Beatrice Whitby.

A matter of skill : a novel online

. (page 9 of 11)
Online LibraryBeatrice WhitbyA matter of skill : a novel → online text (page 9 of 11)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


"No."

"Is he an old friend?"

"I have known him for six months."

Her way of answering him displeased and sur-
prised him— it was reluctant and constrained, it was,
oh, disquieting thought ! as though she had some-
thing she wished to hide from him; this hypothesis
was unbearable, and should be dismissed at any cost.

"Are you going to marry him ? "

There was a pause. A pause so long as to be
alarming, then she answered —

"No," in defiant and distinctly unfriendly tones.
He was annoyed, but not to be deterred from gain-
ing his point by her mai_ner.

"You don't think I have any right to ask you
that question ?" he said.

" Any one has a right to ask any question, I sup-
pose ; but it is always unpleasant to be catechised."

"When I found that parson alone with you, and
— and — ahem — holding your hands, what was I to
believe ? "

Every atom of color had forsaken her face and lips,



A MA TIER OF SKILL, 173

it returned in a flood, her eyes blazed, her lips were
compressed.

' ' Don't be angry. I only wanted to make sure ;
for a moment, I was afraid. I knew you would
have told me long ago if you had been engaged. I
was a fool to doubt you. I understand : if I hadn't
been a bit annoyed I should have seen the whole
thing at once."

Mr. Jones was taking a great deal for granted.
If Helen was ever to quarrel with him it would be
easiest to do so when he plumed himself on his
security and his rival's defeat. A man's vanity is
coarse and unattractive, no matter with what justice
it is owned.

" What would you have seen ? " she inquired.

"That the parson was to be pitied — not killed."

" Your insight might have misled you."

Now feminine weapons of warfare may serve
their purpose in an Amazonian battle, but used
against most men, and particularly against such a
man as Mr. Jones, they are quite harmless ; he was
a frank opponent, he hit straight from the shoulder,
or he did not hit at all.

"Now, look here," he said, going a step nearer,
she was standing by the piano back to the light,
" do you think that if I had come in as I did—



174 A MATT££ OF SKILL.

through no fault of mine — and seen that poor chap
making love to you, and hadn't asked you what it
meant but had taken it for granted that it was your
4 usual custom of an afternoon,' that that would
have pleased you ? "

"It would have been less eccentric ; but perhaps
I ought to be grateful for the interest you take in
my affairs."

In speaking, her voice broke, the sprig of sweet-
brier which she held was trembling, and he saw it.

" I'm awfully sorry, Helen," he said, gently. " I
beg your pardon. I had no right to bother you, but
upon my honor I couldn't help it, I was so angry."

He had hardly heard what she said, her changing
color, her evident distress, he attributed to the scene
through which she had lately passed. It seemed
cruel to increase her agitation himself, but he had
gone so far that he could not draw back. He must
secure his troubled angel at once and soothe her
into perfect happiness ; he could not bear to see
her frown, he could not bear to think that he had
wounded her. He guessed his angel had a temper,
but of that he was not afraid ; a temper in prospect-
ive is sometimes considered one of the rather inter-
esting vices, but like the rest of such failings, loses
its allurements at close quarters.



A MATTER OF SKILL, 175

He stood in silence and watched her, he was
thinking how fair and stately a wife she would be ;
he postponed for one moment the words which
\ should bring her to his arms. During that moment
she recovered herself ; with a sudden and yet un*
hurried movement she seated herself on the window
seat ; a table of some dimensions now intervened
between herself and him.

" We are making a very great mountain out of
nothing, Mr. Jones," she said, lightly, u in your
agitation you even forget my name. Would you
mind opening the door ? The heat in here is hor-
rible, and a draught will blow away the scent of
the flowers, they are so overpowering, they make
one breathless."

He did not open the door, nor did he answer,
She did not look at him but she was conscious of
his steady gaze. She could bear anything just then
rather than silence.

" We will go out," she went on quickly, "it is
cooler in the garden. I must fetch my hat and
order tea. We will have tea under the trees."

She was passing him on her way to escape
through the door — how clever was her ruse to get
away — her hand was close to the handle when he
stepped forward and barred her progress.



i?6 A MATTER OF SKILL

"One moment, " he said, "I want to speak to
you."

"Not now," — there was a wild petition in her
voice which startled him— " wait— presently— noi I
now."

" It is all right, darling. I don't want to frighten
you, but the truth is I can't get through an hour
without you. When I am not with you, I think of
you. I dream of you every night. I want you to
marry me, Helen."

He paused. She was confounded at this honor
which he had thrust upon her, the lashes concealed
her eyes ; she did not move nor answer.

"I'm so awfully fond of you, dear! that very
first day in the train I liked you. You are such a
splendid girl, Helen ; you are so pretty, and you are
such good company ; you are different from the
others. I never knew that I could be such a fool
about a woman. I will marry you, no one but you.
After all, love is the thing for which to marry.
Darling," with a soft contented smile and extended
hand, "if you won't marry me, if you chuck me
over, I shall go and drown myself, or — "

4 'Or marry some one else," returned his "dar-
ling;" who spoke quite collectedly. "I advise the
latter course as it might not entail such notoriety."



A MATTER OF SKILL. 177

" Helen," still smiling, " you hard-hearted lit-
tle—"

"My name is Miss Mitford;" interrupted she;
" perhaps you will be good enough not to call me by '
any other." I

"My dearest girl, don't chaff, I want my answer,
I am in red-hot earnest."

"So am I."

"When will you marry me ?"

"Never."

Mr. Jones's smile faded. " Look here, Helen, I
am in deadly seriousness. I tell you that I am most
awfully fond of you. I can't put it strong enough.
I love you with all my soul, I swear I do. Will
you marry me V 9

"No/' in a low, firm voice, "I will not marry
you. "

"You don't mean that ?"

"I do." j

That is all your answer f I






"You have nothing more to say to me V 9
"Nothing."

He was stunned. It was not her words alone,
but her hard, set face that confounded him.
"Is there some one else, Helen V 9



178 A MATTER OF SKILL.

"No."

"You — you are not," unsteadily, "in love with
some other fellow ?"

"No."

He caught her by the wrist, pulled her into the
full light of the open window, and stared into her
white face.

" I could have sworn you liked me," he said, "as
no doubt that other poor chap who was here this
afternoon could have done. I suppose this sort of
thing diverts you; it's a variety entertainment — one
poor devil after another dancing to your pipe. I'm
afraid I don't understand women ; for on my life, I
don't know what kind of gratification they get out
of this form of amusement. I never guessed you
were making a fool of me, Helen. I wouldn't have
believed it, I swear, I wouldn't, unless I'd heard it
myself, and seen the parson's face just now."

Her face did not express much amusement cer-
tainly, but she tried to back away from him into the
shadow of the curtain, and he let her go with an
impatient sigh. At this juncture, for the third time
the gate bell tinkled its warning of an arrival, and
Miss Elizabeth Mitford crossed the grass plot. She
caught sight of the young man's face at the draw-
ing-room window, and immediately approached him.



A MATTER OF SKILL. 179

"How do you do, Mr. Jones? I knew you
were here, your cart is outside. How is dear
Helen?"

"She is here to answer for herself."

"lam quite well, auntie."

" I left her lying down, Mr. Jones, I told her
to rest; she was tired out, and it is such a hot day.
Keally," peering at her, "she looks terribly pale.
Come out into the air, love ; come out both of you,
and we will have tea under the tulip tree. I will
tell Betsey to bring it at once." And she bustled
off.

"Helen, I am going. I believe I was rude just
now. I hardly knew what I said; I was cut up,
don't you know. I suppose it isn't your fault that
you don't fancy me ; upon my word, I don't know
what you should see in me after all. It is rough
luck though, I shall never see your face, nor hear
your voice again. I have been thinking we should
spend our whole lives together. That thought had
taken root deep ; how am I to get rid of it ? "

Those were his last words. Before Helen had
time to think what they meant he had gone ; she
heard him talking to Miss Mitford in the garden,
then she heard his quick step on the gravel, then
the click of the gate and the rumble of wheels,



i8o A MATTER OF SKILL.

loud at first, but soon lessening until they died into
silence.

Yes, he had gone, but he would come back ; he
had said he could not live without her. Surely,
surely, surely he would try again. What had she
said ? Her wretched pride, her suicidal vanity had
made her wound him. He must know, he must
guess that she was only a woman after all, and
therefore to be won. The remembrance of Lady
Lucy Freemantle ran a leaden thought through her
brain.

The recollection of Miss Jones's "hint," her
overbearing manner, the sins (of ommission) of the
Jones's progenitors, all these things which had com-
bined in prompting her recent action were now
replaced by a new and sickening dread, which she
(unused to and restive under mental pain) strove
with the strength of her strong will to banish — and
failed.

" My love, we shall miss Mr. Jones," said her
aunt, as they sat together under the tulip tree drink-
ing their tea. "Men make a house livery, and he
had such a pleasant cheery way about him. I de-
clare he reminded me more than once of my poor
Thomas."

"Perhaps he will come to-morrow?" Helen



A MATTER OF SKILL, i8t

was sitting, or rather, lounging back in a deck
chair, her large white hat was on the grass at her
feet, her hands were clasped behind her head, her
eyes, soft and dewy, were fixed on her companion's
face.

"Nay, my love, he bade me a last good-by, h*
is going to-night— on business to London I under-
stood him to say, and then he goes to Paxford, I
believe. Helen, your tea is getting cold. Dear !
dear ! there is a poor little fly in it."

Helen carefully extricated the fly with a leaf,
and placed it on her knee to dry and recover itself,
but it was past cure ; the tea had been of fatal
heat, and it was dead. She looked at it ; how
easily it had come to grief, a false flutter, a fall,
and a painful death as punishment for one small
mistake. To and fro in the sunshine, myriads of
gnats and flies were darting —

"You are so thoughtful, love ; what is it ?"

" It's too hot to talk, auntie. Just look at the
bed of portulacas, with the sun on it. I never
saw such tints, they would drive a painter to de-
spair."

"Mrs. Majoribank's yellow poppies are magnifi-
cent, Helen," with the gentle jealously of the ama-
teur gardener. "Her coarse soil suits them to



xSa AMA7TER OF SKILL.

perfection ; she has promised me some seed next
spring if I live so long. To my mind the seed-
time is the happiest of the year. We sow, and
there is hardly a limit to our expectation of joyful
results. Now the harvest is a period of great
anxiety ; we realize that nothing is under our own
control, we are at the mercy of the elements ; we
gardeners live on faith like the farmers. Mrs.
Majoribanks makes a great mistake with her roses;
she will not prune, she will not sacrifice the present
to the future. My love, you have scratched your
hand ; you will pluck the sweet-brier, you should
cut it, Helen. That is what I said to Mr. Jones ;
he tore off one of the shoots so roughly as he
passed the bush on his way to the gate ; he is
remarkably partial to sweet-brier. Indeed I never
knew such a young man so devoted to flowers.
Mrs. Majoribanks is surprised at his intended mar-
riage to that daughter of Lord Parsons being un-
opposed by her noble relations, but he is such an
amiable and wealthy youth, and, I am sure, will
make a considerate husband to any young lady.
Mrs. Majoribanks quite thought, until Miss Jones
herself contradicted the report, that he came here
to pay his court to you, love. But, I said, Lord
Parson's daughter could, from her assured position,



A MATTER OP SKILL. 183

niarry into trade, a connection which we should pre-
fer a member of our family to avoid. I do not
like gossip, Helen. I spoke most decidedly, and
Mrs. Majoribanks quite agreed with me."

"How parched the lawn is, Auntie. As soon as ;
the sun goes down and it gets cooler we will turn on
the hose and water the grass as well as the flowers."

"Nay, love, it would so encourage the slugs, a
heavy dew falls each night — but do as you like —
Mrs. Majoribanks was very chatty, I stayed there
so long walking round the garden and talking.
She told me Sir Adolphus is in London, he is
always adding to his wealth by fortunate specula-
tions ; everything he touches turns to gold, those
girls of his will have fabulous fortunes and yet
Fred Majoribanks will not propose to the elder
one, who is undoubtedly attached to him, his
mother says. Young men are sadly headstrong.
Mrs. Majoribanks is a clever woman, Helen, she :
notices so many trifles which escape my observa- i
tion; did you remark that Lady Jones had dyed her
hair ? "

"She does not dye it," said the girl, quickly,
"Mrs. Majoribanks dyes hers purple and blues her
ugly face, and she is a disagreeable, spiteful old



1 8 4 A MATTER OF SKILL.

Miss Mitford untied the strings of her mush-
room hat, which were fastened in a bow beneath
her chin, and threw back the ribbons upon her
shoulders ; she was overcome.

" Mrs. Majoribanks is a friend of mine, love," she
said, with mild reproof.

" Isn't that the very reason you would like to
hear her abused ? There, Auntie, don't look shocked,
it was a joke— only it didn't amuse you."

" You are not yourself, love, the air is oppressive
and that fly prevented you drinking your tea. Will
you have some raspberry vinegar instead ? "

" Easpberry vinegar," with a laugh which was
half a sob. " Vinegar already; no, thank you, I
daren't touch it."

Helen's mind that evening was a weathercock,
first she declared herself too tired to go to the
beach, then she remembered that the children were
expecting her and she must not disappoint them.
At the gate she turned back, it was so hot she
would stay in the garden ; on reaching the bush
of sweet-brier she made a fresh decision, the sea
breeze on the shore would be refreshing, she would
go — nay she wouldn't, it was so long a walk — she
would — she wouldn't — finally she would and she
went.



A MATTER OF SKILL. 185

She returned late, very gentle and subdued, very-
careful of, and caressing toward, her aunt, with
pensive eyes and a restless spirit.

This new mood seemed likely to be permanent, it
lasted through the ensuing week and on to the final
days of her visit.

The weather had broken up, a succession of
thunderstorms had succeeded the heat, heavy
showers fell continually, the Atlantic was troubled
and stormy. Neither rough breezes nor rain kept
Helen indoors, she haunted the cliffs and the sea-
shore. Upon the sea-lashed rocks she would stand
for hours, a tall, unbending figure against the dark
background, the wind flapping her skirts and beat-
ing a warm color into her cheeks.

On the last day of her sojourn at Noelcombe she
had gone for her usual evening ramble on the
beach and she had walked for so long and for so
far that she felt very tired as she toiled up the steep
ascent homeward. Fatigue was a new sensation,
but its

" Your merry heart goes all the day,
Your sad one tires in a mile,"

as Shakespeare and several other people have
hitherto observed.



xS6 A MATTER OF SKILL.

When she reached Carnation Cottage, she saw
Miss Elizabeth, with chintz skirt pinned up high,
and Betsey's pattens protecting her feet from the
damp grass, spudding up daisy roots on the lawn ;
on seeing Helen she left her work and hurried
toward her.

"My dear," she cried, "I thought you were never
coming ! Mrs. Majoribanks has been here, she
waited an hour on purpose to wish you good-by."

" I should like to have wished her good-by," said
Helen with a mischievous gleam in her eyes. " Ein
ewig Lebenwohl, is not always a wrench."

44 She had news for us, Helen, she had been
calling at the Joneses'; the engagement is an-
nounced."

Helen was overtired, her knees were trembling,
her voice was rather harsh, she had raised it high.
She turned toward the sweet-brier, then changed
her mind and faced the elder lady.

44 Whose engagement ? " she asked. '

44 Sir Edwin Shuter and Miss Patricia Jones; Mrs.
Majoribanks is so vexed, she says that her son
deliberately flung away his chance."

A beautiful smile crept over Helen's face, the
dimples played in her cheeks ; she laughed a little
joyous contented laugh to herself.



A MATTER OF SKILL. i8$r

a I hope they will be as happy, as happy as the
Queen," she said, returning to the bush of sweet-
brier.

•'Both engagements announced on the same
day ! A curious coincidence, Helen. Patricia's |
will take place first. Lady Luey Freemantle and
our Mr. Jones will not be married until Christmas,
Lord Parsons will not return from America before
then and he wishes to be present. The engage-
ment gives universal satisfaction."

But the engagement was in truth not nearly
so unprecedented as Miss Elizabeth Mitford de-
clared.

Poor Mr. Might, had he known it, was avenged.



1 88 A MATTER OF SKILL.



CHAPTER XL

" We rise in glory as we sink in pride ;
Where boasting ends, there dignity begins."

Young,
" For, 'tis a question left us yet to prove,
Whether love lead fortune, or else fortune love."

Shakespeare.

QUMMER was long past. The corn was all gath -
^ ered in ; the shivering trees were shedding their
variegated leaves; the chilly breath of coming winter
was to be felt at "rosy morn and dewy eve." Even
to a genuine country lover, the last days of October,
amid dying flowers, naked hedges, newly-stripped
woods, and cloudy skies, are depressing, and the
j thought of pavements, shop windows, dry crossings,
and fresh faces possesses a new and decided attra-
tion.

But if Helen ever sighed as she trudged over
sodden leaves and waded through the muddy Meri-
ton lanes, no one heard her ; if the universal decay
and death of autumn saddened her, no one sus-
pected that it was so, How should they \ She was



A MATTER OF SKILL. tfy

the life and soul of her home — an imprisoned sun-
beam in which they all rejoiced. If she smiled less
easily, her smile was sweeter and less swift ; if her
spirits were no longer rampant, they did not over- [
power — they sustained— the humor of her neigh- •
bors. If she was less ready of advice, less quick of
decision, more diffident of the justice of her judg-
ment, more lenient, more sympathetic, and more
thoughtful, she "was older," they said, as though
age always wrought its change thus.

One or two of Helen's girl-acquaintances, who
belonged to the conventional, egotistical, man-hunt-
ing sect — of whom the members, in converse, man-
ner, appearance, and lamentable monotony of char-
acter resemble each other as closely as do primroses
— declared "she had grown stupid and didn't care
for things" ("things" meant their conversation —
which, however, both in purport and intention, far
exceeded their doings). •

Because Helen had made a mistake, or because
fortune had not been kind to her, was no reason
that she should revenge herself upon fate by mak-
ing her innocent family exceedingly uncomfortable,
if not positively miserable, by repinings and moody
preoccupation. She was not the sort of girl to
visit her troubles upon her unfortunate parents^ or



199 A MATTER OF SKILL.

make them pay for her caprice. If she suffered, she
suffered alone ; she showed her mettle, which was
of the right quality. But, as they said, she had
grown older. Under such circumstances a girl of
her caliber ages apace.

But before long Helen had good cause to be pen-
sive — a justifiable excuse for growing more sober
and less childish. A sad event took place, an event
at which remorse, sorrow, and some natural excite-
ment were blent.

Mr. Flight, to whom she had been so unkind —
Mr. Flight, on whom she had practiced her foolish
wiles with such unlooked for result — Mr. Flight,
whose very name turned her sick and cold — Mr.
Flight, of whom she never thought without a stab
of sharp pain— Mr. Flight had atoned for all his of-
fenses by death. He was dead !

Poor Mr. Flight ! At least there was no men-
tion of broken heart as the cause of his death. He
had, like many a heart- whole man, taken fever at
Florence, and, after a long and severe illness, had
succumbed to the disease. His last words had been
of Helen ; his last act had been to make his will, by
which he left her everything that he possessed.
She found herself the owner of fifteen thousand
pounds, and forgot the satisfaction of her riches in



A MATTER OF SKILL. 191

Her anger with herself. She had never so despised
herself. She had been despicably, pitilessly re-
morseless. Even now she could not cast her warm-
est thoughts to him ; she could not grieve for him,
she could wish him back again.

She did not want his money ; all she wanted was
to tell him how bitterly she repented, ' and how
well she understood now that she had laughed
where she had better have wept.

Eegrets are vain emotions, as Helen knew to
her cost — useless encumberers of the soil. Regrets
must be strangled, if life is not to be a waste tangle
of retrospect ; for regrets, like all weeds, grow
apace.

Mrs. Mitford was very tender with the girl at
this time, and would watch her, furtively and un-
observed, from anxious eyes. She had drawn her
own conclusion — a fresh and false one — from
Helen's altered looks and ways.

" Henry," she said one day — impulsively disclos-
ing (as women do) the secret which she had in-
tended to keep inviolate forever — "Henry, Helen
regrets that poor young man. "

"To be sure she does," the Rector answered,
energetically. "I should think very poorly of her
if she did not, Why, we all regret him. His seis



192 A MATTER OF SKILL,

mons were above the average, and his kindness of
heart exceptional."

" But, Henry, you do not understand me. I
mean more than I said. I mean that she mistook
the nature of her feelings. She really and truly j
loved him."

For a few seconds her husband remained in
thought, then he spoke slowly —

" No, Honora — I think not. Do you not re-
member how I scolded her for singing that ridicu-
lous ballad to the poor man —

' It is the most exceeding bore, of all the bores I know,
To have a friend who lost his heart a short time ago ?'

Had her heart been touched, those words would not
have occurred to her. "

"I don't know that," said Mrs. Mitford, with an
indulgent smile. u A girl will say or do anything
from a sheer love of teasing." j

Again, with a thoughtful brow, her husband re- 1
viewed the past, then he spoke with decision —

" You are wrong, Honora. You were always a
most imaginative woman. That poor young man
had no attraction for the child. I found her hiding
in the hayloft more than once when he called. As
there was no chance of her being discovered by him,



A MATTER OF SKILL. 193

I do not think it possible she would have concealed
herself had she formed an attachment for him."

Mrs. Mitf ord was shaken. She was always ready-
to distrust her own judgment and to rely upon that
of her husband, so she brightened perceptibly.

" So she hid in the loft, did she ? How Frances
has searched for her, while that poor young man
was with me for hours in the drawing-room. That
idea upsets my theory ; I am glad of it. But it is
odd to me that our child should be so hard of heart.
I had had several slight affairs before I was her
age."

t( I don't see anything wrong with Helen ; she is
prettier than ever, and as merry as a grig. You
women are always raking and sifting and prying
for a love-tale. If a girl is happy without a hus-
band, you won't believe it."

Mrs. Mitf ord. smiled slyly. Yet her husband was


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 9 11

Online LibraryBeatrice WhitbyA matter of skill : a novel → online text (page 9 of 11)