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- The Pillars of the House, V1 - 80/124 -
opened by Felix's hand, to admit a little figure still in petticoats, with the loose flaxen curls, tottering feet, limp white fingers, and vacant blue eyes, whom she daily put through a few exercises to train his almost useless fingers and tongue. The sight of this, Alda declared, made her ill; though the little boy was as docile as he was helpless; but it was quite true that to nerves and ears not inured from the first, Theodore's humming and his concertina were a trial from their perpetuity.
Late that evening came a message to beg Mr. and Miss Underwood would step up; and they stepped, though the east wind was blacker than ever. They found that in great tribulation Miss Maria had brought Alice Knevett home, and sent her to bed all tears and exhaustion, but that Robina and Angela were forgiven--a word so offensive to Felix as relating to the former, that he sorely lamented that prudence forbade their removal, but was somewhat consoled by a letter that Miss Maria brought him from the Vicar of St. Matthew's, who had had a private investigation of the whole subject. He wrote to Felix that his sister was new to the management of the girls, and was a good deal annoyed at the secrecy observed towards herself, not making full allowance for Robina's exceptional circumstances; but that, for his own part, he was convinced of the girl's genuine uprightness and unselfish forbearance; and though he feared her position must be unpleasant just now, he thought it would be for the good of all if she had the patience to live it down, and earn the good opinion he was sure she deserved. Miss Maria reported that Miss Fennimore had been brought round by his opinion, though Miss Fulmort remained persuaded that Robina had 'come over him' in some way; and while yielding to his stringent desire that, as he said, 'one of the worthiest of her girls should not be unjustly expelled,' only let the child herself know that she was tolerated in consideration of her youth, her orphanhood, and her relationship to Clement. Poor Robin! No one could help grieving for the tempest that had fallen on her guiltless head, and hope that all would result in her final good; but the sorrows of an absent school-girl could hardly occupy even her dearest friends, in the full and present crisis of two love affairs.
For Edgar and Major Knevett both arrived, the lover as dispassionate as the father was the reverse. Edgar did, however, as he had undertaken, rise to the position. He joked at it a little in private, to the annoyance and perplexity of Cherry, and, even of Felix; but he was perfectly steady in maintaining his perfect right to address Miss Knevett, in avowing his engagement, and in standing by it.
To Major Knevett, the affair appeared outrageous impudence on the part of a beggarly young painter out of a country bookseller's shop, encouraged by the egregious folly of the aunts. What was said of clergyman's sons and good old family went for absolutely nothing; and Edgar's quiet assurance of success in his profession was scoffed at with incredulity not altogether unpardonable. In the encounter that Felix had the misfortune to witness, since it took place in his own office-parlour, he could not help thinking that Edgar, with his perfect temper, unfailing courtesy, calm self-respect, and steady sense of honour towards the young lady, showed himself the true gentleman in contrast with the swaggering little Major, who seemed to expect that he could bluster the young man out of his presumption, and was quite unprepared for Edgar's cool analysis of his threats. But instead of, like Tom Underwood, cooling down into moderation and kindness so soon as his bolt was shot, the finding it fall short only chafed him the more, and rendered him the more inveterate against all conciliation.
There was an appeal all round to Felix, but he was not so practicable as the universal compliments to his good sense showed to be expected. He had expressed his opinion that it was a rash engagement, hitherto improperly carried on; but he could not be brought to advise his brother to break it off on his side while the lady held to it on hers. It might be best to give it up by mutual consent; but as long as one party was bound, so was the other; and he thoroughly sided with Edgar in not being threatened out of it whilst Alice persisted. Still more flatly did he refuse Miss Pearson's entreaty that he would see the wilful girl, and persuade her how hopeless was her resistance, and how little prospect of the attachment being prosperous. Nothing but despair and perplexity could have prompted the good aunts to try such a resource, but they were at their wits' end. They really loved their niece, and they dreaded the tender mercies of her father, who had indeed petted Alice as a young child, but had made her mother suffer greatly from his temper. If she would yield, they hoped to procure for her a home at York, with their brother's widow, and to save her from a residence in Jersey with the step-mother; but Alice, upheld by a secret commerce of notes ingeniously conveyed, felt herself a heroine of constancy, and kept up her spirits by little irritations to whoever tried to deal with her. She could deftly insinuate, on the one hand, that her aunts had always preached up the Underwood perfections; and on the other, hint to her father that if her home had still remained what it was, she should never have looked out of it; and whenever he flew into a rage, or used violent language, she would look up under her eyelids and whisper something about 'real gentlemen.' Those thorns and claws that had figured in the scale of her transmigration were giving a good many little scratches, which did her feelings some good, but her cause none at all, by the vexation they produced. 'If she could only be made to understand,' said poor Miss Pearson, 'how little she gains by irritating her father, and that he is really a very dreadful person when he is thoroughly offended! Poor child! my heart aches for her.'
So Wilmet was turned in upon her, and before she could utter a word was hugged and kissed all over because she was the very image of darling Edgar, and his dear violet eyes were exactly the same colour.
Unsentimental Wilmet extricated herself, saying, 'Eyes can't be violet coloured. Don't let us go into that silly talk, Alice; things are too serious now.'
'You are come to help me and be a dear!' cried Alice, clasping her hands. 'How does he look? the dear boy!'
'The same as usual,' said Wilmet, coolly. 'But, Alice, if you think that I am come to--'
'Does he--really and truly? I saw him out of the little passage window, and I thought he looked quite thin! And Lizzie Bruce said Mrs. Hartley asked who that handsome young man was who looked so delicate.'
'He is particularly strong and healthy. Alice, I want to set it all before you as a reasonable being--'
'Only do tell me; has he got his appetite? For you know he is used to live where everything is recherche, and when one's out of spirits _things_ do make a difference--'
Was that the claw in the velvet paw?
'He eats three times as much as Felix any day,' said Wilmet, with a certain remembrance of the startling nudity of the bone of yesterday's leg of mutton. 'He is doing very well. You need not be afraid for him; but it seems to me that you should consider whether it can be right--'
'Come, Wilmet, you were my first friend; you can't help being kind to me.'
'I want to show you true kindness.'
'True kindness means something horridly cross! Now don't, Wilmet. I get ever so much kindness as it is! I know what you are going to say. It is very naughty of people to like each other when neither of them has got a sixpence; but if they can't help it, what then? Must they leave off liking, eh?'
'They ought to try to prevent their liking from leading to disobedience and concealment.'
'Ah! but if they can't?'
'People always can.'
'Were you ever tried?' asked Alice, slyly, for all the simplicity.
'I hope never to be, if deceiving my friends and making others deceive is to be the consequence.'
'Well, luckily there isn't much chance,' crept out of the demure lips. It was intended as the thorn beneath the mayflower, but it was no such thing. Wilmet was quite ready to accept the improbability as very fortunate.
'That has nothing to do with it,' she said. 'The question is, what it is right to do now. It seems hard for me to say so, being your friend and his sister--'
'Oh, never mind that. People's sisters never do like the girls they are fond of.'
Decidedly Wilmet could not get on. Her mouth was stopped either by a little rapture about Edgar, or a little velvet-pawed scratch to herself, whenever she tried in earnest to set the matter before Alice; and when, being a determined person, she at last talked on through all that Alice tried to thrust in, and delivered her mind of the remonstrance she had carefully thought over, and balanced between kindness, prudence, and duty, and all the time with the conviction that not one word was heeded! If it was not English malice it was French malice that pointed the replies and sent Wilmet away as much provoked as pitying, and not at all inclined to be examined by Edgar on her interview, and let him gather that she had not had the best of it. Poor Alice! what were these little triumphs of a sharp tongue in comparison with the harm she did herself by exacerbating whoever tried to argue with her? There was one person she did profess to wish to see, namely, Geraldine; but the flying rheumatic pains, excited by the black east wind with sleet upon its blast, could not be trifled with; and Major Knevett's wrath put an effectual stop to Alice's entering the house during the Saturday and Sunday of his stay at Bexley. Perhaps Cherry was not sorry. She could not have pleaded against Edgar, in spite of her disapprobation of both; and moreover, the thought at the bottom of her heart was, 'How could any one who had been the object of such tones of the one brother's voice be won by the showy graces of the other? Edgar could easily have thrown off a disappointment; but Felix came first--and oh! can he shake it off in the same light way?'
She had not the comfort of talking it over. Felix made no sign, and Edgar's line was to treat the whole complication as a matter of pleasantry, pretending that he had only gone into it to please Felix! and yet, as came to their knowledge, privately exchanging billets and catch-words with Alice, while he openly declared his engagement and resolution to work his way up and lay his laurels at her feet.
He went away the very same morning as Major Knevett carried off his
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