere.
Francine handed his sketch to him, through the window; doubtful whether the words that he had addressed to her were spoken in jest or in earnest.
“I only presumed to touch your drawing,” she said, “because it was in danger.”
“What danger?” he inquired.
Francine pointed to the pond. “If I had not been in time to pick it up, it would have been blown into the water.”
“Do you think it was worth picking up?”
Putting that question, he looked first at the sketch—then at the view which it represented—then back again at the sketch. The corners of his mouth turned upward with a humorous expression of scorn. “Madam Nature,” he said, “I beg your pardon.” With those words, he composedly tore his work of art into small pieces, and scattered them out of the window.
“What a pity!” said Francine.
He joined her on the ground outside the cottage. “Why is it a pity?” he asked.
“Such a nice drawing.”
“It isn’t a nice drawing.”
“You’re not very polite, sir.”
He looked at her—and sighed as if he pitied so young a woman for having a temper so ready to take offense. In his flattest contradictions he always preserved the character of a politely-positive man.
“Put it in plain words, miss,” he replied. “I have offended the predominant sense in your nature—your sense of self-esteem. You don’t like to be told, even indirectly, that you know nothing of Art. In these days, everybody knows everything—and thinks nothing worth knowing after all. But beware how you presume on an appearance of indifference, which is nothing but conceit in disguise. The ruling passion of civilized humanity is, Conceit. You may try the regard of your dearest friend in any other way, and be forgiven. Ruffle the smooth surface of your friend’s self-esteem—and there will be an acknowledged coolness between you which will last for life. Excuse me for giving you the benefit of my trumpery experience. This sort of smart talk is my form of conceit. Can I be of use to you in some better way? Are you looking for one of our young ladies?”
Francine began to feel a certain reluctant interest in him when he spoke of “our young ladies.” She asked if he belonged to the school.
The corners of his mouth turned up again. “I’m one of the masters,” he said. “Are you going to belong to the school, too?”
Francine bent her head, with a gravity and condescension intended to keep him at his proper distance. Far from being discouraged, he permitted his curiosity to take additional liberties. “Are you to have the misfortune of being one of my pupils?” he asked.
“I don’t know who you are.”
“You won’t be much wiser when you do know. My name is Alban Morris.”
Francine corrected herself. “I mean, I don’t know what you teach.”
Alban Morris pointed to the fragments of his sketch from Nature. “I am a bad artist,” he said. “Some bad artists become Royal Academicians. Some take to drink. Some get a pension. And some—I am one of them—find refuge in schools. Drawing is an ‘Extra’ at this school. Will you take my advice? Spare your good father’s pocket; say you don’t want to learn to draw.”
He was so gravely in earnest that Francine burst out laughing. “You are a strange man,” she said.
“Wrong again, miss. I am only an unhappy man.”
The furrows in his face deepened, the latent humor died out of his eyes. He turned to the summer-house window, and took up a pipe and tobacco pouch, left on the ledge.
“I lost my only friend last year,” he said. “Since the death of my dog, my pipe is the one companion I have left. Naturally I am not allowed to enjoy the honest fellow’s society in the presence of ladies. They have their own taste in perfumes. Their clothes and their letters reek with the foetid secretion of the musk deer. The clean vegetable smell of tobacco is unendurable to them. Allow me to retire—and let me thank you for the trouble you took to save my drawing.”
The tone of indifference in which he expressed his gratitude piqued Francine. She resented it by drawing her own conclusion from what he had said of the ladies and the musk deer. “I was wrong in admiring your drawing,” she remarked; “and wrong again in thinking you a strange man. Am I wrong, for the third time, in believing that you dislike women?”
“I am sorry to say you are right,” Alban Morris answered gravely.
“Is there not even one exception?”
The instant the words passed her lips, she saw that there was some secretly sensitive feeling in him which she had hurt. His black brows gathered into a frown, his piercing eyes looked at her with angry surprise. It was over in a moment. He raised his shabby hat, and made her a bow.
“There is a sore place still left in me,” he said; “and you have innocently hit it. Good-morning.”
Before she could speak again, he had turned the corner of the summer-house, and was lost to view in a shrubbery on the westward side of the grounds.
Left by herself, Miss de Sor turned back again by way of the trees.
So far, her interview with the drawing-master had helped to pass the time. Some girls might have found it no easy task to arrive at a true view of the character of Alban Morris. Francine’s essentially superficial observation set him down as “a little mad,” and left him there, judged and dismissed to her own entire satisfaction.
Arriving at the lawn, she discovered Emily pacing backward and forward, with her head down and her hands behind her, deep in thought. Francine’s high opinion of herself would have carried her past any of the other girls, unless they had made special advances to her. She stopped and looked at Emily.
It is the sad fate of little women in general to grow too fat and to be born with short legs. Emily’s slim finely-strung figure spoke for itself as to the first of these misfortunes, and asserted its happy freedom from the second, if she only walked across a room. Nature had built her, from head to foot, on a skeleton-scaffolding in perfect proportion. Tall or short matters little to the result, in women who possess the first and foremost advantage of beginning well in their bones. When they live to old age, they often astonish thoughtless men, who walk behind them in the street. “I give you my honor, she was as easy and upright as a young girl; and when you got in front of her and looked—white hair, and seventy years of age.”
Francine approached Emily, moved by a rare impulse in her nature—the impulse to be sociable. “You look out of spirits,” she began. “Surely you don’t regret leaving school?”
In her present mood, Emily took the opportunity (in the popular phrase) of snubbing Francine. “You have guessed wrong; I do regret,” she answered. “I have found in Cecilia my dearest friend at school. And school brought with it the change in my life which has helped me to bear the loss of my father. If you must know what I was thinking of just now, I was thinking of my aunt. She has not answered my last letter—and I’m beginning to be afraid she is ill.”
“I’m very sorry,” said Francine.
“Why? You don’t know my aunt; and you have only known me since yesterday afternoon. Why are you sorry?”
Francine remained silent. Without realizing it, she was beginning to feel the dominant influence that Emily exercised over the weaker natures that came in contact with her. To find herself irresistibly attracted by a stranger at a new school—an unfortunate little creature, whose destiny was to earn her own living—filled the narrow mind of Miss de Sor with perplexity. Having waited in vain for a reply, Emily turned away, and resumed the train of thought which her schoolfellow had interrupted.
By an association of ideas, of which she was not herself aware, she now passed from thinking of her aunt to thinking of Miss Jethro. The interview of the previous night had dwelt on her mind at intervals, in the hours of the new day.
Acting on instinct rather than on reason, she had kept that remarkable incident in her school life a secret from every one. No discoveries had been made by other persons. In speaking to her staff of teachers, Miss Ladd had alluded to the affair in the most cautious terms. “Circumstances of a private nature have obliged the lady to retire from my school. When we meet after the holidays, another teacher will be in her place.” There, Miss Ladd’s explanation had begun and ended. Inquiries addressed to the servants had led to no result. Miss Jethro’s luggage was to be forwarded to the London terminus of the railway—and Miss Jethro herself had baffled investigation by leaving the school on foot. Emily’s interest in the lost teacher was not the transitory interest of curiosity; her father’s mysterious friend was a person whom she honestly desired to see again. Perplexed by the difficulty of finding a means of tracing Miss Jethro, she reached the shady limit of the trees, and turned to walk back again. Approaching the place at which she and Francine had met, an idea occurred to her. It was just possible that Miss Jethro might not be unknown to her aunt.
Still meditating on the cold reception that she had encountered, and still feeling the influence which mastered her in spite of herself, Francine interpreted Emily’s return as an implied expression of regret. She advanced with a constrained smile, and spoke first.
“How are the young ladies getting on in the schoolroom?” she asked, by way of renewing the conversation.
Emily’s face assumed a look of surprise which said plainly, Can’t you take a hint and leave me to myself?
Francine was constitutionally impenetrable to reproof of this sort; her thick skin was not even tickled. “Why are you not helping them,” she went on; “you who have the clearest head among us and take the lead in everything?”
It may be a humiliating confession to make, yet it is surely true that we are all accessible to flattery. Different tastes appreciate different methods of burning incense—but the perfume is more or less agreeable to all varieties of noses. Francine’s method had its tranquilizing effect on Emily. She answered indulgently, “Miss de Sor, I have nothing to do with it.”
“Nothing to do with it? No prizes to win before you leave school?”
“I won all the prizes years ago.”
“But there are recitations. Surely you recite?”
Harmless words in themselves, pursuing the same smooth course of flattery as before—but with what a different result! Emily’s face reddened with anger the moment they were spoken. Having already irritated Alban Morris, unlucky Francine, by a second mischievous interposition of accident, had succeeded in making Emily smart next. “Who has told you,” she burst out; “I insist on knowing!”
“Nobody has told me anything!” Francine declared piteously.
“Nobody has told you how I have been insulted?”
“No, indeed! Oh, Miss Brown, who could insult you?”
In a man, the sense of injury does sometimes submit to the discipline of silence. In a woman—never. Suddenly reminded of her past wrongs (by the pardonable error of a polite schoolfellow), Emily committed the startling inconsistency of appealing to the sympathies of Francine!
“Would you believe it? I have been forbidden to recite—I, the head girl of the school. Oh, not to-day! It happened a month ago—when we were all in consultation, making our arrangements. Miss Ladd asked me if I had decided on a piece to recite. I said, ‘I have not only decided, I have learned the piece.’ ‘And what may it be?’ ‘The dagger-scene in Macbeth.’ There was a howl—I can call it by no other name—a howl of indignation. A man’s soliloquy, and, worse still, a murdering man’s soliloquy, recited by one of Miss Ladd’s young ladies, before an audience of parents and guardians! That was the tone they took with me. I was as firm as a rock. The dagger-scene or nothing. The result is—nothing! An insult to Shakespeare, and an insult to Me. I felt it—I feel it still. I was prepared for any sacrifice in the cause of the drama. If Miss Ladd had met me in a proper spirit, do you know what I would have done? I would have played Macbeth in costume. Just hear me, and judge for yourself. I begin with a dreadful vacancy in my eyes, and a hollow moaning in my voice: ‘Is this a dagger that I see before me—?’”
Reciting with her face toward the trees, Emily started, dropped the character of Macbeth, and instantly became herself again: herself, with a rising color and an angry brightening of the eyes. “Excuse me, I can’t trust my memory: I must get the play.” With that abrupt apology, she walked away rapidly in the direction of the house.
In some surprise, Francine turned, and looked at the trees. She discovered—in full retreat, on his side—the eccentric drawing-master, Alban Morris.
Did he, too, admire the dagger-scene? And was he modestly desirous of hearing it recited, without showing himself? In that case, why should Emily (whose besetting weakness was certainly not want of confidence in her own resources) leave the garden the moment she caught sight of him? Francine consulted her instincts. She had just arrived at a conclusion which expressed itself outwardly by a malicious smile, when gentle Cecilia appeared on the lawn—a lovable object in a broad straw hat and a white dress, with a nosegay in her bosom—smiling, and fanning herself.
“It’s so hot in the schoolroom,” she said, “and some of the girls, poor things, are so ill-tempered at rehearsal—I have made my escape. I hope you got your breakfast, Miss de Sor. What have you been doing here, all by yourself?”
“I have been making an interesting discovery,” Francine replied.
“An interesting discovery in our garden? What can it be?”
“The drawing-master, my dear, is in love with Emily. Perhaps she doesn’t care about him. Or, perhaps, I have been an innocent obstacle in the way of an appointment between them.”
Cecilia had breakfasted to her heart’s content on her favorite dish—buttered eggs. She was in such good spirits that she was inclined to be coquettish, even when there was no man present to fascinate. “We are not allowed to talk about love in this school,” she said—and hid her face behind her fan. “Besides, if it came to Miss Ladd’s ears, poor Mr. Morris might lose his situation.”
“But isn’t it true?” asked Francine.
“It may be true, my dear; but nobody knows. Emily hasn’t breathed a word about it to any of us. And Mr. Morris keeps his own secret. Now and then we catch him looking at her—and we draw our own conclusions.”
“Did you meet Emily on your way here?”
“Yes, and she passed without speaking to me.”
“Thinking perhaps of Mr. Morris.”
Cecilia shook her head. “Thinking, Francine, of the new life before her—and regretting, I am afraid, that she ever confided her hopes and wishes to me. Did she tell you last night what her prospects are when she leaves school?”
“She told me you had been very kind in helping her. I daresay I should have heard more, if I had not fallen asleep. What is she going to do?”
“To live in a dull house, far away in the north,” Cecilia answered; “with only old people in it. She will have to write and translate for a great scholar, who is studying mysterious inscriptions—hieroglyphics, I think they are called—found among the ruins of Central America. It’s really no laughing matter, Francine! Emily made a joke of it, too. ‘I’ll take anything but a situation as a governess,’ she said; ‘the children who have Me to teach them would be to be pitied indeed!’ She begged and prayed me to help her to get an honest living. What could I do? I could only write home to papa. He is a member of Parliament: and everybody who wants a place seems to think he is bound to find it for them. As it happened, he had heard from an old friend of his (a certain Sir Jervis Redwood), who was in search of a secretary. Being in favor of letting the women compete for employment with the men, Sir Jervis was willing to try, what he calls, ‘a female.’ Isn’t that a horrid way of speaking of us? and Miss Ladd says it’s ungrammatical, besides. Papa had written back to say he knew of no lady whom he could recommend. When he got my letter speaking of Emily, he kindly wrote again. In the interval, Sir Jervis had received two applications for the vacant place. They were both from old ladies—and he declined to employ them.”
“Because they were old,” Francine suggested maliciously.
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