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She was a superb specimen of a fat girl, and in a glow of orange ribbons
and red hair she commanded admiration.

'And to think she is going to waste her time with that dissipated young
man, Mr. Scully!' thought Mrs. Barton. Then Olive stood up. She was all
rose, and when, laughing, with a delicious movement of the arms, she
hitched back her bustle, she lost her original air, and looked as might
have done the Fornarina when not sitting in immortality. It was the
battle of blonde tints: Olive with primroses and corn, May with a
cadmium yellow and red gold.

'And now, Alice, get up and let's see you!' she cried, catching hold of
her sister's arm.

Still resisting, Alice rose to her feet, and May, who was full of good
nature, made some judicious observations.

'And how different we all look from what we did at the convent! Do you
remember our white frocks?'

Alice's face lit up with a sudden remembrance, and she said:

'But why, Lady Sarah, haven't we seen Cecilia? I've been thinking of her
during dinner. I hope she is not ill?'

'Oh, dear me, no! But poor Cecilia does not care to come down when there
is company.'

'But can I not see her?'

'Oh, certainly! You will find her in her room. But you do not know the
way; I will ring for my maid, she will show you.'

At this moment men's voices were heard on the staircase. The ladies all
looked up, the light defining the corner of a forehead, the outline of a
nose and chin, bathing a neck in warm shadow, modelling a shoulder with
grey tints, sending a thousand rays flashing through the diamonds on the
bosom, touching the finger-rings, and lastly dying away amid the folds
of the dresses that trailed on the soft carpet. Mr. Ryan, walking with
his habitual roll and his hands in his pockets, entered. His tie was
under his left ear. Mr. Lynch, haunted by the idea that he had not made
himself agreeable to Alice during dinner, sat down beside her. Mr.
Scully made a rush for May. Tall, handsome Captain Hibbert, with his air
of conventional high style, quitted Lord Dungory, and asked Olive what
they had been saying since they left the dining-room. Mr. Burke tried to
join in the conversation, but Mr. Ryan, thinking it would be as well not
to let the occasion slip of speaking of a certain 'bay harse who'd jump
anythin',' took him confidentially by the sleeve.

'Now, look here, will yer,' he began. The rest of his remarks were lost
in the hum of the conversation, and by well-bred transitions
observations were made on the dancing and hunting prospects of the
season. Mr. Adair took no interest in such subjects, and to everyone's
relief he remained silent. May and Fred Scully had withdrawn to a corner
of the room where they could talk more at their ease; Captain Hibbert
was conscious of nothing but Olive and her laughter, which rippled and
tinkled through an odour of coffee.

Little by little she was gaining the attention of the room. Mr. Adair
ceased to listen to Lord Dungory, who was explaining why Leonardo da
Vinci was a greater painter than Titian. Mr. Lynch left off talking to
Alice; the little blonde honourable looked sillier and sillier as his
admiration grew upon him. Mrs. Barton, to hide her emotion, engaged in
an ardent discussion concerning the rearing of calves with Mrs. Gould.
Lady Sarah bit her lip, and, unable to endure her enemy's triumph any
longer, she said in her most mellifluous tone:

'Won't you sing us something, Captain Hibbert?'

'Well, really, Lady Sarah, I should be very glad, but I don't think, you
know - I am not sure I could manage without my music.'

'I shall be very glad to accompany you. I think I know _In the
Gloaming_, and I have heard you sing that.'

Olive, at a sign from her mother, entreated, and when the gallant
Captain rolled from under the brown-gold moustache the phrase, 'Oh, my
darling!' all strove not to look at her, and when he dropped his voice
to a whisper, and sang of his aching heart, a feeling prevailed that all
were guilty of an indiscretion in listening to such an intimate avowal.
Then he sang two songs more, equally filled with reference to tears,
blighted love, and the possibility of meeting in other years, and Olive
hung down her head, overcome by the fine sentiments which she felt were
addressed to her.

Meanwhile Alice became aware that her sister was the object of all eyes
and thoughts; that she was gaining the triumph that men are agreed may
be desired by women without impropriety. Alice was a healthy-bodied
girl; her blood flowed as warm as in her sister. The men about her did
not correspond with her ideal, but this scarcely rendered the fact that
they neglected her less bitter. She asked Lady Sarah again if she might
go upstairs and see Cecilia.

She found the little cripple leaning over the banisters listening to the
sound of voices.

'Oh, my dear! Is it you? I expected you to come to see me when you left
the gentlemen in the dining-room.'

'I couldn't come before, dear,' said Alice, kissing her friend. 'Just as
I was asking Lady Sarah the way to your room, we heard them coming.'

'And how did you like the party? Which of the men did you think the
nicest?'

'I did not care for any of them; and oh, that odious Mr. Lynch!'

Cecilia's eyes flashed with a momentary gleam of satisfaction, and spoke
of a little excursion - a walk to the Brennans, who lived two miles
distant - that she had been planning for the last few days.




VII


The girls had given each other rendezvous at the gate of Dungory Castle.
Lover was never more anxious to meet mistress than this little deformed
girl to see her friend; and Alice could see her walking hurriedly up and
down the gravel-sweep in front of the massive grey-stone lodge.

'She will see me next time she turns,' thought Alice; and immediately
after Cecilia uttered a joyful cry and ran forward.

'Oh, so it is you, Alice! I am so glad! I thought you were going to
disappoint me.'

'And why, dear, did you think I was going to disappoint you?' said
Alice, stooping to kiss the wan, wistful face.

'I don't know - I can't say - but I fancied something would happen;' and
the great brown eyes began to melt with tears of delight. 'I had, you
know, set my heart on this walk with you.'

'I am sure the pleasure is as much mine as yours; and now, whither lies
our way?'

'Through the deer-park, through the oakwood, across the fields into the
highroad, and then you are at the gate,'

'Won't that be too far for you?'

'Oh, not at all! It is not more than a mile and a half; but for you, you
had to come another mile and a half. It is fully that from here to
Brookfield. But tell me, dear,' said Cecilia, clinging to her friend's
arm, 'why have you not been over to see me before? It is not kind of
you; we have been home from school now over a fortnight, and, except on
the night of the dinner-party, I haven't seen you once.'

'I was coming over to see you last week, dear; but, to tell you the
truth, mamma prevented me. I cannot think why, but somehow she does not
seem to care that I should go to Dungory Castle. But for the matter of
that, why did you not come to see me? I've been expecting you every
day.'

'I couldn't come either. My sisters advised me - I mean, insisted on my
stopping at home.'

'And why?'

'I really can't say,' replied Cecilia.

And now Alice knew that the Ladies Cullen hated Mrs. Barton for her
intimacy with Lord Dungory. She longed to talk the matter out, but dared
not; while Cecilia regretted she had spoken; for, with the quickness of
the deformed, she knew that Alice had divined the truth of the family
feud.

The sun fell like lead upon the short grass of the deer-park and the
frizzled heads of the hawthorns. On the right the green masses of the
oakwood shut in the view, and the stately red deer, lolling their high
necks, marched away through the hillocks, as if offended at their
solitude being disturbed. One poor crippled hind walked with a wretched
sidling movement, and Alice hoped Cecilia would not notice it, lest it
should remind her of her own misfortune.

'I am sure,' she said, 'we never knew finer weather than this in
England. I don't think there could be finer weather, and still they say
the tenants are worse off than ever; that no rent at all, at least
nothing above Griffith's valuation, will be paid.'

'Do they speak much of Griffith's valuation at Dungory Castle?'

'Oh! they never cease, and - and - I don't know whether I ought to say,
but it won't matter with you, I suppose? - mind, you must not breathe a
word of this at Brookfield - the fact is my sisters' school - you know
they have a school, and go in for trying to convert the people - well,
this has got papa into a great deal of trouble. The Bishop has sent down
another priest - I think they call it a mission - and we are going to be
preached against, and papa received a threatening letter this morning.
He is going, I believe, to apply for police.'

'And is this on account of the proselytizing?'

'Oh! no, not entirely; he has refused to give his tenants Griffith's
valuation; but it makes one very unpopular to be denounced by the
priest. I assure you, papa is very angry. He told Sarah and Jane this
morning at breakfast that he'd have no more of it; that they had no
right to go into the poor people's houses and pull the children from
under the beds, and ask why they were not at school; that he didn't care
of what religion they were as long as they paid the rent; and that he
wasn't going to have his life endangered for such nonsense. There was an
awful row at home this morning. For my own part, I must say I sympathize
with papa. Besides the school, Sarah has, you know, a shop, where she
sells bacon, sugar, and tea at cost price, and it is well-known that
those who send their children to the school will never be asked to pay
their bills. She wanted me to come and help to weigh out the meal, Jane
being confined to her room with a sick headache, but I got out of it. I
would not, if I could, convert those poor people. You know, I often
fancy - I mean fear - I often sympathize too much with your creed. It was
only at service last Sunday I was thinking of it; our religion seems so
cold, so cheerless compared to yours. You remember the convent-church at
St. Leonard's - the incense, the vestments, the white-veiled
congregation - oh, how beautiful it was; we shall never be so happy
again!'

'Yes, indeed; and how cross we used to think those dear nuns. You
remember Sister Mary, how she used to lecture Violet for getting up to
look out of the windows. What used she to say? 'Do you want, miss, to be
taken for a housemaid or scullery-maid, staring at people in that way as
they pass?''

'Yes, yes; that's exactly how she used to speak,' exclaimed Cecilia,
laughing. And, as the girls advanced through the oakwood, they helped
each other through the briers and over the trunks of fallen trees,
talking, the while, of their past life, which now seemed to them but one
long, sweet joy. A reference to how May Gould used to gallop the pony
round and round the field at the back of the convent was interrupted by
the terrifying sound of a cock-pheasant getting up from some bracken
under their very feet; and, amid the scurrying of rabbits in couples and
half-dozens, modest allusion was made to the girls who had been expelled
in '75. Absorbed in the sweetness of the past, the girls mused, until
they emerged from the shade of the woods into the glare and dust of the
highroad. Then came a view of rocky country, with harvesters working in
tiny fields, and then the great blue background of the Clare Mountains
was suddenly unfolded. A line and a bunch of trees indicated the Brennan
domain. The gate-lodge was in ruins, and the weed-grown avenue was
covered with cow-dung.

'Which of the girls do you like best?' said Alice, who wished to cease
thinking of the poverty in which the spinsters lived.

'Emily, I think; she doesn't say much, but she is more sensible than the
other two. Gladys wearies me with her absurd affectations; Zoe is well
enough, but what names!'

'Yes, Emily has certainly the best of the names,' Alice replied,
laughing.

'Are the Miss Brennans at home?' said Cecilia, when the maid opened the
hall-door.

'Yes, miss - I mean your ladyship - will you walk in?'

'You'll see, they'll keep us waiting a good half-hour while they put on
their best frocks,' said Cecilia, as she sat down in a faded arm-chair
in the middle of the room. A piano was rolled close against the wall,
the two rosewood cabinets were symmetrically placed on either side of
the farther window; from brass rods the thick, green curtains hung in
stiff folds, and, since the hanging of some water-colours, done by Zoe
before leaving school, no alterations, except the removal of the linen
covers from the furniture when visitors were expected, had been made in
the arrangement of the room.

The Brennan family consisted of three girls - Gladys, Zoe, and Emily.
Thirty-three, thirty-one, and thirty were their respective ages. Their
father and mother, dead some ten or a dozen years, had left them joint
proprietors of a small property that gossip had magnified to three
thousand. They were known as the heiresses of Kinvarra; snub noses and
blue eyes betrayed their Celtic blood; and every year they went to spend
a month at the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin, returning home with quite a
little trousseau. Gladys and Zoe always dressed alike, from the bow
round the neck to the bow on the little shoe that they so artlessly with
drew when in the presence of _gentlemen_. Gladys' formula for receiving
visitors never varied:

'Oh, how do you do - it is really too kind of you to give yourself all
this trouble to come and see us.'

Immediately after Zoe put out her hand. Her manner was more jocose:

'How d'ye do? We are, I am sure, delighted to see you. Will you have a
cup of tea? I know you will.'

Emily, being considered too shy and silent, did not often come down to
receive company. On her devolved the entire management of the house and
servants; the two elder sisters killed time in the way they thought
would give least offence to their neighbours.

Being all St. Leonard's girls, the conversation immediately turned on
convent-life. 'Was Madam this there? Had Madam that left?' Garden
chapel, school, hall, dormitory, refectory were visited; every nun was
passed in review, and, in the lightness and gaiety of the memories
invoked, even these maiden ladies flushed and looked fresh again, the
conversation came to a pause, and then allusion was made to the
disturbed state of the country, and to a gentleman who, it was reported,
was going to be married. But, as Alice did not know the person whose
antecedents were being called into question, she took an early
opportunity of asking Gladys if she cared for riding? 'No, they never
went to ride now: they used to, but they came in so fatigued that they
could not talk to Emily; so they had given up riding.' Did they care for
driving? 'Yes, pretty well; but there was no place to drive to except
into Gort, and as people had been unjust enough to say that they were
always to be seen in Gort, they had given up driving - unless, of course,
they went to call on friends.' Then tea was brought in; and, apropos of
a casual reference to conventual buttered toast, the five girls talked,
until nearly six o'clock, of their girlhood - of things that would never
have any further influence in their lives, of happiness they would never
experience again. At last Alice and Cecilia pleaded that they must be
going home.

As they walked across the fields the girls only spoke occasionally.
Alice strove to see clear, but her thoughts were clouded, scattered,
diffused. Force herself as she would, still no conclusion seemed
possible; all was vague and contradictory. She had talked to these
Brennans, seen how they lived, could guess what their past was, what
their future must be. In that neat little house their uneventful life
dribbled away in maiden idleness; neither hope nor despair broke the
triviality of their days - and yet, was it their fault? No; for what
could they do if no one would marry them? - a woman could do nothing
without a husband.

There is a reason for the existence of a pack-horse, but none for that
of an unmarried woman. She can achieve nothing - she has no duty but, by
blotting herself out, to shield herself from the attacks of
ever-slandering friends. Alice had looked forward to a husband and a
home as the certain accomplishment of years; now she saw that a woman,
independently of her own will, may remain single.

'I wonder,' she said, forgetting for the moment she was speaking to
Cecilia, 'I wonder none of those Brennans married; you can't call them
ugly girls, and they have some money. How dreadfully lonely they must be
living there by themselves!'

'I think they are far happier as they are,' said Cecilia, and her brown
eyes set in liquid blue looked strangely at Alice as she helped her over
the low wall. The girls walked in silence through the stillness of the
silver firs, their thoughts as sharp as the needles that scratched the
pale sky.

'It may seem odd of me to say so - of course I would not say this to
anyone but you - but I assure you, even if I were as tall as you are,
dear, nothing would induce me to marry. I never took the slightest
pleasure in any man's conversation. Do you? But I know you do,' she
said, breaking off suddenly - 'I know you like men; I feel you do. Don't
you?'

'Well, since you put it so plainly, I confess I should like to know nice
men. I don't care for those I have met hitherto, particularly those I
saw at dinner the other night; but I believe there are nice men in the
world.'

'Oh! no there aren't.'

'Well, Cecilia, I don't see how you can speak so positively as that; you
have seen, as yet, very little of the world.'

'Ah, yes, but I know it; I can guess it all, I know it instinctively,
and I hate it.'

'There is nothing else, so we must make the best of it.'

'But there is something else - there is God, and the love of beautiful
things. I spent all day yesterday playing Bach's Passion Music, and the
hours passed like a dream until my sisters came in from walking and
began to talk about marriage and men. It made me feel sick - it was
horrible; and it is such things that make me hate life - and I do hate
it; it is the way we are brought back to earth, and forced to realize
how vile and degraded we are. Society seems to me no better than a
pigsty; but in the beautiful convent - that we shall, alas! never see
again - it was not so. There, at least, life was pure - yes, and
beautiful. Do you not remember that beautiful white church with all its
white pillars and statues, and the dark-robed nuns, and the white-veiled
girls, their veils falling from their bent heads? They often seemed to
me like angels. I am sure that Heaven must be very much like that - pure,
desireless, contemplative.'

Amazed, Alice looked at her friend questioningly, for she had never
heard her speak like this before. But Cecilia did not see her; the
prominent eyes of the mystic were veiled with strange glamour, and, with
divine _gourmandise_, she savoured the ineffable sweetness of the
vision, and, after a long silence, she said:

'I often wonder, Alice, how you can think as you do; and, strange to
say, no one suspects you are an unbeliever; you're so good in all except
that one point.'

'But surely, dear, it isn't a merit to believe; it is hardly a thing
that we can call into existence.'

'You should pray for faith.'

'I don't see how I can pray if I haven't faith.'

'You're too clever; but I would ask you, Alice - you never told me - did
you never believe in God, I mean when you were a little child?'

'I suppose I must have, but, as well as I can remember, it was only in a
very half-hearted way. I could never quite bring myself to credit that
there was a Being far away, sitting behind a cloud, who kept his eye on
all the different worlds, and looked after them just as a stationmaster
looks after the arrival and departure of trains from some great
terminus.'

'Alice! how can you talk so? Aren't you afraid that something awful
might happen to you for talking of the Creator of all things in that
way?'

'Why should I be afraid, and why should that Being, if he exists, be
angry with me for my sincerity? If he be all-powerful, it rests with
himself to make me believe.'

They had now accomplished the greater part of their journey, and, a
little tired, had sat down to rest on a portion of a tree left by the
woodcutters. Gold rays slanted through the glades, enveloping and
rounding off the tall smooth trunks that rose branchless to a height of
thirty, even forty, feet; and the pink clouds, seen through the arching
dome of green, were vague as the picture on some dim cathedral-roof.

'In places like these, I wonder you don't feel God's presence.'

'On the contrary, the charm of nature is broken when we introduce a
ruling official.'

'Alice! how can you - you who are so good - speak in that way?' At that
moment a dead leaf rustled through the silence - 'And do you think that
we shall die like that leaf? That, like it, we shall become a part of
the earth and be forgotten as utterly?'

'I am afraid I do. That dead, fluttering thing was once a bud; it lived
the summer-life of a leaf; now it will decay through the winter, and
perhaps the next, until it finally becomes part of the earth. Everything
in nature I see pursuing the same course; why should I imagine myself an
exception to the general rule?'

'What, then, is the meaning of life?'

'That I'm afraid we shall never learn from listening to the rustling of
leaves.'

The short sharp cry of a bird broke the mild calm of the woods, and
Alice said:

'Perhaps the same thought that troubles us is troubling that bird.'

The girls walked on in silence, and when they came to the end of the
path and their parting was inevitable, there was something of the
passion of the lover in Cecilia's voice: 'Promise me you will come to
see me soon again. You'll not leave me so long; you will write; I shall
not be able to live if I don't hear from you.'

The sound of hooves was heard, and a pair of cream-coloured ponies, with
a florid woman driving determinedly, came sweeping round the corner.

'What a strange person!' said Alice, watching the blue veil and the
brightly dyed hair.

'Don't you know who she is?' said Cecilia; 'that is your neighbour, Mrs.
Lawler.'

'Oh! is it really? I have been so long at school that I know nobody - I
have been anxious to see her. Why, I wonder, do people speak of her so
mysteriously?'

'You must have heard that she isn't visited?'

'Well, yes; but I didn't quite understand. Your father was saying
something the other day about Mr. Lawler's shooting-parties; then mamma
looked at him; he laughed and spoke of "_les colombes de Cythère."_ I
intended to ask mamma what he meant, but somehow I forgot.'

'She was one of those women that walk about the streets by night.'

'Oh! really!' said Alice; and the conversation came to a sudden pause.
They had never spoken upon such a subject before, and the presence of
the deformed girl rendered it a doubly painful one. In her
embarrassment, Alice said:

'Then I wonder Mr. Lawler married her. Was it his fault that - '

'Oh! I don't think so,' Cecilia replied, scornfully: 'but what does it
matter? - she was quite good enough for him.'

At every moment a new Cecilia was revealing herself, the existence of
whom Alice had not even suspected in the old; and as she hurried home
she wondered if the minds of the other girls were the same as they were
at school. Olive? She could see but little change in her sister; and May
she had scarcely spoken to since they left school; Violet she hadn't met
since they parted at Athenry for their different homes. But Cecilia - She
entered the house still thinking of her, and heard Olive telling her
mother that Captain Hibbert had admired her new hat.

'He told me that I'd be the handsomest girl at the Drawing-Room.'

'And what did you say, dear?'

'I asked him how he knew. Was that right?'

'Quite right; and what did he say then?'

'He said, because he had never seen anybody so handsome, and as he had
seen everybody in London, he supposed - I forget the exact words, but
they were very nice; I am sure he admired my new hat; but you - you
haven't told me how you liked it. Do you think I should wear it down on
my eyes, or a bit back?'

'I think it very becoming as it is; but tell me more about Captain
Hibbert.'

'He told me he was coming to meet us at Mass. You know he is a Roman


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