Beatrice Whitby.

A matter of skill : a novel online

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feet deep. If you don't want a ducking, you had
better hurry up, I can tell you."

Helen was dismayed ; the situation was exas-
perating. She did not move ; she stooped a little,
to be sure that those dreadful feet of hers were con-
cealed, and then she cast a hurried glance around.
Where was that rock upon which she had stored
her belongings? Alas, she had not marked the
place, and now she could not find it.

"I say, don't wait!" cried the voice again.
"You will be drowned. There isn't too much
time to get across."

"Thank you — thank you," she called back,
feebly. " I will go — I am going."

Still she did not move.

"What a good-looking girl!" said Mr. Jones's
friend. "No wonder you rowed here ten thou-
sand miles an hour when you saw her ! She's a
precious deal too pretty to drown. She has lost
her head, though. Why don't she go on ? "

"No fear of her losing her head," returned the
other, with an unkind laugh. " We have told her
what to expect, so if she wishes to be drowned she
knows how to do it. She is as headstrong as ' an



A MATTER OF SKILL, 109

allegory. ' If her manners matched her face she
would do, but they don't."

" Poor thing! What has she done to you Ber-
tie ? She has never jumped on you, has she. You
are such a lucky chap, you expect to get all the
roses and none of the thorns. She l don't take no
'count of us,' as you say in Devon, for she has not
budged an inch.''

"She is a little fool," said Mr. Jones, shortly.
"Turn the boat, Mason. We will bustle up and
leave her."

After a mild protest his friend obeyed.

Tacking to the wind, the boat sailed down the
bay, and landed its occupants on the shore below
Noelcombe. Here the men separated, one disap-
pearing in the direction of Newton, the other-
after wandering rather aimlessly about the sands
for a time— suddenly turned his face westward,
and began to plod ever the rough route which led
to the reef of rocks.

Though Miss Helen Mitf ord was ungrateful and
pig-headed, and though Mr. Jones thought it prob-
able that he should shortly ask the gentle and pli-
able Lady Lucy Freemantle to marry him, yet he
was interested to know what had become of that
slender figure which he could still see ; with his



no A MATTER OF SKILL.

miners eye, standing in the sunshine, with her beau-
tiful wet hand and arm raised and her earnest,
startled eyes fixed on him. He had felt unreason-
able anger at his companion's admiration of the
girl, anger which he had directed upon her luckless
head. He had spoken of her with unjustifiable
rudeness ; it was well for him that she had been
out of earshot when he had done so ; he could
picture her face had she, by an unhappy chance,
overheard his words.

If she had not flown at the first hint of danger,
then she deserved praise for her pluck — not the
condemnation for rashness which he had allotted
her.

His head was overflowing with thoughts of her.
His heart misgave him that he had not appreciated
the daring bravery with which she had heard of her
danger (a danger he had somewhat exaggerated),
and steadily, calmy, courageously faced it.

Meanwhile, this calm young heroine, as soon as
the boat's head was turned away, cast custom and
caution to the winds. The choice between dignity
or drowning was not hard to make, between clothed
feet or safety, seemlinesss or preservation, boots or
death. Stumbling, clambering, slipping, she ran
like a stag over the rocks, fording pools and gullies



A MATTER OF SKILL. in

recklessly in her panic, cutting and bruising her
feet and accomplishing her painful retreat with
wonderful celerity considering the difficulties of
her path and her constant backward glances at the
departing boat.

And so, presently, Mr. Jones saw the figure for
which he was in search approaching him, but most
leisurely. How provokingly she dawdled ; no
house-laden snail ever crawled so slowly as she
now advanced. Could it be that she recognized
him, and from perversity, or coyness, or some un-
fathomable feminine coquetry, lingered for the
mere purpose of annoying him ?

Confound her, she was over-doing it, for she
actually seated herself on the shingle within a few
yards of the breaking waves, and stared out to sea
as though she was as stationary (or more so) than
the lighthouse. The dinner hour was approaching
awkwardly near, but Mr. Jones did not retreat ; on
the contrary, he quickened his pace, and with a
smile in his eyes and a tightly-closed mouth walked
on. As he came nearer to the girl she started per-
ceptibly ; if she was not a good, nay, more, a prac-
ticed actress, that was assuredly the first time she
had seen him. He saw her flush, a scarlet, deep
flush, which dyed her face and neck, her lips quiv-



U2 A MATTEL OF SKILL.

ered, her eyes sank to the ground, and then, with
a bashful, uncertain, hurried movement, she rose
to her feet.

The conclusion he naturally deduced from this I
delightfully unexpected shyness of hers set his'
heart beating fast, he had taken her unawares, and
thus learned the value of that indifferent manner
which it had pleased her to adopt toward him.
How exceedingly pretty she looked ! Her down-
cast, black-lashed eyes, her drooping head, that
changing color of which he was the author, be-
came her royally ; he would not spoil the picture by
speaking and setting her at her ease. Even her
voice, as she addressed him hurriedly by name,
faltered— there was a deprecating cadence, new as
it was sweet, in its tones. His late companion
had accused him of desiring to possess, nay, more,
of actually possessing "all the roses and none of
the thorns " ; this blushing rose had assuredly
stripped off her prickles, and she was a rare blos-
som, the fairest of her sisters. His heart warmed
to her, he would be most gentle, he would be un-
conscious of her constraint. But he must be
cautious, it would not do to be too— there* his reso-
lutions failed him, for Miss Mitford, with a second
rapid uncertain movement, sank down again into



A MATTER OF SKILL, 113

her former position on the shingle, flushing like
Aurora.

It was his duty, of course, to follow her lead
and seat himself beside her, and, late though it
was, he felt no disinclination to do so. Leisurely,
and with a kind smile, he placed himself beside
her ; his reception had flattered him, he was sure
of himself.

" Trust in thyself— then spur amain" for wooing
as for working, is an excellent motto.

To give him his due, he made himself very
agreeable ; how fluently he talked and how quietly
she listened ; she answered him but in soft mono-
syllables ; he felt that he shone in conversation, she
was evidently well satisfied with his society, for she
made no attempt to move, she sat motionless as a
statue. Fired by the troubled expression of her
beautiful eyes — by the way, how her sweet face
had grown in expression, the anxiety that ruffled
her brow, the restlessness, a constraint betrayed by
the way in which she toyed continually with some
pebbles in her hand, were all new — he began to
talk sentiment, it was not his way to be senti-
mental, he hardly knew what ailed him. Follow-
ing her gaze across the sea, he began to descant on
its beauties. Had she watched last night's sunset,



H4 A MATTER OF SKIIL.

the lights had been — what did that poet say? he
was sure Miss Mitford knew whom he meant and
what he meant — "day died like the dolphin."
Yes, that was it. Had she seen a storm at sea?
Viewed from the coast he declared it to be a most
glorious sight ; he would give anything to be with
her at Noelcombe when a real nor'easter was blow-
ing, and the waves dashed roaring up against the
rocks and drenched the cliffs a hundred feet aloft
with spray. But she would be miserable, her kind
heart would be with the sailors, and her thought
of them would blind her eyes to the beauties of the
storm. He was getting on fast, he was going
ahead ; to his comrade's unutterable relief, he sud-
denly drew out his watch and changed the subject.

"It is half -past seven," he announced carelessly ;
he thought that, perhaps, her watchless position
had made her regardless of time. " At what a pace
the time has gone."

Every nerve in her body lustily negatived that
remark, but she said —

"Yes, it is very, very late. Won't you" (tim-
idly) "be late for dinner ?"

"Yes," he returned, with a regretful sigh ; " un-
less we start at once, I shall probably get no dinner
at all."



A MATTER OF SKILL. 115

" Don't" she began, with a sudden boldness ;
"please don't think it necessary to wait for me. I
shall not go home for some time.— I don't know
when I shall go home ; — not for hours and
hours."

" Then," he returned, gravely, "you mean to de-
prive me altogether of my dinner."

"But, surely, you have forgoten, you must go ;
it is the night of your ball."

He murmured something which the breaking of
the waves drowned, but which was in reality a rash
avowal of oblivion to the mundane matters of life
under the present circumstances.

She smiled a bewilderingly kind smile into his
face.

"Good-by," she said, holding out her hand to
him. " I won't allow you to stay for another mo-
ment. I should never forgive myself if you lost
your dinner through your — your politeness, and
don't you think — I'm sure — at least I think your
people will want you and won't know where you
are."

A pathetic, pleading note had become entangled
in her hesitating tones. He took her cold little
hand and held it tightly, answering her with some
Words apt and soft enough to repay her amply for



u6 A MATTER OF SKILL.

her favor. He fancied that he knew a good deal
about the ways of women, but this one puzzled him.
Game so easy of acquisition was sport not worthy
of the name. But the hand which he held, small
and cold though it was, struggled stoutly for free-
dom, so stoutly, indeed, that he released it.

Poor Helen ; the failure, or rather the result of
her final effort to rid herself of this unconscious ag-
gressor overwhelmed her. She was disheartened,
perplexed, and tired out. The incoming waves
splashed dangerously near her ; a few minutes more
and her present position would be untenable. Her
mouth quivered perceptibly, and the tears started to
her eyes. Mr. Jones noticed these preliminaries
with dismay ; he had barely time to feel that mat-
ters were getting serious, and to reflect that the
kissing away of these tears would be a blessed work,
when her drowned gray eyes were turned tragically
to his.

" Won't you go ? Will nothing make you go ?"
she cried, pushing forth, for one moment, from
beneath her serge skirt, a bare and bleeding foot at
which she pointed with a pregnant gesture. "I
have to walk all the way over these dreadful, dread-
ful stones barefoot. I could not find my — my boots
Or stockings when you frightened me ; they were



A MATTER OF SKILL. U f

out there on the rocks ; they have been washed
away. Oh ! you are laughing — how can you
laugh f '

And the tears in her eyes welled over, and rolled
slowly ^down her cheeks.



ii8 A MATTER OF SKILL.



CHAPTER VII.

" There's a divinity that shapes our ends,
Kough-hew them how we will."

Shakespeare.

"HUT if Mr. Jones had smiled, the smile arose
*** from a desire to screen an inevitable chagrin,
rather than from any sense of humor at the situation,
and at her words he became grave as a judge. Indeed,
he felt as little inclined to laugh as did Helen her-
self at that moment, for he was disagreeably con-
scious of having played the coxcomb in his thoughts.
Had ever man more grievously misread a manner ?
And yet he was glad — yes, glad that he had been
mistaken, and that this young person differed from
that vast tribe of demoiselles a marier, who ad-
vanced uninvited from all corners, and at all stages
of his life, to meet him.

At the sight of her distress, he forgot himself ;
such a lapse of memory was not quite of so rare an
occurrence with Mr. Jones as with the majority of



A MATTER OF SKILL. 119

his sex. Divesting himself instantly of that gallant
air which embarrassed her, with considerable tact
and kindliness he soothed Helen into taking a less
hopeless view of her position ; and when her tears
were dried and she was composed, she found that
he had again opened a road through which she
could escape from a dilemma.

"But I am giving you so much trouble • you are
so kind/' she faltered.

"Trouble ? Nonsense, it's no trouble at all. I
was going into the village, anyway. I shall get up
to your place in no time, and explain what has
happened. You stay quietly here ; no, not just
here, but a dozen yards further in. Get up ; give
me your hands ; lean on me, that's right. Bah ;
how those beastly stones hurt you. There, you're
all safe now, and the tide won't be in for an hour.
Don't move, and I will undertake that your maid
shall bring your shoes and stockings before you
know where you are. No, don't thank me, it's
absurd. You know it was all my fault for scaring
you out of your life on the rocks. Good-by, till to-
morrow. I wish " — pressing the hand he held sud-
denly and firmly — "I wish to heaven that you were
coming to our dance to-night."

But before he had reached Noelcombe, when his



%2o A MATTER OF SKILL,

young blood had had time to cool, and when the
extraordinary influence of the girl's presence was
removed, he was no longer sure of the truth of that
forcibly expressed desire, for he remembered Lady
Lucy to whom he had already engaged himself for
half a dozen dances, and to whom he quite intended
to engage himself for life.

Some time later that evening, Miss Elizabeth
Mitf ord, her spectacles upon her nose, was delicately
perambulating her dewy lawn, withhei^upgathered
skirts in one hand and a jam-pot containing a dead-
ly solution of salt and water in the other. The
passion of her nationality, the thirst for sport,
shone in her eager, downcast eyes.

While she was thus engaged, her niece came out
from beneath the embowered porch and stood
silently looking across the bay. Helen was tired,
her eyes were languid, her expression was soft and
subdued, her vigorous spirits were no longer aggress-
ive, and contrary to her usual habit, she preserved
a lengthy silence. The flower-scented air was
warm, the sinking sun, like a ball of fire, lay in the
"dappled sky," the clouds, crimson, purple and
gold, cast broad shadows upon the indigo back-
ground of the sea and were reflected in fainter tints
upon the gaunt cliffs. Standing against a back-



A MATTER OF SKTLL. 121

ground of myrtle and rose trees, she watched the
wondrous picture of the sea and of the sunset, and
was still. Thoughtful, perforce, and against her
will, for thought is pain and pain is not to be toler-
ated in so blithe a world. Helen was not given to
meditation, she was emphatically a woman of
speech, not of deliberation. Neither had it been
her habit to indulge in day-dreaming — she wanted
no more than she owned, she preferred fact to
fancy, therefore the building of an air-castle was a
distinct waste of time which might have been bet-
ter employed in enjoying life in the solid cottage
wherein her lot was cast.

The result of her present reflection was a smile,
not a sigh.

u Auntie, let those wretched slugs live on for just
one more night," she said; her suggestions were
apt to fall from her autocratic lips in the guise of
commands. " Come over here, and look at the sea
and let me talk to you. When you are slug-hunt-
ing, you never hear a word I say."

Thus adjured, the disturbed sportswoman drew
herself upright by a stiff effort, and with a guilty
confusion turned to her niece.

" My love, I did not see you, I thought you were
in the drawing-room singing that odd song of yours



i22 A MATTER OF SKILL.

or I should not have come out here. How," anx
iously, " are your poor, dear feet ?"

Helen looked down critically at those invalids,
which were roaming within her aunt's capacious
house boots — cloth boots, they were capped with
patent leather, lined with scarlet flannel, side laced,
devoid of heels and roomy.

"Oh, they are all right now, Auntie, they don't
hurt at all, I had forgotten them. I assure you, it
is awful when they press their identity on one— as
mine did upon me on the beach."

" Mr. Jones is a most kind-hearted person,
Helen."

The girl had turned aside to pick a crimson rose
from the tree behind her, which she placed in the
bosom of her gown : she was humming very softly

" It may draw you a tear
Or a box on the ear,
You can never be sure till you've tried."

" I learned both the value of boots and of mes-
sengers," she answered, watching the sky.

Though Miss Elizabeth had obediently joined
Helen, her eyes were not on that miraculous and
glorious panorama of changing color to which they
had been directed, but had crept down to the hunt-
ing ground at her feet.



A MATTER OF SKILL. \t%

"Auntie," in a slow, low-pitched tone, "were
you ever in love ? "

Miss Elizabeth, scrutinizing the lawn, said, with
a pre-occupied air.

" What did you say, my dear ? "

" Were you ever in love ? "

" Oh, yes, my dear, to be sure I was."

" Then you fell in love ? "

"Yes, yes, certainly I did."

" Well ? " inquisitively."

No answer.

"Well, Auntie?" a little louder, and persua-
sively.

" Well—what— my dear ? "

" What happened when you were in love ? "

" Nothing which I can at this moment recollect,
Helen."

"Then you were not engaged ?"

"Yes, indeed, I was engaged for nearly a year,
love. It was an anxious time and Thomas jilted
me."

Helen drew in her breath and flushed. Her
curiosity had inflicted a wound on this poor lady,
who must yet be made of tough material for she
had been jilted, jilted, JILTED, and yet her out-
raged pride had not killed her! Helen, in her



%U A MATTER OF SKILL.

angry distress, could not speak, but the victim of
the wrong manifesting no agitation, she went on
commenting on the circumstance with serene com-
| plaisance.

"Dear me, Helen, you have no notion how un-
pleasant it all seemed, and how foolishly I fretted.
It is hard to foresee in a present distress a future
gain. Providence was very good to me. The poor
thing for whom he jilted me became his wife— a
position I was ignorant enough to envy her. She
has had a hard life, for he made a most uncomfort-
able and selfish husband, while I, my dear, have
spent the autumn of my happy life without a care.
My love, the adoption of a life-partner is too great
a risk to be willingly undertaken by any one except
those who are fearless through the inexperience of
their extreme youth. . . — My goodness me ! Helen,
there, look, upon the stalk of that tender picotee !
\ Do you see it ? Eapacious little wretch ! I must
I secure him." And she ran back to recommence her
engrossing occupation. Then Helen re-entered the
little porch and a few minutes later the sound of
music reached Miss Elizabeth through the open
window. Helen was singing a new song, unfamil-
iar to the household.
Upon the following afternoon the younger Miss



A MATTER OF SKILL, nj

Mitford, looking as sweet and fresh and fair as the
flowers around her, was fidgeting about the grass-
plot as she waited for the carriage which Lady
Jones had promised should call at four o'clock to ,«
pick her up on its way to Bivers Meet. She wore, [
with sad extravagance, her very best gown, a thin
electric cotton that matched the color of her eyes,
and clad in which she looked her best, and knew it.
In her waistbelt she had carefully stowed a whole
parterre of her aunt's choicest carnations; her nut-
brown lovelocks were arranged to perfection be-
neath the broad brim of her hat.

" Too-to-to-too-toot !" the stirring and lively call
of a horn, the rumble of wheels, the sharp trot of
horses' hoofs, the jingling of harness precursed the
arrival of the Jones' coach, which presently, loaded
with a boisterous, laughing, happy crew, drew up
alongside the door of Carnation Cottage.

Neither Lady Jones nor her son were among the
party, but a girl, whom Helen afterward learned to
be Patricia Jones, called out, listlessly —

"How do you do?" following the question by
the advice to "Get up as fast as possible, for the
horses won't stand."

So Helen mounted the steps precipitately and
squeezed herself into the small space on the third



t26 A MATTER OF SKILL,

seat back whither she was directed — a little abashed
at finding herself the one outsider among a party of
intimates — a position seldom enviable. Her happy
faculty of easy enjoyment served her in good stead
during that drive, for, more from lack of invitation
than want of inclination, she took small part in
that " feast of reason and flow of soul" floating
around her. She was in the habit of taking her
stand in the foreground of the scene ; here she was
unceremoniously thrust into the background, and
subsequently ignored — no doubt a wholesome though
an unpalatable experience for the damsel, who, how-
ever, laughed at such witticisms as she heard, ob-
served the company, and craned her neck first on
one side, then on the other, to catch a full sight of
the surrounding country, and culled plenty of pleas-
ure from so doing. Patricia, Anastasia, and the
other half-dozen girls were fully occupied with their
respective swains, and the aftermath of the pre-
vious night's flirtations was being cropped on all
sides.

The young man whom Helen had seen with Mr.
Jones in the boat was driving, and by his side on
the box-seat Anastasia sat ; such attention as he
could spare from the team, which required careful
handling over the Devon roads^ she engrossed.



A MATTER OF SKILL. 127

Once, and once only, Patricia addressed her
silent guest —

" I'm afraid you have not much room, Miss Mit-
ford. My brother said you would go in the landau
with my mother, and she forgot all about you and
started an hour ago." Then, turning to the man
next her, she went on — " Bertie drove Lady Lucy
in the dogcart ; she was more than half afraid, but
he insisted."

" Have they settled it ?" he asked, with that
sort of smile which flickers only over one "it."

Miss Jones shrugged her high, broad shoulders.

" Bertie is like all the rest of you, Sir Edwin,"
she returned — " doesn't know his own mind. The
fact is he is an unconscionable flirt, though if one
told him so he wouldn't believe it."

The gentleman addressed murmured some re-
sponse, at which Patricia's rosy cheeks grew rosier,
and to which she retorted with gratified smiles.

Helen was an unsympathetic observer of these
soft passages ; her lips hardened a little. " They
are all making fools of themselves — every one," she
thought, and she plumed herself on her superiority
to these weaknesses.

Up and down the heaving country the strong
team of hill- trained horses trotted fast. The air



123 A MATTER OF SKILL.

fanned a color into Helen's cheeks, and brightened
her eyes. The chaperon of the party was a girl,
little older than Helen herself, whose husband was
-Helen's neighbor, and who, before they reached
their destination, fell into a broken conversation j
with'her. When they alighted at Rivers Meet he
elected to constitute himself her companion, and
though he was heavy, dull, and universally discon-
tented, she was compelled to accept his proffered
society, as it seemed to be a choice between him
as her squire or no one. Thus she spent- the greater
part of the time with him, trying conscientiously to
amuse and interest him, but failing obviously. She
received a careless smile and a pre-occupied greet-
ing from her young host. He did not speak to her ;
his presence was in great demand. A girl with a
weak, inanimate face, whom Helen heard addressed
as Lady Lucy, was always by his side, and he seemed
to bestow some of that superfluous energy of his j
upon the arrangement of the picnic, for the serv- 1
ants were flying to and fro at his behests.

Now this wise young man had read " the books
of woman's looks" rather deeply : he knew the
feminine weakness that desires everything except
that one thing which she possesses, that values noth-
ing which she owns, but ever casts a covetous eye



A MATTER OF SKILL. 1*0

upon the unattainable, and so, though' with consid-
erable reluctance, he scrupulously neglected Helen.
The picnic part of the entertainment was worthy of
its source — iced drinks with startling names ; sand-
wiches cool, curious, and unwholesome ; tea, coffee,
sugared and almonded cakes, bon-bons, and tea-
table accessories beloved of women were pressed


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