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- What's Mine's Mine - 4/89 -
marriage, intervened. They loved each other, if not tenderly, yet with the genuineness of healthy family-habit--a thing not to be despised, for it keeps the door open for something better. In itself it is not at all to be reckoned upon, for habit is but the merest shadow of reality. Still it is not a small thing, as families go, if sisters and brothers do not dislike each other.
They were criticizing certain of the young men they had met at the said ball. Being, in their development, if not in their nature, commonplace, what should they talk about but clothes or young men? And why, although an excellent type of its kind, should I take the trouble to record their conversation? To read, it might have amused me--or even interested, as may a carrot painted by a Dutchman; but were I a painter, I should be sorry to paint carrots, and the girls' talk is not for my pen. At the same time I confess myself incapable of doing it justice. When one is annoyed at the sight of things meant to be and not beautiful, there is danger of not giving them even the poor fair-play they stand in so much the more need of that it can do so little for them.
But now they changed the subject of their talk. They had come to a point of the road not far from the ruin to which the children had run across the heather.
"Look, Chrissy! It IS an old castle!" said Mercy. "I wonder whether it is on our land!"
"Not much to be proud of!" replied the other. "It is nothing but the walls of a square house!"
"Not just a common square house! Look at that pepper-pot on one of the corners!--I wonder how it is all the old castles get deserted!"
"Because they are old. It's well to desert them before they tumble down."
"But they wouldn't tumble down if they weren't neglected. Think of Warwick castle! Stone doesn't rot like wood! Just see the thickness of those walls!"
"Yes, they are thick! But stone too has its way of rotting. Westminster palace is wearing through, flake by flake. The weather will be at the lords before long."
"That's what Valentine would call a sign of the times. I say, what a radical he is, Chrissy!--Look! the old place is just like an empty egg-shell! I know, if it had been mine, I wouldn't have let it come to that!"
"You say so because it never was yours: if it had been, you would know how uncomfortable it was!"
"I should like to know," said Mercy, after a little pause, during which they stood looking at the ruin, "whether the owners leave such places because they get fastidious and want better, or because they are too poor to keep them up! At all events a man must be poor to SELL the house that belonged to his ancestors!--It must be miserable to grow poor after being used to plenty!--I wonder whose is the old place!"
"Oh, the governor's, I suppose! He has all hereabout for miles."
"I hope it is ours! I SHOULD like to build it up again! I would live in it myself!"
"I'm afraid the governor won't advance your share for that purpose!"
"I love old things!" said Mercy.
"I believe you take your old doll to bed with you yet!" rejoined Christina. "I am different to you!" she continued, with Frenchified grammar; "I like things as new as ever I can have them!"
"I like new things well enough, Chrissy--you know I do! It is natural. The earth herself has new clothes once a year. It is but once a year, I grant!"
"Often enough for an old granny like her!"
"Look what a pretty cottage!--down there, half-way to the burn! It's like an English cottage! Those we saw as we came along were either like a piece of the earth, or so white as to look ghastly! This one looks neat and comfortable, and has trees about it!"
The ruin, once a fortified house and called a castle, stood on a sloping root or spur that ran from the hill down to the bank of the stream, where it stopped abruptly with a steep scaur, at whose foot lay a dark pool. On the same spur, half-way to the burn, stood a low, stone-built, thatched cottage, with a little grove about it, mostly of the hardy, contented, musical fir--a tree that would seem to have less regard to earthly prosperity than most, and looks like a pilgrim and a stranger: not caring much, it thrives where other trees cannot. There might have been a hundred of them, mingled, in strangest contrast, with a few delicate silver birches, about the cottage. It stood toward the east side of the sinking ridge, which had a steep descent, both east and west, to the fields below. The slopes were green with sweet grass, and apparently smooth as a lawn. Not far from where the cottage seemed to rest rather than rise or stand, the burn rushed right against the side of the spur, as if to go straight through it, but turned abruptly, and flowed along the side to the end of it, where its way to the sea was open. On the point of the ridge were a few more firs: except these, those about the cottage, the mole on the hill-cheek, and the plantation about the New House, up or down was not a tree to be seen. The girls stood for a moment looking.
"It's really quite pretty!" said Christina with condescension. "It has actually something of what one misses here so much--a certain cosy look! Tidy it is too! As you say, Mercy, it might be in England --only for the poverty of its trees.--And oh those wretched bare hills!" she added, as she turned away and moved on.
"Wait till the heather is quite out: then you will have colour to make up for the bareness."
"Tell true now, Mercy: that you are Scotch need not keep you from speaking the truth:--don't you think heather just--well--just a leetle magentaish?--not a colour to be altogether admired?--just a little vulgar, don't you know? The fashion has changed so much within the last few years!"
"No, I don't think so; and if I did I should be ashamed of it. I suppose poor old mother Earth ought to go to the pre-Raphaelites to be taught how to dress herself!"
Mercy spoke with some warmth, but Christina was not sufficiently interested to be cross. She made no answer.
They were now at the part of the road which crossed the descending spur as it left the hill-side. Here they stopped again, and looked down the rocky slope. There was hardly anything green betwixt them and the old ruin--little but stones on a mass of rock; but immediately beyond the ruin the green began: there it seemed as if a wave of the meadow had risen and overflowed the spur, leaving its turf behind it. Catching sight of Hope and Grace as they ran about the ruin, they went to join them, the one drawn by a vague interest in the exuviae of vanished life, the other by mere curiosity to see inside the care-worn, protesting walls. Through a gap that might once have been a door, they entered the heart of the sad unhoping thing dropt by the Past on its way to oblivion: nothing looks so unlike life as a dead body, nothing so unfit for human dwelling as a long-forsaken house.
Finding in one corner a broken stair, they clambered up to a gap in the east wall; and as they reached it, heard the sound of a horse's feet. Looking down .the road, they saw a gig approaching with two men. It had reached a part not so steep, and was coming at a trot.
"Why!" exclaimed Christina, "there's Val!--and some one with him!"
"I heard the governor say to mamma," returned Mercy, "that Val was going to bring a college friend with him,--'for a pop at the grouse,' he said. I wonder what he will be like!"
"He's a good-big-looking fellow," said Christina.
They drew nearer.
"You might have said a big, good-looking fellow!" rejoined Mercy.
"He really is handsome!--Now mind, Mercy, I was the first to discover it!" said Christina.
"Indeed you were not!--At least I was the first to SAY it!" returned Mercy. "But you will take him all to yourself anyhow, and I am sure I don't care!"
Yet the girls were not vulgar--they were only common. They did and said vulgar things because they had not the sensitive vitality to shrink from them. They had not been well taught--that is roused to LIVE: in the family was not a breath of aspiration. There was plenty of ambition, that is, aspiration turned hell-ward. They thought themselves as far from vulgar as any lady in any land, being in this vulgar--that they despised the people they called vulgar, yet thought much of themselves for not being vulgar. There was little in them the world would call vulgar; but the world and its ways are vulgar; its breeding will not pass with the ushers of the high countries. The worst in that of these girls was a FAST, disagreeable way of talking, which they owed to a certain governess they had had for a while.
They hastened to the road. The gig came up. Valentine threw the reins to his companion, jumped out, embraced his sisters, and seemed glad to see them. Had he met them after a like interval at home, he would have given them a cooler greeting; but he had travelled so many miles that they seemed not to have met for quite a long time.
"My friend, Mr. Sercombe," he said, jerking his head toward the gig.
Mr. Sercombe raised his POT-LID--the last fashion in head-gear--and acquaintance was made.
"We'll drive on, Sercombe," said Valentine, jumping up. "You see, Chris, we're half dead with hunger! Do you think we shall find anything to eat?"
"Judging by what we left at breakfast," replied Christina, "I should say you will find enough for--one of you; but you had better go and see."
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