Beatrice Whitby.

A matter of skill : a novel online

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" If ladies be but young and fair,
They have the gift to know it."

As You Like It.

TTPON the uncarpeted floor of a shabbily-furnished
^ bedroom stood a small open trunk, before which
knelt a girl who was engaged in packing her few
possessions within its narrow dimensions. This
task she performed with ostentatious indifference,
as though she realized their worthlessness and what
sheer waste of time it would be were she to wrap
cotton gowns and shady hats in tissue-paper, or to
! expend thought or ingenuity on the arrangement of
so scanty a wardrobe.

Though the room in which she knelt was uncar-
peted and not ornamental, it was large, airy, and
cheerful. The broad window, through which the
summer sunshine streamed, was wide open, and
round its casement a Gloire de Dijon rose, in full
bloom, trailed its notched leaves and sweet bios-



soms. Outside in the garden a linnet was singing,
and the air smelled of mignonette and heliotrope.

All the time the girl was packing she sang to her-
self in a light-hearted, nonchalant way, which
spoke well for the unshadowed gayety of her mind, j

These were the words she sang :

" A man who would woo a fair maid,
Should 'prentice himself to the trade,

And study all day, in methodical way,
How to natter, cajole, and persuade.
It is purely a matter of skill,
Which all may attain if they will,

But every Jack he should study the knack
If he wants to make sure of his Jill !"

Very soon the trunk was filled and her work
done. Then she rose slowly to her feet, and going
over to the window she leaned out, still singing —

" Then a glance may he timid or free,
It may vary in mighty degree,

From an mpudent stare

To a look of despair,
Which no maid without pity can see,
And a glance of despair is no guide,
It may have its ridiculous side,

It may draw you a tear,

Or a hox on the ear,
You can never he sure till you've tried."

She was a tall girl, and she made the most of her


height, for she held her head high and moved with
much stately dignity, when she was in the humor to
to be grand. There was a distinguished air about
her which was more remarkable than her beauty,
though that, too, was by no means inconsiderable.

Her eyes were lovely ; gray eyes, which could be
deep, or tender, or cold, or mischievous, according to
their owner's mood — not her will, for there was
nothing artificial about the young lady. Her lips
curved with laughter, though they knew the trick
of falling into severe lines if their mistress was dis-
pleased. The voice with which she sang was clear,
refined, and just a little cold. Her complexion was
delicate and pale ; her brown hair was curled and
coiled and trimly bound to her small head. She
was carefully though poorly dressed ; her clothes,
however shabby, never suggested that they had
been u shoveled on with a pitchfork," were worn to
the best advantage. Her old serge gown was brushed
into a semblance of smartness ; the collar round her
long throat and the Cuffs above her well-bred hands
were spotless. A red rose was tucked into the
bosom of her gown.

Her bearing betokened a self-reliance and self-
possession which are usually the outcome of con-
scious superiority, and though she was neither ag-


gressively conceited nor inordinately proud, yet she
had no mean opinion of her attractions. She had,
perhaps, rather an exaggerated idea of the value of
the blue blood in her veins, inherited from the old
Welsh family of which her mother was a member.

She was proud of her ancestors, proud of herself
altogether, and, what was more, she was a trifle
proud of her pride.

Her father was rector of Meriton, a village in the
Midlands. The living was a poor one, and the rec-
tor's private income was very small ; the girl Helen,
his only child, had been reared in poverty from her
cradle. The beautiful things of life which she
loved had been denied her ; but with admiring
parents, pleasant friends, plenty of genial society, a
home which she considered perfection, and in which
she reigned as absolute monarch, she had found
nothing to desire. Her temper was imperious and !
quick, but where everything was arranged with a
view to her pleasure she found little to try it, and
had danced through her twenty-one years of life,
rejoicing on her way, as happy as a kitten and as
light of heart as a child.

Her first trial had come, " not with womanhood,"
but with her father's first bachelor curate, who had
fallen promptly and desperately in love with her. j


Her gray eyes were beautiful but cold; laughter,
not love, was to be found in them; she really had
no patience with the young man's folly. He was a
quiet, unassuming person, and Mrs. Mitford had -
vainly tried to persuade her impervious daughter \
to recognize and appreciate his commendable

For some time Helen had refused to treat this
serious matter seriously. She had continued to
walk with the gentleman, to sing to him, to play
golf and tennis with him, to make up his mind for
him on all subjects, recklessly disregarding conse-

"Oh, it is only fancy, mother," she had said,
when Mrs. Mitford remonstrated. " If I don't take
any notice of it, it will blow over."

"Will it?" her mother groaned, shaking her
head. "I hope it may, but these things sometimes
blow into flame instead of blowing over."

Mrs. Mitford was right. Driven to desperation
by the girl's behavior, her lover had refused to be
silenced, and for once so far asserted himself as to
demand an interview with her father, and an ex-
planation with herself. For many days, by a thou-
sand ruses, she had managed to postpone it, but it
came at last.


The interview had been solemn, and the expla*
nation so passionate and prolonged that Helen had
been frightened and agitated into angry, resent -
! ment. She had been most disagreeable and repel -
j lant, and he, stung by her coldness, had reproached
her with vehemence. It had been very dreadful,
and she had felt extremely ashamed of herself.

For one long day after this scene Helen had been
subdued, and went about the house and garden at
a slow walk, neither singing nor smiling. She had
discovered that some feelings, faculties, emotions
were abroad in the world of which she knew
nothing, and the approach of which she should be
most particularly careful to shun.

Upon the following morning, by what Helen
welcomed as a lucky turn of Fortune's wheel, she had
received an invitation to pay Mr. Mitford's maiden
sister a visit, at a village on the North Devonshire
coast. Such an invitation had been proffered
yearly, hitherto Helen had expressed no wish to ac-
cept it, but now she had changed her mind.

As soon as she had finished reading her aunt's
letter, she tossed it across the breakfast-table to
her mother, saying —

"Here is Aunt Elizabeth's annual invitation,
mother; will you read it ? She is such a dear old


thing, and she really wants me. The new people—
those dreadful Jones'— are going to give a ball this
month; she says Mrs. Majoribanks would take me.
I think, no, I am sure, I should like to go."

Mrs. Mitford, who had never arranged a plan in
her life, but who had, with peaceful success, al-
lowed herself to be guided by any who cared to
exert themselves to think for her, obediently pe-
rused the letter.

Helen and her mother possessed dispositions
directly antithetical each to the other, but in com-
mon they owned one trait — each adored the other
with that open, perfect, self-sacrificing, blind love
which seems out of fashion nowadays between
mother and daughter, but which creates* an other-
wise unattainable happiness in home life.

Mrs. Mitford possessed the still comely remains
of beauty, but with her, as with Helen, an inde-
] scribable air of good breeding was the predominat-
1 ing characteristic of her appearance. In common,
too, they owned finely -molded features, small heads
held high, tall and graceful figures. But the elder
lady's face was mildly dignified; her lips were never
compressed by sudden anger nor curved with pride,
neither did they break into wide laughter nor
ripple with wicked smiles, as did her daughter's.


The mother was an optimist; she took life easily
and good-humoredly, so she was good and cheerful
company both to herself and her neighbors.

When she had finished reading her sister-in-law's
letter, she laid it down by the side of her coffee-cup
and looked up, rather wistfully, at Helen.

"Did you say that you would like to go to Devon-
shire, dear ? "

"Yes, mother. You see, Aunt Elizabeth says
she will pay my journey, so there is really no reason
why I should not go."

"Certainly not, dear. You shall do as you wish.
Henry"— addressing the Rector—" Henry, Helen is
going down to Noelcombe to stay with Elizabeth."
The Rector was reading the Morning Post. He
lowered it, and looked rather absently at his wife.
" I am very glad to hear it," he said. " The sea
is delightful at this time of year, and Elizabeth's
carnations will be in full bloom. I shall be curious
to hear whether the primrose variety has deterior-
ated; don't forget to let me know, Helen."

Mr. Mitford was a good clergyman, and he was
also a zealous gardener. He was of an indolent,
easy-going temperament. The milk of human kind-
ness abounded in his kind heart; he was much loved
by his parishioners, and if he did little good, at least


he did no harm. He lived a contented, happy, un-
ambitious life, and of the many perfections of a
charming world he considered Mrs. and Miss Mit-
ford the masterpieces. [

• The Rector returned to his paper, and Helen ate;
her breakfast deliberatively and in silence.

"I shall start the day after to-morrow, mother,"
she presently announced, having assured herself
that such was her feasible desire, "for I really must
get away from Mr. Flight. Now don't look severe.
It. is for his own sake I am going — partly, you
know. I am sure he will be glad when I am gone,
though he mayn't think so just at first. In this
place I meet him at every corner ; and on Sunday,
when he preaches about the sorrows of life, he looks
at me, and it is so horrid."

"My dear, my dear, you must not be heartless.
Poor Mr. Flight ! "

"That's just what he is, mother — he is poor. . I
don't mean penniless, you know, because he is ^
pretty well off. I mean poor-spirited ; he has no
pride. Pshaw. Think of wishing to marry a per-
son who doesn't like you ! Think of not only wish-
ing it, but talking about the wish ! " There was a
fine scorn in her voice. " It is contemptible, in-
sufferable, despicable ! "


Mrs. Mitford never excited herself to argue—
seldom to give an opinion— but now she spoke with

" Mr. Flight is a nice young man, Helen — quite
nice. You should have believed me ; I warned
you. I have such experience and foresight as you
will some day acquire, no doubt, though you are
long about it. In this quiet place, where there is
little to distract a gentleman, I do not see how he
could well have avoided falling in love with you."
The disdain of Helen's face perplexed her mother.
"It is no offense on his part ; it is the greatest com-
pliment he could pay you, dear. You have no right
to despise him for it."

"But mother, he is so ridiculous or so tiresome.
I laugh or I get angry— I can't help it."

Mrs. Mitford sighed.

"My dear," she said "you will be an old maid,
and when it is too late you will be sorry."

No girl likes that dismal epithet, "an old maid,"
applied to her, even in joke. Mrs. Mitford was in
earnest, and Helen grew grave.

"I shall marry," she said, "some day — not too
soon. I love pretty clothes and pretty things about
me, and therefore I love the money that buys them,
and therefore I shan't marry a poor man. When


I fall in love" — with distinct disrelish of the pros-
pect — "I shall take care to fix on a rich man — a
Croesus — so as to combine prudence with passion,
mother, and make a good match."

Mrs. Mitford nodded.

"Well, my dear, if you do it will be very wise
of you. When I was young, girls were not so pru-
dent as they are at present. When your father
suggested our marriage, I agreed without casting a
thought to his income. I was never a practical
woman, I — "

"No," broke in the Kector, startling his wife and
daughter, in whose conversation he never joined
until his paper had been read from end to end ;
"thank my stars, you were not a practical woman,
Honora. You were a tender-hearted, sweet girl,
such as I should like to see that silly girl there, who
thinks her airs and graces very smart at present,
but who will find them poor and cold company be-
fore long, ]et me tell you. Don't pride yourself on
your obduracy, Nell. A yielding disposition is a
charming and womanly attribute. "

"Father, that's a dull paper," said his daughter,
smiling rather deprecatingly, "or you would not put
it down to scold me ; if I am made of brick instead
of gutta-percha, it isn't my fault. It is all Mr.


Flight's fault for finding it out. I owe him ten
thousand grudges. I shall have to say f yes,' that
is the only effectual way I know of paying him

"Do not worry yourself about her, Henry," said
his wife with a calm and superior smile, ' 'when the
right man comes she will be, like the rest of her
sisterhood, only too ready to leave her home and
her people."

"Then I hope the right man will be rich," said
the girl, making a grimace, " excessively and ab-
normally rich, for I shall want a very big bribe to
console me for leaving home."

That conversation had taken place on Monday
morning ; on Wednesday Miss Mitf ord had packed
her small trunk in the manner already described.
Upon that afternoon she was to travel to Noel-
combe, where she had undertaken to spend a long
month away from her home and in company with
Miss Elizabeth Mitford.

It was not until she had collected her possessions
and looked at them critically, that she realized how
scanty and worthless they were. Poverty was a
disadvantage. Helen owned a slender foot — an
arched instep, and perfect ankle — the form of which
was disguised in a country-built boot. Helen owned


a skin fair and delicate as the petals of a La France
rosebud, but she might not wear a white gown be-
cause the cost of washing was a consideration.
Helen had received an invitation to a ball, but was
it a thing to be desired when her one ball dress
was draggled, limp, soiled, and would be shamed
by a dive into smart company, where it must brave
comparison with creations from the brain of a M.
Worth or a Kate Reilly ? Poverty at home sits
lightly on our shoulder, we hardly feel his weight,
but when we introduce him to new scenes and rich
neighbors, change of air increases his bulk and he
becomes a burdensome and oppressive comrade.

Helen looked down upon her trunk and in her
heart of hearts she thought, " Some day I will have
a box such ab porters tremble to see ; its size shall
be gigantic, c ! it shall be full to overflowing, for I
will marry a rich man who will fill it for me from
his coffers ! "

But the mercenary intentions of this young woman
did not interfere with the sweet lilting of her song,
she was still singing —

" It is purely a matter of skill,
Which all may attain if they will,
But every Jack he should study the knack
If he wants to make sure of his Jill."


when the door opened, and with slow stately step
and mild face, lined with an unusual anxiety, her
mother entered the room. She looked at Helen
with some trepidation; she was conscious of being!
the bearer of an unwelcome message. She was not!
in the least bit afraid of her impetuous daughter's
anger, but she was afraid of causing any living soul
one pang, nay, one prick even, of unnecessary
pain. Helen could read her mother's face per-
fectly, she saw at once that there was something
the matter. She stopped singing and began to
question her.

"Mother," she said, "you have ^ en tc

order the fly again, I know you h&rv fon

have come to break the news tc , n( * be for-
given." f

"Nay, Helen, the fly will be he / an hour's
time. I ordered it at two o'clock. "

" Then what is the matter ? Your f is a * long ]
as a sermon." '

"There is nothing the matter; bu - 1 ha • * brought
you a message. Poor Mr. Flight-
Helen stamped her foot upon the ound.
"Poor Mr. Flight," she broke Aut, with a world
of emphasis on the adjective. "I won't 3ar his^
name, mother, I shall put my fingers in my ears


and run down into the garden if you mention him
again, I will, indeed."

( ' That is just where I wish you to run, my dear.
The poor man is in the kitchen garden and I have
promised him that you shall go to him just to bid
him good-by."

An angry color, red as the rose at her bosom, suf>
fused the girl's fair cheeks ; up went her little head
in the air, her lips curved superciliously.

" Helen, dear, don't be disagreeable," her mother
went on, soothingly, "you don't know what suffer-
ing such feeb'^gs entail, and the ignorance does not
reaotmd > '-ny way to your credit. Kemember
wh£t,7 > 'er told you at breakfast the other
morning. i> be hard and don't pride yourself
on your obd ;: ."

"Mother'' mnly — "if ever I am so unfor-

tunate as tc 1 y in love, I hope and pray, no, more,
I swear, tto 10 one shall know it. I shall have
sufficient ^ aspect to keep my feelings to myself
and not tra] $xem through dust and mire, so that
any one who » " *o glance my way can see them."

"When yua ^ ^ as other women feel you will do
as women do, ft we. Now, dear, don't keep poor
Mr. Fligh vaiting. It isn't probable that you will
ever see him again after to-day. He only asked


leave to speak to you for one moment, and I could
not refuse him such a small request. You have
caused him a great deal of pain hitherto. Why not
wish him good -by kindly ? soothe his wounded
vanity by a few gracious words, they can do you no

' ' Oh, mother, you are as soft as the dove, but not
so wise as the serpent," said the girl, shaking her
head and laughing. " It will be just as unpleasant
for him, no matter how nicely I put it. It's a nasty,
dangerous order of yours; if I am different he won't
understand, and I shall have the whole business to
go through again. Then I shall miss my train — to
say nothing of losing my temper."

" You are heartless and unfeeling, Helen," said
Mrs. Mitford, severely. "I am sure you don't in-
herit those faults from either your father or myself.
Henry was a susceptible young man, and he was,
by no means, my first lover."

"Then why do you want me to marry my first
lover, mother ? You didn't, and it's such a poor-
spirited, mean sort of thing to do."

"Don't dawdle in this way, Helen, the delay
tries poor Mr. Flight and does you no good. Go
down, go down now, you will find him between
the raspberries and the Jerusalem artichokes,"


Then Hel^n, to her mother's amazement, changed
her tone. She defended herself against the charge
of obduracy with vehemence; she declared finally
that her indifference to Mr. Flight was no sign of
want of heart. Then, in a stormy frame of mind,
she went to the looking-glass and smoothed her
nut-brown hair, and stared resentfully at her
beautiful face, until, with sulky dignity, she at
length obeyed her mother, and set off to keep this
distasteful tryst.



" Experience does take dreadfully high school wages,
But he teaches like no other."


'"THE Rectory kitchen garden was untidy — not;
hopelessly untidy, but somewhat neglected.
Poor people's gardens are seldom in apple-pie order.
Perhaps that is the reason why poor people's
flowers flourish more luxuriantly than their better <-
tended brethren which are reared under the care of
pruning, raking, prof essional gardeners. Let-alone
flowers, like let-alone children, are so much more
true to Nature — to the Divine Hand whence they
come than are the trained and cultivated speci-

Up and down a moss-grown gravel path, whic-h
intersected a row of ragged raspberry bushes on the
one hand and a waving sea of artichoke sticks upon
the other, a young man paced hurriedly. His
handsome features were glum, and gloomy of ex-
pression; his mouth was weak and womanly. He
hung his head and gazed upon the ground.


This was poor Mr. Flight, toward whom at this
moment Miss Helen Mitford was slowly wending
her way. Her heart beat unusually quickly as
she approached ; but, alas for him ! it beat with an
embarrassed anger — not for love. She was indig-
nant at, and intolerant of, her lover's obstinate and
importunate affection, and yet she schooled herself
to patience. She would remember her parents' re-
marks, and endeavor to treat this distasteful pas-
sion with leniency, if not respect.

When he heard her step he turned to meet her,
holding out his hands. She halted abruptly when
he did so, put her hands behind her, standing in an
attitude unmistakably on the defensive. She
looked very cold, very unapproachable, and not at
all a young lady whom it would be easy to coerce;
but withal she looked so beautiful that poor Mr.
Flight grew desperate.

" Helen," he cried, " Helen, you did not mean
what you said ? You could not be so cruel. You
will not wantonly break my heart ? You have
come to tell me that you have changed your

"I never change my mind — at least, not with-
out a reason. I came because my mother said she
had promised you that I should come."


Neither her words nor her face were encouraging,
and he knew it.

"Never — never change! There is no such a
word as ( never' to me," he told her, mournfully, I
shall continue to hope — I can not give up hope.
You are not heartless. I know you are not. I
shall wait. I will not despair. Why should I ?
For you know that winter does not last forever.
If I wait spring will come."

She did not follow this meaning; she looked
puzzled, and did not speak. Silence on her part
was unusual, and he thought it augured well for

" I am in no hurry, Helen. I will be patient — I
can hope on. You have only known me six
month«; I was foolish to expect too much. You
shall see more of me, much more, and then, per-
haps, you may grow to like me. Don't shake your
head. What is it that you dislike in me ? Tell
'me what pleases you, and I will endeavor — "

"Oh, don't," she interrupted; "don't say all
those things over again — it is of no use. I have
told you so a dozen times. I don't dislike you.
Why should I?"

" If you don't dislike me, why not like me ? "

" I tell you that I do like you" — impatiently.


" Then marry me."


" Helen, look here. You don't dislike me — you
mean to be married some day. I have got a fair in-
come, a good temper. I love you dearly, and I will
give you your own way in everything."

She stamped her foot on the ground and said :

" G-ood-by, Mr. Flight. I start at two. I can
not wait here another instant."

" Helen, listen a moment. I shall not give up
hope. I shall come again. I shall be patient.
You will not be so cruel as to refuse me hope — it is
such a little thing to ask, Helen, your father
wishes me to leave this place, to go forever. I
shall go, but I shall follow you to Noelcombe. I
shall come to see you, I must see you again. I can
not bear to be away from you. May I come % — will
you speak to me ?"

" Noelcombe doesn't belong to me," said Miss
Mitford, petulantly. " If you choose to come there
I can't help it. Good-by."

" Then, If I come, you will speak to me ?"

" Oh yes, yes, yes. Good-by."

" Won't you shake hands ?"

Then Helen, much relieved at the thought of the
approaching parting, and prompted by the memory


of her mother's suggestion, looked up with a smile
into her lover's gloomy eyes and laid her cool,

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