Beatrice Whitby.

A matter of skill : a novel online

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upon the guests by troops of servants. No man
need stir a finger on his comrade's behalf, and there-
fore the men, for once in a way, enjoyed a picnic.

After tea Helen and her squire were wandering
lazily along the side of the brawling river, the noise
of which was an excuse for maintaining silence — so
she diplomatically suggested, for she found herself
afc the utmost tether of easy discourse — while each
was secretly wondering how soon the call of the
horn would summon them for their return journey.
The gentleman was grateful to Helen, first for her
face, which he admired, secondly for having saved
him any trouble in conversation ; but for all that
he was thinking, not of her, but of his dinner, while
she was conscious of being tired, disappointed, and

Why had Mr. Jones been so anxious that she
should go to Rivers Meet ? Though his was the
only familiar face among all these strangers, he had


never once come near her. He was not the least
desirous of her company, he was unconscious of her
presence, which he had certainly been at some pains
to secure. She had thought about him a good deal,
she had never thought of any stranger so much be-
fore. She was thinking about him at the very mo-
ment when he emerged from behind the granite,
moss-fringed bowlder before her and joined them.
This time he was alone, no insipid pale-eyed girl to
monopolize him. Helen was accustomed to receiv-
ing deference, if not devotion, from men ; she al-
most considered it her due. Almost simultaneously
with his appearance the tooting of the horn broke
above the roaring of the water and echoed among
the hills ; this was the sound for which she had
been eagerly listening, it had come but just three
minutes too soon.

"That is the muster, old chap," said Helen's
squire with alacrity, addressing Mr. Jones. " Come
along, Miss Mitford, you and I must be off. Aw-
fully noisy place this — Niagara not in it. Shan't
be sorry to get into the quiet. See you again.
Good-by. Good-by.

" Good-by, Jack," said he, "but it isn't good-by
to Miss Mitford. If she will allow me, I am to
have the pleasure of driving her back in my cart.


Lady Lucy fancies there is going to be a thunder-
storm, so she has booked for the landau, and I can't
be such a brute as to sunder any of the couples on
the coach."

By this speech Mr. Jones had shown the sub-
tlety of the serpent ; by his indifferent, but incon-
testable invitation, he precluded the possibility of
Helen's either refusing his escort or guessing at
what pains he had been in perfecting the present
arrangement. To which arrangement she ac-
quisced quite graciously — her pride would not al-
low her to wince beneath the punishment to her

1 • Will you go down and see the start, Miss Mit-
ford ? Or will you come a hundred yards higher
up the stream and have a look at the pools ? "

She hesitated ; she had no inclination to see the
start, she had no interest in her late companions.
Mr. Jones read her silence to his liking.

" We won't see them off. Good-by's are melan-
choly duties, you are quite right. Come along down
this path, it's not far," and he led the way through
the bracken, "but such a ripping place when you
get there. We have plenty of time, I am going to
drive you home by the new cut round the Great
Tor~it is a shorter way than the way you came, but


the road isn't safe for coaching. You want a good
head and a steady nerve to appreciate the view, but
you possess both, I know."

He went on talking with great ease and friend-
liness. It really was impossible to remember lost [
parental IPs, plebian progenitors, overbearing sis-
ters, or purse-proud oddities, in company with the
sunny mood of this genial comrade. What grati-
fication was to be found in holding aloof from and
sulking with a person who is blind to your frigidity,
who listens eagerly to your remarks, who under-
stands and responds to your smiles, who meets your
thought half way with an answering thought, and
who, this last clause is the most effective in the cate-
gory — should it please you to turn your back upon
and leave him, would be quite as happy, content,
and debonair, with some other young woman beside
him. Helen did not argue either with him or with
herself, but she forgot his drawbacks, though she
meant to remember them — and responded to his
mood. She became friendly and enjoyed herself,
her face was always dangerously expressive of her
feelings, he saw at once that she was pleased.

Precipitous hills inclosed a wide ravine through
which a swift and angry river dashed, striking
against impending bowlders with a roar, gushing


in shallow cascades over the stones, rushing with
silent but mighty force beneath the rocky banks.
At one spot a cluster of jagged bowlders had been
detached from the overhanging cliff and had fallen
into the bed of the river, subduing, by their strength,
the frenzy of the water, which lay in deep, dark,
brooding pools between them. Further on, like a
giant refreshed, and with an outburst of fury, the
water in a spouting sheet poured over a lofty fall,
and thundering down, sped headlong on its course
to the sea.

To this locality Bertie guided his companion.

"Isn't this ripping?" said he, leaning against
the rock, upon a ledge of which she had seated her-
self. "I wanted you to see the pools. I knew you
would like Eivers Meet. Just look and listen, I
won't talk to you. A human voice or a human be-
ing is superfluous here. We are too insignificant to
assert ourselves ; we ought to take back seats and
keep quiet."

The brawling river drowned his last words,
which he had addressed more to himself than to

She clasped her hands tightly, and did as he told
her. She looked and listened, she forgot him, she
forgot herself, her eyes grew dim with wonder and


with awe, her quickened breath rose and fell

Before the eternal beauty of those hills and
vales, before the overwhelming majesty of God's
creation, her puny ' ' pride of life " was annihilated.
She turned to him for sympathy as a child might

"And I shall go away and forget it!" she
sighed, and then added, slowly —

" Oh, Memory shield rue from the world's poor strife,
And give these scenes thine everlasting life."

She was astounding him by this departure : but
he said again, in that familar formula which, like
one of Humpty Dumpty's words, did duty with him
for a reflection —

"It's ripping /"

"It makes me good," she said — " makes me
want to be good. Nothing else matters. All the
things we value are nothing — "they are ridiculous
I want only to be good."

He nodded. He knew, or guessed, what she
meant ; but he, was a genuine John Bull, to whom
gush is impossible. Only upon a very great emer-
gency was a glimpse below his leveled surface to be


He kept his eyes on her glowing face in lieu of
those glorious waters. She caught his glance, hesi-
tated, blushed, and then jumped to her feet.

u We ought to go," she said ; and as he did not ■
dispute her assertion, she retraced her steps, he fob \
lowing in her wake.



" Is't possible that on so little acquaintance you should
like her ? that, but seeing, you should love her ? and lov-
ing, woo ? ** As You Like It.

YJfcT OMAN — let her assert her independence never
*" so emphatically — is naturally a dependent
growth. She belongs, if not to the genus parasite, to
the tribe of creepers, and without a trellis- work to
which to attach her delicate, but tenacious,
tendrils she falls — a straggling, useless, mean-
ingless cumberer of the . ground, whose very blos-
soms are hidden or trodden under foot. The
trellis work to which she clings is not inevitably
love. No, the stancher, if less happy, foundation
of duty, labor, self-abnegation, ambition, or philan-
thropy may uphold her. By any one of these
she, creeping, climbs — slowly, laboriously, pain-
fully, but still she climbs upward. Without one
or other of these supports she droops, forlorn and
Some one who speaks with authority has said


"that man is at his best when he stands alone";
bnt it is not so with women. To her a prop is a
necessity — a prop self -created or bestowed, but a
prop, an object, a trellis- work upon which to cling
until the " fever which we call life" is past.

Helen never thought seriously of the path of
life which she was treading, or whither it led.
The sense of its duties and responsibilities, its
possibilities and impossibilities, she shook off her
mind as a duck shakes the water from its feathers.
She had lived in an atmosphere of love and happi-
ness; she had been shielded from all troubles. She
had been petted, admired, sought after, and to her
opinion her companions had deferred. The little
god Cupid she simply despised ; if any of her ac-
quaintances had shown symptoms of desire to pay
tribute to his shrine, this young Diana's attitude
grew forbidding — she would have none of it.

Mr. Flight alone had stoutly defied her wishes,
and thrust his unwelcome affection obstinately be-
fore her. He had been humble, subservient, dismal,
but he had been passionately in earnest. For the
first time in her life, Helen had realized that this
love of which she had heard and read was a serious
thing, and not the mere idle dream, born of fancy,
which she had hitherto considered it.


As a matter of course, but with complete author-
ity, Mr. Jones took Helen's guidance into his hands.
He helped her into the cart, wrapped a light rug
over her knees, and negatived her ardent desire to
drive herself decidedly.

"Lean back," he said. "That seat is pretty
comfortable, and you must be tired."

"I'm not the least tired. I should like to

" Are you used to driving ?"


She was accustomed to driving the Rector's
rough gray pony, which lived in the paddock, and
was twenty years old.

"Then you shall take the reins presently.
She's fresh at starting, and I know her ways.
She will soon cool down. Do you mind my smok-

"Not if the wind won't blow it in my face,"
she candidly replied. She did not share the mod-
ern damsel's oft-asserted passion for the fragrance
of tobacco.

"The wind is the other way, and I'm half a
foot above you," he urged, with some natural

"Then smoke, by all means."


He thrust his hand into his pocket.

" I haven't a light," he told her, " so I can't."

And he mounted to her side and they started.

Few mild enjoyments equal that soothing sense
of drowsy well-being in which a tired frame revels
as it is driven through the balmy air of a warm
summer evening, with a fresh horse between the
shafts that covers the ground with a long, easy,
equal stride — traversing, too, such wild and won-
drous scenery as beggars description.

Helen's face still wore the reflection of that
softened intensity of feeling which it had caught
by the river side. The long hours she had passed
in the open air had lulled the aggressive vivacity of
her youth ; the spirit of mischief no longer sharp-
ened her eyes, her dimples played faintly in her
soft cheeks. She was gentle, therefore more
womanly, and for that reason a thousand times
more winning than before.

He and she were talking as though they had
been friends from childhood. If that cool brother-
demeanor of his was assumed for her deception, it
was a clever and seductive mask.

" How did you like Jack Peel?" he was asking
her. " You and he spent the day together pretty
well, didn't you 2"


"He sat next me on the drag. I liked him — a
little ; but he hates everybody, and doesn't admire

" I suppose he admires Mrs. Peel V

" Isn't she pretty ? I'didn't know she was mar-
ried — at least, not to him."

" You mean she flirts 1 Oh yes, she does."

" She is very pretty and amusing."

" She's a butterfly, but a man wants more than
color, down, beauty, to live upon. That sort of
thing is stunning but you want sunshine to show it
off. A butterfly isn't much to admire on a wet
day. A good deal of rain falls in Devon— and else-

"Ona wet day one can stay indoors."

Helen had a suspicion that she was a butterfly,
her high spirits were fatiguing.

' ' A butterfly indoors ; think of the fluttering on
the window-pane."

" A butterfly can't help being a butterfly."

"No more than a chrysalis can help being a
chrysalis. Both are very nice in their way, but I
have no wish to own either one or the other.
Don't argue with me please, I'm not up to it, but 1
know what I mean and I know what I like. I want
a wife far better than I am myself 3 some one who


would keep me up to the mark, some one who would
do what I told her and yet some one whom I should
only tell to go her own way because I should know
her way to be wise and straight. I couldn't stand
any woman whom I had to look after, it would
knock the love clean out of me."

All this rather overwhelmed Helen, she did not
know how interesting this lady in the clouds had
lately become to Mr. Jones.

" So you would like to marry an angel," she re-
marked, with a malicious smile, "poor angel I"

He laughed.

"Poor angel," he repeated glancing at her.
" How can an angel be poor, Madam ? The sense
of her superiority would keep her rich, and me
humble. No angel, however angelic, for me."

" You are hard to please."

" On the contrary I am always pleased but never

"I think a man ought to be very thankful if he
persuades any woman, of any sort, to be his wife,"
retorted Miss Mitford, yawning deliberately.

Her words and her yawn disconcerted her com-
panion and for some minutes they drove on in
silence. As a rule, the honored girls to whom he
confided his sentiments concerning the future Mrs,


Jones hung upon his words as though they were
oracles ; but if they were discreet, they committed
themselves by no comments, looking all they did
not say, for those sentiments of his had been known
to change repeatedly.

How little we guess what impression we make
upon others or what opinion they form of us.
How differently different people estimate our char-
acter. . To Helen's own intimate friends and re-
lations she seemed a gay, mischievious, lovable girl,
whose unshadowed weal accounted for her want of
softness, but to Mr. Jones her gayety had been con-
spicuous by its absence. When he had offended
her by his allusion to butterflies how could he fancy
that she would fit her stately head into the cap,
feeling angered and wounded by his just attack?
She had (as had he) been brought up on commen-
dation, but this self-satisfied young man always
seemed to get her at a disadvantage, she had begun
to wish to please him, and she fancied she had
failed, the fancy irritated her a little. She would
have liked to impress him by her beauty, her dig-
nity, her calmness, her good breeding, but he did not
seem to notice her advantages. The sun had sunk
beneath a mass of gloomy cloulds, which were
gathering in heavy groups over the now dingy


sky and cast abroad black shadows on the hills, the
air had grown heavy but was stirred by a warm,
rising wind. When our travelers reached the New
Cut to which Mr. Jones had alluded, and came in
sight of the sea, its horizon was dim with fog, and
the waves murmured listlessly and softly.

Mr. Jones had warned Helen that she would
require a steady nerve and strong head if she
was to enjoy the view, and he was right, for the
road on which she found herself was hewed out
of the hillside. It was a ledge cut on the side
of a mighty cliff which towered perpendicularly
overhead on the left hand and on the right de-
scended a sheer precipice, a thousand feet, into the

Down below in the bay the slumberous waves
rippled lazily over sunken rocks and gently laved
the hollowed crags, lulled by the caressing air, into
forgetf ulness of storm and wind. The sea-breeze
was idly whispering as if the blast of sfcorm and fury
were unknown. The sea-wave was trifling with
her cold lover the rock as if she could never again,
spurred by the gusts of love and despair, break into
passionate and desperate longing. Delusive calm ;
for, soon surging and lashing her misery to mad-
ness, she shall shatter her glorious billows into a


thousand fragments as she beats herself to death
against his impenetrable heart.

The width of the road upon which the dog-
cart was traversing was broad enough to admit of (
two carriages driving abreast. A low wooden \
paling had been roughly extemporized on the '
extreme verge of the precipice, but this every
here and there had crumbled away and disap-
peared, leaving no barrier, however frail, between
the traverser of that giddy pass and an apalling

For the first few minutes of the crossing Helen
tried to admire the view.

''How beautiful—" she murmured below her
breath, struggling for those steady nerves with the
possession of which she had been credited. " Oh,
Mr. Jones," with a sudden collapse of courage,
"please, be careful."

At her words he reigned in the horse.

"Don't you like it ? Shall we turn back ? lean
turn in a moment."

Turn ! her head reeled at the thought.

" Oh, no ; go on. I like it. I'm not afraid.
Only you won't drive fast f You will keep dose to
the side, won't you ? "

"You are quite sure that you would not rather


go back ? I can take you home the other way, you
know. " %

" No, no ; go on. I shall get used to it in a mo-
ment. It is only just at first — and those seagulls
flying out below us make me' dizzy, and the sea,
wriggling, and like a wrinkled walnut, such a long,
long way below. "

" Don't look straight down; look right out
across the bay. There are a dozen fishing-smacks
sailing down, with those tawny sails set which you

"Oh, lovely," she said. " How long is this—'
this New Cut?"

He was walking the horse very slowly, and the
cart was hugging the cliff side.

"A quarter of a mile," he answered. "If we
went more quickly, it would sooner be over."

"Yes, but I would rather go slowly, if you
don't mind."

"When we round that corner" (pointing to a
distant curve of the cliff which concealed any fur-
ther sight of the road) " we soon turn inland, and
get into a iane with twenty feet of solid bank on
either side."

" We shall get there in ten minutes \ " interroga-


" About that. You are giddy, " anxiously. "I
am so desperately sorry that I brought you. You
told me the other day that you could stand any
height, or I should not have thought of bringing

' c I'm getting better ; I didn't know I should mind.
It is very stupid of me. I'm s*o sorry. "

She was fighting bravely against her fear, despis-
ing her swimming head and the sickening quivers
of faintness that unstrung her muscles.

" Will you get out and walk ? "

This palliation of her misery was forbidden by
the thought that, to allow of her descent from the
cart, the horse would have to step nearer to the
edge of the cliff, in which case she knew she should

She shook her head.

" Shall I tell Phil to lead the mare ?"

He was much concerned, for she had grown
very pale, and the smile she forced to her lips was
piteously unreal.

"Yes, I should like that," her voice shook.
"Thank you."

But, as Phil alighted to obey this astonishing or-
der, a sudden sharp sound above their heads startled
them. They looked up. Down the rugged face of


the cliff, hurled from crag to crag, whirling like a
gigantic bird through the air, a gray, struggling
mass was seen to descend until it fell, with a dull,
sickening thud — such a sound as haunts memory for
a lifetime — upon the road in front of the trembling
mare. She stopped, backed a pace or two, plunging
and rearing in terror ; than, answering to the voice
and hand of the master, she dashed forward. They
passed that grim and shapeless mass, lying motion-
less and blood-streaked on the road, in safety, but
the wheel of the cart grated against the wooden pal-
ing that guarded the edge of the precipice, and shiv-
ered it to splinters. Then, at a mad gallop, the
mare raced on. The air hissed past them ; the cart
rocked like a swing; the cliffs seemed to rush out to
meet them; startled seagulls whirled around them;
below in the yawning deep the sea reeled.

Once Helen put out her hands and caught at the
reins. With rough fury he bade her keep still, and
she obeyed.

Eound the perilous sweep of the cliff they tore,
whirling again, so near their death that he set his
teeth, thinking the end had come. One fraction of
an inch to the right and nothing would save them,
but again the frantic mare answered to his voice and
his grip of the rein. She swerved ever so little to

i 4 3 ~ - A MATTER OF SKILL,

the left and rushed safely by — on, on, scudding like
a cloud before the wind— on, on, until sky, sea,
clouds, and cliffs mingled in one staggering pan-

Helen sat motionless. Once, when the thought
of her mother beset her, she had clutched at the
reins ; otherwise she had not moved, nor had she
spoken. Through her mind the memory of heroes
who had faced death without fear came and
strengthened her. Though no one should know it,
she would not quail or shudder ; she would not be
afraid ; she would die hard. She was one of those
"who do not mind death, but can not bear pinch-
ing. "

But when the danger was past, when the blessed
shelter of high banks rose on either side, when the
mare's gallop sank to a canter, and from a canter to
a trot, when they were safe and the hideous sight of
sea and cliff was left far behind, then came the
demon reaction to unnerve her.

It was a deep and fervent " Thank God ! " which
broke from her companion, that loosened the flood-
gates of her tears. Till then he had not spoken, nor
had he looked at her ; but when he turned and she
heard those words, saw the expression in his dark
eyes, which met hers, she burst out into weeping.


She clung to his arm, she buried her face against
his shoulder, she trembled and wrung her hands.
A long hill lay before them. The mare's trot had
subsided into a quiet walk. He put his arm round
her, comforting her as though she were a frightened

''There, there ; it's all right — you are quite safe.
Don't cry. You shall never go near the place

She was so unstrung and beside herself that she
sobbed her heart out, as if it were her father's shoul-
der against which she hid her eyes; she was oblivi-
ous as to whose protecting arm supported her, or
whose hand patted her soothingly, as though she
was a baby to be quieted by such treatment.

"What fell ?— What was it ?— It was killed."
■ " A sheep, poor brute \ Don't talk of it. Think
of something else. "

"I can't" — shuddering — "I daren't open my
eyes ; I am afraid I should see it."

"I wouldn't open them just yet. You will be
all right in a minute."

"I should not really have touched the reins, I
only put out my hand."

" It was a case of life or death. I hadn't time to
be gentle. I'm awfully sorry. I deserve to be shot."


His encircling arm held her more closely as he
spoke, but during the pause which followed, Helen
drew away from him, covering her face with her

' 'Look here, don't give up like this," he said,
rather alarmed. " You have been so plucky all the
time." The compliment was undeserved, but she
did not dislike it on that account.

"I can't help it — I can't indeed ! "

Her voice came thick and low, her hands fell
down from before her deathly face ; she tried to
smile, and then murmuring, ' ' I don't feel very
well," she fell back again upon his shoulder. She
had fainted.

On the summit of the hill which they were
mounting was a country inn, thither Bertie, sup-
porting the girl, with a now aching arm, drove fast.
Assisted by the host, he lifted Helen from the cart
and carried her into the house. In the inn-parlor
stood that horse-hair sofa, oft described because the
memory of his discomforts is not easily obliterated,
peculiar to wayside hostelries and seaside lodgings ;
upon it Mr. Jones laid his burden. He was almost
as pale as she; he kept his head, but he was horribly

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