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parasol, her cushion. His last chapter would probably be in a ball-room,
husband and lover standing by the door watching the Marchioness swinging
round the room on the arm of a young subaltern. 'Other women are younger
than she, Kilcarney, but who is as graceful? Have you ever seen a woman
hold herself like Violet?' One of the daughters (for there have been
children by this second, or shall we say by this third, marriage) comes
up breathless after the dance. 'Darling Uncle Hughie, won't you take me
for an ice?' and he gives her his arm affectionately, but as they pass
away to the buffet Sir Hugh hears Kilcarney speaking of Lily as his
daughter. Sir Hugh's face clouds suddenly, but he remembers that, after
all, Kilcarney is a guardian of his wife's honour. A very ingenious
story, no doubt, and if, as the young man's ascendant - the critics of
1915 are pleased to speak of me as ascendant from the author of
_Muslin_ - I may be permitted to remark upon it, I would urge the very
grave improbability that three people ever lived contemporaneously who
were wise enough to prefer, and so consistently, happiness to the
conventions.

There are still May Gould and Olive to consider, but this preface has
been prolonged unduly, and it may be well to leave the reader to imagine
a future for these girls, and to decide the interests that will fill
Mrs. Barton's life when Lord Dungory's relations with this world have
ceased.

G.M.





MUSLIN



I


The convent was situated on a hilltop, and through the green garden the
white dresses of the schoolgirls fluttered like the snowy plumage of a
hundred doves. Obeying a sudden impulse, a flock of little ones would
race through a deluge of leaf-entangled rays towards a pet companion
standing at the end of a gravel-walk examining the flower she has just
picked, the sunlight glancing along her little white legs proudly and
charmingly advanced. The elder girls in their longer skirts were more
dignified, but when they caught sight of a favourite sister, they too
ran forward, and then retreated timidly, as if afraid of committing an
indiscretion.

It was prize-day in the Convent of the Holy Child, and since early
morning all had been busy preparing for the arrival of the Bishop. His
throne had been set at one end of the school-hall, and at the other the
carpenters had erected a stage for the performance of _King Cophetua_, a
musical sketch written by Miss Alice Barton for the occasion.

Alice Barton was what is commonly known as a plain girl. At home, during
the holidays, she often heard that the dressmaker could not fit her; but
though her shoulders were narrow and prim, her arms long and almost
awkward, there was a character about the figure that commanded
attention. Alice was now turned twenty; she was the eldest, the
best-beloved, and the cleverest girl in the school. It was not,
therefore, on account of any backwardness in her education that she had
been kept so long out of society, but because Mrs. Barton thought that,
as her two girls were so different in appearance, it would be well for
them to come out together. Against this decision Alice said nothing,
and, like a tall arum lily, she had grown in the convent from girl to
womanhood. To her the little children ran to be comforted; and to walk
with her in the garden was considered an honour and a pleasure that even
the Reverend Mother was glad to participate in.

Lady Cecilia Cullen sat next to Alice, and her high shoulders and long
face and pathetic eyes drew attention to her shoulders - they were a
little wry, the right seemingly higher than the left. Her eyes were on
Alice, and it was plain that she wished the other girls away, and that
her nature was delicate, sensitive, obscure, if not a little queer. At
home her elder sisters complained that an ordinary look or gesture often
shocked her, and so deeply that she would remain for hours sitting apart
refusing all consolation; and it was true that a spot on the tablecloth
or presence of one repellent to her was sufficient to extinguish a
delight or an appetite.

Violet Scully occupied the other end of the garden bench. She was very
thin, but withal elegantly made. Her face was neat and delicate, and it
was set with light blue eyes; and when she was not changing her place
restlessly, or looking round as if she fancied someone was approaching,
when she was still (which was seldom), a rigidity of feature and an
almost complete want of bosom gave her the appearance of a convalescent
boy.

If May Gould, who stood at the back, her hand leaning affectionately on
Alice's shoulder, had been three inches taller, she would have been
classed a fine figure, but her features were too massive for her height.
Her hair was not of an inherited red. It was the shade of red that is
only seen in the children of dark-haired parents. In great coils it
rolled over the dimpled cream of her neck, and with the exception of
Alice, May was the cleverest girl in the school. For public inspection
she made large water-coloured drawings of Swiss scenery; for private
view, pen-and-ink sketches of officers sitting in conservatories with
young ladies. The former were admired by the nuns, the latter occasioned
some discussion among a select few.

Violet Scully and May Gould would appeal to different imaginations.

Olive, Alice's sister, was more beautiful than either, but there was
danger that her corn-coloured hair, wound round a small shapely head,
might fail to excite more than polite admiration. Her nose was finely
chiselled, but it was high and aquiline, and though her eyes were well
drawn and coloured, they lacked personal passion and conviction; but no
flower could show more delicate tints than her face - rose tints fading
into cream, cream rising into rose. Her ear was curved like a shell, her
mouth was faint and weak as a rose, and her moods alternated between
sudden discontent and sudden gaiety.

'I don't see, Alice, why you couldn't have made King Cophetua marry the
Princess. Whoever heard of a King marrying a beggar-maid? Besides, I
hear that lots of people are going to be present, and to be jilted
before them all isn't very nice. I am sure mamma wouldn't like it.'

'But you are not jilted, my dear Olive. You don't like the King, and you
show your nobleness of mind by refusing him.'

'I don't see that. Whoever refused a King?'

'Well, what do you want?' exclaimed May. 'I never saw anyone so selfish
in all my life; you wouldn't be satisfied unless you played the whole
piece by yourself.'

Olive would probably have made a petulant and passionate reply, but at
that moment visitors were coming up the drive.

'It's papa,' cried Olive.

'And he is with mamma,' said Violet; and she tripped after Olive.

Mr. Barton, a tall, handsome man, seemed possessed of all the beauty of
a cameo, and Olive had inherited his high aquiline nose and the moulding
of his romantic forehead; and his colour, too. He wore a flowing beard,
and his hair and beard were the colour of pale _cafe-au-lait_. Giving a
hand to each daughter, he said:

'Here is learning and here is beauty. Could a father desire more? And
you, Violet, and you, May, are about to break into womanhood. I used to
kiss you in old times, but I suppose you are too big now. How
strange - how strange! There you are, a row of brunettes and blondes, who
before many days are over will be charming the hearts of all the young
men in Galway. I suppose it was in talking of such things that you spent
the morning?'

'Our young charges have been, I assure you, very busy all the morning.
We are not as idle as you think, Mr. Barton,' said the nun in a tone of
voice that showed that she thought Mr. Barton's remark ill-considered.
'We have been arranging the stage for the representation of a little
play that your daughter Alice composed.'

'Oh yes, I know; she wrote to me about it. _King Cophetua_ is the name,
isn't it? I am very curious indeed, for I have set Tennyson's ballad to
music myself. I sing it to the guitar, and if life were not so hurried I
should have sent it to you. However - however, we are all going home
to-morrow. I have promised to take charge of Cecilia, and Mrs. Scully is
going to look after May.'

'Oh, how nice! Oh, how jolly that will be!' Olive cried; and, catching
Violet by the hands, she romped with her for glee.

But the nun, taking advantage of this break in the conversation, said:

'Come, now, young ladies, it is after two o'clock; we shall never be
ready in time if you don't make haste - and it won't do to keep the
Bishop waiting.' Like a hen gathering her chickens, the Sister hurried
away with Violet, Olive, and May.

'How happy they seem in this beautiful retreat!' said Mrs. Scully,
drawing her black lace shawl about her grey-silk shoulders. 'How little
they know of the troubles of the world! I am afraid it would be hard to
persuade them to leave their convent if they knew the trials that await
them.'

'We cannot escape our trials,' a priest said, who had just joined the
group; 'they are given to us that we may overcome them.'

'I suppose so, indeed,' said Mrs. Scully; and, trying to find
consolation in the remark, she sighed. Another priest, as if fearing
further religious shop from his fellow-worker, informed Mr. Barton, in a
cheerful tone of voice, that he had heard he was a great painter.

'I don't know - I don't know,' replied Mr. Barton; 'painting is, after
all, only dreaming. I should like to be put at the head of an army, but
when I am seized with an idea I have to rush to put it down.'

Finding no appropriate answer to these somewhat erratic remarks, the
priest joined in a discussion that had been started concerning the
action taken by the Church during the present agrarian agitation. Mr.
Barton, who was weary of the subject, stepped aside, and, sitting on one
of the terrace benches between Cecilia and Alice, he feasted his eyes on
the colour-changes that came over the sea, and in long-drawn-out and
disconnected phrases explained his views on nature and art until the
bell was rung for the children to assemble in the school-hall.




II


It was a large room with six windows; these had been covered over with
red cloth, and the wall opposite was decorated with plates, flowers, and
wreaths woven out of branches of ilex and holly.

Chairs for the visitors had been arranged in a semicircle around the
Bishop's throne - a great square chair approached by steps, and rendered
still more imposing by the canopy, whose voluminous folds fell on either
side like those of a corpulent woman's dress. Opposite was the stage.
The footlights were turned down, but the blue mountains and brown
palm-trees of the drop-curtain, painted by one of the nuns, loomed
through the red obscurity of the room. Benches had been set along the
walls. Between them a strip of carpet, worked with roses and lilies,
down which the girls advanced when called to receive their prizes,
stretched its blue and slender length.

'His Grace is coming!' a nun cried, running in, and instantly the
babbling of voices ceased, and four girls hastened to the pianos placed
on either side of the stage, two left-hands struck a series of chords in
the bass, the treble notes replied, and, to the gallant measure of a
French polka, a stately prelate entered, smiling benediction as he
advanced, the soft clapping of feminine palms drowning, for a moment,
the slangy strains of the polka.

When the Bishop was seated on his high throne, the back of which
extended some feet above his head, and as soon as the crowd of visitors
had been accommodated with chairs around him, a nun made her way through
the room, seeking anxiously among the girls. She carried in her hand a
basket filled with programmes, all rolled and neatly tied with pieces of
different coloured ribbon. These she distributed to the ten tiniest
little children she could find, and, advancing five from either side,
they formed in a line and curtsied to the Bishop. One little dot, whose
hair hung about her head like a golden mist, nearly lost her balance;
she was, however, saved from falling by a companion, and then, like a
group of kittens, they tripped down the strip of blue carpet and handed
the programmes to the guests, who leaned forward as if anxious to touch
their hands, to stroke their shining hair.

The play was now ready to begin, and Alice felt she was going from hot
to cold, for when the announcement printed on the programme, that she
was the author of the comedy of _King Cophetua_ had been read, all eyes
were fixed upon her; the Bishop, after eyeing her intently, bent towards
the Reverend Mother and whispered to her. Cecilia clasped Alice's hand
and said: 'You must not be afraid, dear; I know it will be all right.'

And the little play was as charming as it was guileless. The old legend
had been arranged - as might have been expected from a schoolgirl - simply
and unaffectedly. The scene opened in a room in the palace of the King,
and when a chorus, supposed to be sung by the townspeople, was over, a
Minister entered hurriedly. The little children uttered a cry of
delight; they did not recognize their companion in her strange disguise.
A large wig, with brown curls hanging over the shoulders, almost hid the
face, that had been made to look quite aged by a few clever touches of
the pencil about the eyes and mouth. She was dressed in a long garment,
something between an ulster and a dressing-gown. It fell just below her
knees, for it had been decided by the Reverend Mother that it were
better that there should be a slight display of ankles than the least
suspicion of trousers. The subject was a delicate one, and for some
weeks past a look of alarm had not left the face of the nun in charge of
the wardrobe. But these considerations only amused the girls, and now,
delighted at the novelty of her garments, the Minister strutted about
the stage complaining of the temper of the Dowager Queen. 'Who could
help it if the King wouldn't marry? Who could make him leave his poetry
and music for a pretty face if he didn't care to do so? He had already
refused blue eyes, black eyes, brown eyes. However, the new Princess was
a very beautiful person, and ought, all things considered, to be
accepted by the King. She must be passing through the city at the
moment.'

On this the Queen entered. The first words she spoke were inaudible,
but, gathering courage, she trailed her white satin, with its large
brocaded pattern, in true queenly fashion, and questioned the Minister
as to his opinion of the looks of the new Princess. But she gave no
point to her words. The scene was, fortunately, a short one, and no
sooner had they disappeared than a young man entered. He held a lute in
his left hand, and with his right he twanged the strings idly. He was
King Cophetua, and many times during rehearsal Alice had warned May that
her reading of the character was not right; but May did not seem able to
accommodate herself to the author's view of the character, and, after a
few minutes, fell back into her old swagger; and now, excited by the
presence of an audience, by the footlights, by the long coat under which
she knew her large, well-shaped legs could be seen, she forgot her
promises, and strolled about like a man, as she had seen young Scully
saunter about the stable-yard at home. She looked, no doubt, very
handsome, and, conscious of the fact, she addressed her speeches to a
group of young men, who, for no ostensible reason except to get as far
away as possible from the Bishop, had crowded into the left-hand corner
of the hall.

And so great was May's misreading of the character, that Alice could
hardly realize that she was listening to her own play. Instead of
speaking the sentence, 'My dear mother, I could not marry anyone I did
not love; besides, am I not already wedded to music and poetry?' slowly,
dreamily, May emphasized the words so jauntily, that they seemed to be
poetic equivalents for wine and tobacco. There was no doubt that things
were going too far; the Reverend Mother frowned, and shifted her
position in her chair uneasily; the Bishop crossed his legs and took
snuff methodically.

But at this moment the attention of the audience was diverted by the
entrance of the Princess. May's misbehaviour was forgotten, and a murmur
of admiration rose through the red twilight. Dressed in a tight-fitting
gown of pale blue, opening in front, and finishing in a train held up by
the smallest child in the school, Olive moved across the stage like a
beautiful bird. Taking a wreath of white roses from her hair, she
presented them to the King. He had then to kiss her hand, and lead her
to a chair. In the scene that followed, Alice had striven to be
intensely pathetic. She had intended that the King, by a series of
kindly put questions, should gradually win the Princess's confidence,
and induce her to tell the truth - that her affections had already been
won by a knight at her father's Court; that she could love none other.

KING. But if this knight did not exist; if you had never seen him, you
would, I suppose, have accepted my hand?

PRINCESS. You will not be offended if I tell you the truth?

KING. No; my word on it.

PRINCESS. I could never have listened to your love.

KING (_rising hastily_). Am I then so ugly, so horrible, so vile, that
even if your heart were not engaged elsewhere you could not have
listened to me?

PRINCESS. You are neither horrible nor vile, King Cophetua; but again
promise me secrecy, and I will tell you the whole truth.

KING. I promise.

PRINCESS. You are loved by a maiden far more beautiful than I; she is
dying of love for your sake! She has suffered much for her love; she is
suffering still.

KING. Who is this maiden?

PRINCESS. Ah! She is but a beggar-maid; she lives on charity, the songs
she sings, and the flowers she sells in the streets. And now she is
poorer than ever, for your royal mother has caused her to be driven out
of the city.


Here the King weeps - he is supposed to be deeply touched by the
Princess's account of the wrongs done to the beggar-maid - and it is
finally arranged between him and the Princess that they shall pretend to
have come to some violent misunderstanding, and that, in their war of
words, they shall insult each other's parents so grossly that all
possibilities of a marriage will be for ever at an end. Throwing aside a
chair so as to bring the Queen within ear-shot, the King declares that
his royal neighbour is an old dunce, and that there is not enough money
in his treasury to pay the Court boot-maker; the Princess retaliates by
saying that the royal mother of the crowned head she is addressing is an
old cat, who paints her face and beats her maids-of-honour.

The play that up to this point had been considered a little tedious now
engaged the attention of the audience, and when the Queen entered she
was greeted with roars of laughter. The applause was deafening. Olive
played her part better than had been expected, and all the white frocks
trembled with excitement. The youths in the left-hand corner craned
their heads forward so as not to lose a syllable of what was coming; the
Bishop recrossed his legs in a manner that betokened his entire
satisfaction; and, delighted, the mammas and papas whispered together.
But the faces of the nuns betrayed the anxiety they felt. Inquiring
glances passed beneath the black hoods; all the sleek faces grew alive
and alarmed. May was now alone on the stage, and there was no saying
what indiscretion she might not be guilty of.

The Reverend Mother, however, had anticipated the danger of the scene,
and had sent round word to the nun in charge of the back of the stage to
tell Miss Gould that she was to set the crown straight on her head, and
to take her hands out of her pockets. The effect of receiving such
instructions from the wings was that May forgot one-half her words, and
spoke the other half so incorrectly that the passage Alice had counted
on so much - 'At last, thank Heaven, that tiresome trouble is over, and I
am free to return to music and poetry' - was rendered into nonsense, and
the attention of the audience lost. Nor were matters set straight until
a high soprano voice was heard singing:

'Buy, buy, who will buy roses of me?
Roses to weave in your hair.
A penny, only a penny for three,
Roses a queen might wear!
Roses! I gathered them far away
In gardens, white and red.
Roses! Make presents of roses to-day
And help me to earn my bread.'

The King divined that this must be the ballad-singer - the beggar-maid
who loved him, who, by some secret emissaries of the Queen, had been
driven away from the city, homeless and outcast; and, snatching his lute
from the wall, he sang a few plaintive verses in response. The strain
was instantly taken up, and then, on the current of a plain religious
melody, the two voices were united, and, as two perfumes, they seemed to
blend and become one.

Alice would have preferred something less ethereal, for the exigencies
of the situation demanded that the King should get out of the window and
claim the hand of the beggar-maid in the public street. But the nun who
had composed the music could not be brought to see this, and, after a
comic scene between the Queen and the Chancellor, the King, followed by
his Court and suite, entered, leading the beggar-maid by the hand. In a
short speech he told how her sweetness, her devotion, and, above all,
her beautiful voice, had won his heart, and that he intended to make her
his Queen. A back cloth went up, and it disclosed a double throne, and
as the young bride ascended the steps to take her place by the side of
her royal husband, a joyful chorus was sung, in which allusion was made
to a long reign and happy days.

Everyone was enchanted but Alice, who had wished to show how a man, in
the trouble and bitterness of life, must yearn for the consoling
sympathy of a woman, and how he may find the dove his heart is sighing
for in the lowliest bracken; and, having found her, and having
recognized that she is the one, he should place her in his bosom,
confident that her plumes are as fair and immaculate as those that
glitter in the sunlight about the steps and terraces of the palace.
Instead of this, she had seen a King who seemed to regard life as a
sensual gratification; and a beggar-maid, who looked upon her lover, not
timidly, as a new-born flower upon the sun, but as a clever huckstress
at a customer who had bought her goods at her valuing. But the audience
did not see below the surface, and, in answer to clapping of hands and
cries of _Encore_, the curtain was raised once more, and King Cophetua,
seated on his throne by the side of his beggar-maid, was shown to them
again.

The excitement did not begin to calm until the _tableaux vivants_ were
ready. For, notwithstanding the worldliness of the day, it was thought
that Heaven should not be forgotten. The convent being that of the Holy
Child, something illustrative of the birth of Christ naturally suggested
itself. No more touching or edifying subject than that of the
Annunciation could be found. Violet's thin, elegant face seemed
representative of an intelligent virginity, and in a long, white dress
she knelt at the _prie-dieu._ Olive, with a pair of wings obtained from
the local theatre, and her hair, blonde as an August harvesting, lying
along her back, took the part of the Angel. She wore a star on her
forehead, and after an interval that allowed the company to recover
their composure, and the carpenter to prepare the stage, the curtain was
again raised. This time the scene was a stable. At the back, in the
right-hand corner, there was a manger to which was attached a stuffed
donkey; Violet sat on a low stool and held the new-born Divinity in her
arms; May, who for the part of Joseph had been permitted to wear a false
beard, held a staff, and tried to assume the facial expression of a man
who had just been blessed with a son. In the foreground knelt the three
wise men from the East; with outstretched hands they held forth their
offerings of frankincense and myrrh. The picture of the world's
Redemption was depicted with such taste that a murmur of pious
admiration sighed throughout the hall.

Soon after a distribution of prizes began, and when the different awards
had been distributed, and the Bishop had made a speech, there was
benediction in the convent-church.




III


'And to think,' said Alice, 'that this is the very last evening we shall
ever pass here!'


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Online LibraryGeorge MooreMuslin → online text (page 2 of 23)