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- A Life's Morning - 10/80 -
ambitions and knew nothing of vulgar envy; still less did it come of reasoned revolt against the artificial ordering of precedences; Emily's thoughts did not tend that way. She could do perfect justice to the amiable qualities of those who were set above her; she knew no bitterness in the food which she duly earned; but, by no one's fault, there was a vein of untruth in the life she had to lead. To remind herself that such untruth was common to all lives, was an outcome of the conditions of society, did not help her to disregard it; nature had endowed her with a stern idealism which would not ally itself with compromise. She was an artist in life. The task before her, a task of which in these days she was growing more and more conscious, was to construct an existence every moment of which should serve an all-pervading harmony. The recent birth within her of a new feeling was giving direction and vigour to the forces of her being; it had not as yet declared itself as a personal desire; it wrought only as an impassioned motive in the sphere of her intellectual aspirations, She held herself more persistently apart from conventional intercourse; she wished it had been possible to keep wholly to herself in the hours when her services were not demanded. Mr. Athel, who liked to express himself to young people with a sort of paternal geniality, rallied her one day on her excessive study, and bade her be warned by a notorious example. This had the effect of making her desist from reading in the presence of other people.
She had known much happiness during these two months at The Firs, happiness of a kind to dwell in the memory and be a resource in darker days. Though mere personal ease was little the subject of her thoughts, she prized for its effect upon her mind the air of graceful leisure, of urbane repose, which pervaded the house. To compare The Firs with that plain little dwelling on the skirts of a Yorkshire manufacturing town which she called her home, was to understand the inestimable advantage of those born into the material refinement which wealth can command, of those who breathe from childhood the atmosphere of liberal enjoyment, who walk from the first on clean ways, with minds disengaged from anxiety of casual soilure, who know not even by domestic story the trammels of sordid preoccupation. Thus it was with a sense of well-being that she stepped on rich carpets, let her eyes wander over the light and dark of rooms where wealth had done the bidding of taste, watched the neat and silent ministering of servants. These things to her meant priceless opportunity, the facilitating of self-culture. Even the little room in which she sat by herself of evenings was daintily furnished; when weary with reading, it eased and delighted her merely to gaze at the soft colours of the wall-paper, the vases with their growing flowers, the well-chosen pictures, the graceful shape of a chair; she nursed her appreciation of these Joys, resisted the ingress of familiarity, sought daily for novel aspects of things become intimately known. She rose at early hours that she might have the garden to herself in all its freshness; she loved to look from her window into the calm depth of the summer midnight. In this way she brought into consciousness the craving of her soul, made the pursuit of beauty a religion, grew to welcome the perception of new meaning in beautiful things with a spiritual delight. This was the secret of her life, which she guarded so jealously, which she feared even by chance to betray in the phrasings of common intercourse. Wilfrid had divined it, and it was the secret influence of this sympathy that had led her to such unwonted frankness in their latest conversation.
Mrs. Rossall had spoken to her of Beatrice Redwing's delightful singing, and had asked her to come to the drawing-room during the evening; having declined the afternoon's drive, Emily did not feel able to neglect this other invitation. The day had become sultry towards its close; when she joined the company about nine o'clock, she found Beatrice with Mrs. Rossall sitting in the dusk by the open French windows, Mr. Athel in a chair just outside, and Wilfrid standing by him, the latter pair smoking. The sky beyond the line of dark greenery was still warm with after-glow of sunset.
Emily quietly sought a chair near Mrs. Rossall, from whom she received a kind look. Mr. Athel was relating a story of his early wanderings in Egypt, with a leisurely gusto, an effective minuteness of picturing, the result of frequent repetition. At the points of significance he would pause for a moment or two and puff life into his cigar. His anecdotes were seldom remarkable, but they derived interest from the enjoyment with which he told them; they impressed one with a sense of mental satisfaction, of physical robustness held in reserve, of life content among the good things of the world.
'Shall we have lights?' Mrs. Rossall asked, when the story at length came to an end.
'Play us something first,' said Beatrice. 'This end of twilight is so pleasant.'
Mrs. Rossall went to the piano, upon which still fell a glimmer from another window, and filled the room with harmony suiting the hour. Wilfrid had come in and seated himself on a couch in a dark corner; his father paced up and down the grass. Emily watched the first faint gleam of stars in the upper air.
Then lamps and candles were brought in. Beatrice was seen to be dressed in dark blue, her hair richly attired, a jewelled cross below her throat, her bosom and arms radiant in bare loveliness. Emily, at the moment that she regarded her, found herself also observed. Her own dress was of warm grey, perfectly simple, with a little lace at the neck and wrists. Beatrice averted her eyes quickly, and made some laughing remark to Mr. Athel.
'I know you always object to sing without some musical preparation,' said Mrs. Rossall, as she took a seat by the girl's side. 'I wonder whether we ought to close the windows; are you afraid of the air?'
'Oh, leave them open!' Beatrice replied. 'It is so close.'
Her cheeks had a higher colour than usual; she lay back in the chair with face turned upwards, her eyes dreaming.
'You are tired, I am afraid,' Mrs. Rossall said, 'in spite of your sleep in the hammock. The first day in the country always tires me dreadfully.'
'Yes, I suppose I am, a little,' murmured Beatrice.
'Not too tired, I hope, to sing,' said Wilfrid, coming from his couch in the corner to a nearer seat. His way of speaking was not wholly natural; like his attitude, it had something constrained; he seemed to be discharging a duty.
'Observe the selfishness of youth,' remarked Mr. Athel.
'Age, I dare say, has its selfishness too in the present instance,' was Mrs. Rossall's rejoinder.
'To whom does that refer?' questioned her brother, jocosely.
Beatrice turned her head suddenly towards Emily.
'Shall I sing, Miss Hood?' she asked, with a touch of her _ingenue_ manner, though the playfulness of her words rang strangely.
'It will give me much pleasure to hear you,' was the sober reply, coming after an instant of embarrassment.
Beatrice rose. Her movement across the room had a union of conscious stateliness and virgin grace which became her style of beauty; it was in itself the introduction to fine music. Mrs. Rossall went to accompany. Choice was made of a solo from an oratorio; Beatrice never sang trivialities of the day, a noteworthy variance from her habits in other things. In a little while, Wilfrid stirred to enable himself to see Emily's face; it showed deep feeling. And indeed it was impossible to hear that voice and remain unmoved; its sweetness, its force, its skill were alike admirable. Beatrice conversing was quite other than Beatrice when she sang; music was her mode of self-utterance; from the first sustained note it was felt that a difficulty of expression had been overcome, and that she was saying things which at other times she could not, disclosing motives which as a rule the complexities of her character covered and concealed, which were not clear to her own consciousness till the divine impulse gave them form. It was no shallow nature that could pour forth this flood of harmony. The mere gift of a splendid voice, wrought to whatever degree of perfection, would not invest with this rare power. In technical qualities she might have much still to learn, but the passionate poetry of her notes was what no training could have developed, and it would never evince itself with more impressiveness than to-night.
It seemed frivolous to speak thanks. Wilfrid gazed out into the dark of the garden; Emily kept her eyes bent downward. She heard the rustle of Beatrice's dress near her. Mr. Athel began to speak of the piece the sound of Beatrice's voice replying caused Emily at length to look up, and she met the dark eyes, still large with the joy of song. Her own gaze had a beautiful solemnity, a devout admiration, of which it was impossible to doubt the genuineness; Beatrice, observing it, smiled very slightly before turning away again.
A quarter of an hour after, Emily withdrew. Mrs. Rossall played a little, and talk of an idle kind followed. Wilfrid was not disposed to take his usual part in conversation, and his casual remarks were scarcely ever addressed to Beatrice. Presently Mrs. Rossall wished to refer to the 'Spectator,' which contained a criticism of a new pianist of whom there was much talk just then.
'Have you had it, Wilf?' Mr. Athel asked, after turning over a heap of papers in vain.
'Oh, the "Spectator,"' Wilfrid replied, rousing himself from absentness. 'Yes, I had it in the summer-house just before dinner; I believe I left it there. Shall I fetch it?'
'It would serve you right if I said yes,' admonished Mrs. Rossall. 'In the first place you had no business to be reading it--'
'I will go,' Wilfrid said, rising with an effort.
'No, no; it will do to-morrow.'
'May as well get it now,' he said indifferently, and went out by the window.
That part of the garden through which he walked lay in the shadow of the house; the sky was full of moonlight, but the moon itself was still low. A pathway between laurels led to the summer-house. Just short of the little building, he passed the edge of shade, and, before entering, turned to view the bright crescent as it hung just above the house-roof. Gazing at the forms of silvered cloud floating on blue depths, he heard a movement immediately behind him; he turned, to behold Emily standing in the doorway. The moon's rays shone full upon her; a light shawl which seemed to have covered her head had slipped down to her shoulders, and one end was held in a hand passed over her breast. There was something in the attitude which strikingly became her; her slight figure looked both graceful and dignified. The marble hue of her face, thus gleamed upon, added to the statuesque effect; her eyes had a startled look,
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