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- A Life's Morning - 50/80 -
It seemed as though Beatrice would persist.
'Now, if it were not such an unlikely thing,' said her aunt, 'I should be disposed to think it was Mr. Athel who is driving you away.'
'Mr. Athel!' the girl exclaimed, almost haughtily, and with a flush which disappeared as rapidly as it came, leaving the lovely face with a touch of exquisite paleness.
'I mean,' said Mrs. Baxendale quickly, averting her honest eyes, 'that I fear he has offended you.'
'How can Mr. Athel have offended me?' Beatrice asked, with a certain severity.
'I thought perhaps--a remark he made last night on the revival.'
Mrs. Baxendale felt ill at ease. Her first sentence had been inconsiderate; she knew it as soon as it was uttered, and indeed did not quite see what could have induced her to make such a remark. She had not the habit of nice conversation which endows with complete command of the tongue. But her wits had, as you see, come to her rescue.
'Mr. Athel's opinions on that subject are not likely to offend me,' Beatrice replied, with the shadow of a smile.
'I am so afraid lest he should suspect anything of the kind. I am sure it would grieve him dreadfully.'
The girl laughed outright, though not with much joyousness.
'Mr. Athel be grieved for such a cause! My dear aunt, you don't know him. He's as little sensitive as any man could be. Why, he holds it a duty to abuse people who do things he counts foolish.'
'You exaggerate,' returned her aunt, with a smile.
Beatrice continued, vivaciously.
'Oh, you don't know him as well as I do. We used to be always wrangling--in the days of my simplicity. I have been marvelling at his forbearance; it would have been nothing wonderful if he had called me an idiot. Frankness of that kind is the mark of his friendship--haven't you found that out? Hasn't he taken occasion yet to inform you that your life is conducted on an utterly mistaken principle, that you are shallow and inefficient, that you are worse than useless in the world, and ought, if properly constituted, to be a torment to yourself? None of these things he has said? Oh, then you are not admitted to Mr. Athel's intimacy; you are not of the inner circle.'
She spoke with a kind of reckless gaiety, a mocking merriment which her rich voice and command of facial expression made very effective. It startled her hearer, who, when the girl ceased, took one of her hands and patted it kindly.
'Why then,' she said, 'I have been altogether mistaken; for I did really think he had offended you. But now I'm sure you'll stay--won't you?'
'Rather than you should think I run away from Mr. Athel's high censure--certainly.'
Then she became silent, and shortly left the room. Mrs. Baxendale sat by herself musing.
She was a woman given to thoughtfulness, for all that she used her tongue freely when with those she liked. She did not greatly seek such society as Dunfield had to offer, and partly on that account, partly owing to alarms excited by her caustic comments on matters of popular interest, the ladies of the town left her abundance of leisure. She used it well. Though not a highly-educated woman, she read constantly, and books of a solid kind. Society in Dunfield had its book club, and Mrs. Baxendale enjoyed the advantage of choosing literature which her fellow-members were very willing to let her keep as long as she liked. Beatrice derived much amusement from her aunt's method of reading. Beatrice, with the run of Mr. Mudie's catalogues, would have half-a-dozen volumes in her lap at the same time, and as often as not get through them--_tant bien que mal_--in the same day. But to the provincial lady a book was a solid and serious affair. To read a chapter was to have provided matter for a day's reflection; the marker was put at the place where reading had ceased, and the book was not re-opened till previous matter had been thoroughly digested and assimilated. It was a slow method, but not without its advantages, I assure you.
Perhaps to relieve her worthy aunt of any lingering anxiousness, Beatrice, throughout the day, wore an appearance of much contentment, and to Wilfrid was especially condescending, even talking with him freely on a subject quite unconnected with her pet interests. That evening two gentlemen, politicians, dined at the house; Beatrice, under cover of their loud discussions in the drawing-room, exchanged certain remarks with Wilfrid.
'My aunt was so good as to apologise to me on your behalf this morning,' she began.
'Apologise? What have I been guilty of?'
'Oh, nothing. She doesn't appreciate the freemasonry between us. It occurred to her that your remarks on my--well, my predilections, might have troubled me. Judge how amused I was!'
She did not look at him from the first, and appeared to be examining, even whilst she spoke, a book of prints.
'I sincerely hope,' Wilfrid replied, 'that I have uttered no thoughtless piece of rudeness. If I have, I beg you to forgive me.'
She glanced at him. He appeared to speak seriously, and it was the kind of speech he would never have dreamed of making to her in former days, at all events in this tone.
'You know perfectly well,' she answered, with slow voice, bending to look more closely at a page, 'that you never said anything to me which could call for apology.'
'I am not so sure of that,' Wilfrid replied, smiling.
'Then take my assurance now,' said Beatrice, closing her book, and rising to move towards her aunt. As she went, she cast a look back, a look of curious blankness, as if into vacancy.
She sang shortly after, and the souls of the politicians were stirred within them. For Wilfrid, he lay back with his eyes closed, his heart borne on the flood of music to that pale-windowed room of sickness, whose occupant must needs be so sadly pale. The security he felt in the knowledge that Emily grew better daily made him able to talk cheerfully and behave like one without preoccupation, but Emily in truth was never out of his mind. He lived towards the day when he should kneel at her feet, and feel once more upon his forehead those cold, pure lips. And that day, as he believed, was now very near.
To her aunt's secret surprise, Beatrice allowed the end of the week to come and go without any allusion to the subject of departure. It was all the more strange, seeing that the girl's show of easy friendliness with Wilfrid had not lasted beyond the day; she had become as distant and self-centred as before. But on the morning of the following Tuesday, as Mrs. Baxendale sat reading not long after breakfast, Beatrice entered the room in her light travelling garb, and came forward, buttoning her glove.
'You are going out?' Mrs. Baxendale asked, with some misgiving.
'Yes--to London. They are calling a cab. You know how I dislike preparatory miseries.'
Her aunt kept astonished silence. She looked at the girl, then down at her book.
'Well,' she said at length, 'it only remains to me to remember the old proverb. But when is the train? Are you off this moment?'
'The train leaves in five-and-twenty minutes. May I disturb uncle, do you think?'
'Ah, now I understand why you asked if he would be at home through the morning. I'll go and fetch him.'
She went quickly to the library. Mr. Baxendale sat there alone.
'Beatrice is going,' she said, coming behind his chair. 'Will you come and say good-bye?'
Mr. Baxendale jumped up.
His wife nodded.
'Why? What is it? You haven't quarrelled with her about the prayer-meetings?'
'No. It's a fancy of hers, that's all. Come along; she's only twenty minutes to catch the train.'
When they reached the drawing-room, Beatrice was not there. Upon Mrs. Baxendale's withdrawal she had gone to Wilfrid's door and knocked at it. Wilfrid was pacing about in thought. It surprised him to see who his visitor was; yet more, when she advanced to him with her hand extended, saying a simple 'Good-bye.'
Her attire explained. Beatrice possessed the beauty of form and face which makes profit of any costume; in the light-brown cape, and hat to match, her tall, lithe figure had a womanly dignity which suited well with the unsmiling expressiveness of her countenance. The 'good-bye' was uttered briefly and without emphasis, as one uses any insignificant form of speech.
Wilfrid resolved at once to accept her whim; after all, it was but another instance of frequent eccentricities.
'Who is going to the station with you?' he asked.
'No one. I hate partings on the platform.'
She moved away almost as far as the door, then turned again.
'You will be in town before going back to Oxford?'
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