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Lucy was not called on to write any more formal invitations to Mr. Talboys. Her uncle used merely to say to her: "Talboys dines with us to-day." She made no remark; she respected her uncle's preference; besides--the pony! Of these trios Mr. Fountain was the true soul. He had to blow the coals of conversation right and left. It is very good of me not to compare him to the Tropic between two frigid zones. At first he took his nap as usual; for he said to himself: "Now I have started them they can go on." Besides, he had seen pictures in the shop windows of an old fellow dozing and then the young ones "popping."
Dozing off with this idea uppermost, he used to wake with his eyes shut and his ears wide open; but it was to hear drowsy monosyllables dropping out at intervals like minute-guns, or to find Lucy gone and Talboys reading the coals. Then the schemer sighed, and took to strong coffee soon after dinner, and gave up his nap, and its loss impaired his temper the rest of the evening.
He indemnified himself for these sleepless dinners by asking David Dodd and his sister to tea thrice a week on the off-nights; this joyous pair amused the old gentleman, and he was not the man to deny himself a pleasure without a powerful motive.
"What, again so soon?" hazarded Lucy, one day that he bade her invite them. "I hardly know how to word my invitation; I have exhausted the forms."
"If you say another word, I'll make them come every night. Am I to have no amusement?" he added, in a deep tone of reproach; "they make me laugh."
"Ah! I forgot; forgive me."
"Little hypocrite; don't they you too, pray? Why, you are as dull as ditchwater the other evenings."
"Me, dear, dull with you?"
"Yes, Miss Crocodile, dull with a pattern uncle and his friend--and your admirer." He watched her to see how she would take this last word. Catch her taking it at all. "I am never dull with you, dear uncle," said she; "but a third person, however estimable, is a certain restraint, and when that person is not very lively--" Here the explanation came quietly to an untimely end, like those old tunes that finish in the middle or thereabouts.
"But that is the very thing; what do I ask them for to-night but to thaw Talboys?"
"To thaw Talboys? he! he!"
Lucy seemed so tickled by this expression that the old gentleman was sorry he had used it.
"I mean, they will make him laugh." Then, to turn it off, he said hastily, "And don't forget the fiddle, Lucy."
"Oh, yes, dear, please let me forget that, and then perhaps they may forget to bring it."
"Why, you pressed him to bring it; I heard you."
"Did I?" said Lucy, ruefully.
"I am sure I thought you were mad after a fiddle, you seconded Eve so warmly; so that. was only your extravagant politeness after all. I am glad you are caught. I like a fiddle, so there is no harm done."
Yes, reader, you have hit it. Eve, who openly quizzed her brother, but secretly adored him, and loved to display all his accomplishments, had egged on Mr. Fountain to ask David to bring his violin next time. Lucy had shivered internally. "Now, of all the screeching, whining things that I dislike, a violin!"--and thus thinking, gushed out, "Oh, pray do, Mr. Dodd," with a gentle warmth that settled the matter and imposed on all around.
This evening, then, the Dodds came to tea.
They found Lucy alone in the drawing-room, and Eve engaged her directly in sprightly conversation, into which they soon drew David, and, interchanging a secret signal, plied him with a few artful questions, and--launched him. But the one sketch I gave of his manner and matter must serve again and again. Were I to retail to the reader all the droll, the spirited, the exciting things he told his hearers, there would be no room for my own little story; and we are all so egotistical! Suffice it to say, the living book of travels was inexhaustible; his observation and memory were really marvelous, and his enthusiasm, coupled with his accuracy of detail, had still the power to inthrall his hearers.
"Mr. Dodd," said Lucy, "now I see why Eastern kings have a story-teller always about them--a live story-teller. Would not you have one, Miss Dodd, if you were Queen of Persia?"
"Me? I'd have a couple--one to make me laugh; one miserable."
"One would be enough if his resources were equal to your brother's. Pray go on, Mr. Dodd. It was madness to interrupt you with small talk."
David hung his head for a moment, then lifted it with a smile, and sailed in the spirit into the China seas, and there told them how the Chinamen used to slip on board his ship and steal with supernatural dexterity, and the sailors catch them by the tails, which they observing, came ever with their tails soaped like pigs at a village feast; and how some foolhardy sailors would venture into the town at the risk of their lives; and how one day they had to run for it, and when they got to the shore their boat was stolen, and they had to 'bout ship and fight it out, and one fellow who knew the natives had loaded the sailors' guns with currant jelly. Make ready--present--fire! In a moment the troops of the Celestial Empire smarted, and were spattered with seeming gore, and fled yelling.
Then he told how a poor comrade of his was nabbed and clapped in prison, and his hands and feet were to be cut off at sunrise; himself at noon. It was midnight, and strict orders from the quarterdeck had been issued that no man should leave the ship: what was to be done? It was a moonlight night. They met, silent as death, between decks--daren't speak above a whisper, for fear the officers should hear them. His messmate was crying like a child. One proposed one thing, one another; but it was all nonsense, and we knew it was, and at sunrise poor Tom must die.
At last up jumps one fellow, and cries, "Messmates, I've got it; Tom isn't dead yet."
This was the moment Mr. Fountain and Mr. Talboys chose for coming into the drawing-room, of course. Mr. Fountain, with a shade of hesitation and awkwardness, introduced the Dodds to Mr. Talboys: he bowed a little stiffly, and there was a pause. Eve could not repress a little movement of nervous impatience. "David is telling us one of his nonsensical stories, sir," said she to Mr. Fountain, "and it is so interesting; go on, David."
"Well, but," said David, modestly, "it isn't everybody that likes these sea-yarns as you do, Eve. No, I'll belay, and let my betters get a word in now."
"You are more merciful than most story-tellers, sir," said Talboys.
Eve tossed her head and looked at Lucy, who with a word could have the story go on again. That young lady's face expressed general complacency, politeness, and tout m'est egal. Eve could have beat her for not taking David's part. "Doubleface!" thought she. She then devoted herself with the sly determination of her sex to trotting David out and making him the principal figure in spite of the new-corner.
But, as fast as she heated him, Talboys cooled him. We are all great at something or other, small or great. Talboys was a first-rate freezer. He was one of those men who cannot shine, but can eclipse. They darken all but a vain man by casting a dark shadow of trite sentences on each luminary. The vain man insults them directly, and so gets rid of them.
Talboys kept coming across honest enthusiastic David with little remarks, each skillfully discordant with the rising sentiment. Was he droll, Talboys did a bit of polite gravity on him; was he warm in praise of some gallant action, chill irony trickled on him from T.
His flashes of romance were extinguished by neat little dicta, embodying sordid and false, but current views of life. The gauze wings of eloquence, unsteeled by vanity, will not bear this repeated dabbing with prose glue, so David collapsed and Talboys conquered--"spell" benumbed "charm." The sea-wizard yielded to the petrifier, and "could no more," as the poets say. Talboys smiled superior. But, as his art was a purely destructive one, it ended with its victim; not having an idea of his own in his skull, the commentator, in silencing his text, silenced himself and brought the society to a standstill. Eve sat with flashing eyes; Lucy's twinkled with sly fun: this made Eve angrier. She tried another tack.
"You asked David to bring his fiddle," said she, sharply, "but I suppose now--"
"Has he brought it?" asked Mr. Fountain, eagerly.
"Yes, he has; I made him" (with a glance of defiance at Talboys).
Mr. Fountain rang the bell directly and sent for the fiddle. It came. David took it and tuned it, and made it discourse. Lucy leaned a little back in her chair, wore her "tout m'est egal face," and Eve watched her like a cat. First her eyes opened with a mild astonishment, then her lips parted in a smile; after a while a faint color came and went, and. her eyes deepened and deepened in color, and glistened with the dewy light of sensibility.
A fiddle wrought this, or rather genius, in whose hand a jews-harp is the lyre of Orpheus, a fiddle the harp of David, a chisel a hewer of heroic forms, a brush or a pen the scepter of souls, and, alas! a nail a picklock.
Inside every fiddle is a soul, but a coy one. The nine hundred and ninety-nine never win it. They play rapid tunes, but the soul of beautiful gayety is not there; slow tunes, very slow ones, wherein the spirit of whining is mighty, but the sweet soul of pathos is absent; doleful, not nice and tearful. Then comes the Heaven-born fiddler,* who can make himself cry. with his own fiddle. David had a touch of this witchcraft. Though a sound musician and reasonably master of his instrument, he could not fly in a second up and down it, tickling the fingerboard and scratching the strings without an atom of tone, as the mechanical monkeys do that boobies call fine players.
* This is a definition of the Heaven-born fiddler by Pate Bailey, a gypsy tinker and celestial violinist. Being asked for a test of proficiency on that instrument, he replied that no man is a fiddler "till he can gar himsel greet wi a feddle."
"Great Orpheus played so well he moved Old Nick, But these move nothing but their fiddlestick."*
* See how unjust satire is! Don't they move their finger-nails?
But he could make you laugh and crow with his fiddle, and could make you jump up, aetat. 60, and snap your fingers at old age and propriety, and propose a jig to two bishops and one master of the rolls, and, they declining, pity them without a shade of anger, and substitute three chairs; then sit unabashed and smiling at the past; and the next minute he could make you cry, or near it. In a word he could evoke the soul of that wonderful wooden shell, and bid it discourse with the souls and hearts of his hearers.
Meantime Lucy Fountain's face would have interested a subtle student of her sex.
Her sensibility to music was great, and the feeling strains stole into her nature, and stirred the treasures of the deep to the surface. Eve, a keen if not a profound observer, was struck by the rising beauty of this countenance, over which so many moods chased one another. She said to herself: "Well, David is right, after all; she is a lovely girl. Her features are nothing out of the way. Her nose is neither one thing nor the other, but her expression is beautiful. None of your wooden faces for me. And, dear heart, how her neck rises! La! how her color comes and goes! Well, I do love the fiddle myself dearly; and now, if her eyes are not brimming; I could kiss her! La! David," cried she, bursting the bounds of silence, "that is enough of the tune the old cow died of; take and play something to keep our hearts up--do."
Eve's good-humor and mirth were restored by David's success, and now nothing would serve her turn but a duet, pianoforte and violin. Miss Fountain objected, "Why spoil the violin?" David objected too, "I had hoped to hear the piano-forte, and how can I with a fiddle sounding under my chin?" Eve overruled both peremptorily.
"Well, Miss Dodd, what shall we select? But it does not matter; I feel sure Mr. Dodd can play a livre ouvert."
"Not he," said Eve, hypocritically, being secretly convinced he could. "Can you play 'a leevre ouvert,' David?"
"Who is it by, Miss Fountain?" Lucy never moved a muscle.
After a rummage a duet was found that looked promising, and the performance began. In the middle David stopped.
"Ha! ha! David's broke down," shrieked Eve, concealing her uneasiness under fictitious gayety. "I thought he would."
"I beg your pardon," explained David to Miss Fountain, "but you are out of time."
"Am I?" said Lucy, composedly.
"And have been, more or less, all through."
"David, you forget yourself."
"No, no; set me right, by all means, Mr. Dodd. I am not a hardened offender."
"Is it not just possible the violin may be the instrument that is out of time?" suggested Talboys, insidiously.
"No," said David, simply, "I was right enough."
"Let us try again, Mr. Dodd. Play me a few bars first in exact time. Thank you. Now."
"All went merry as a marriage bell" for a page and a half; then David, fiddling away, cried out, "You are getting too fast; 'ri tum tiddy, iddy ri tum ti;" then, by stamping and accenting very strongly, he kept the piano from overflowing its bounds. The piece ended. Eve rubbed her hands. "Now you'll catch it, Mr. David!"
"I am afraid I gave you a great deal of trouble, Mr. Dodd."
"En revanche, you gave us a great deal of pleasure," put in Mr. Talboys.
Lucy turned her head and smiled graciously. "But piano-forte players play so much by themselves, they really forget the awful importance of time."
"I profit by your confession that they do sometimes play by themselves," said Mr. Talboys. "Be merciful, and let us hear you by yourself."' Eve turned as red as fire.
David backed the request sincerely.
Lucy played a piece composed expressly for the piano by a pianist of the day. David sat on her left hand and watched intently how she did it.
When it was over, Talboys did a bit of rapture; Eve another.
"That is playing."
"I would not have believed it if I had not seen it done," said David. "Eve, you should have seen her beautiful fingers thread in and out among the keys; it was like white fire dancing; and as for her hand, it is not troubled with joints like ours, I should say."
"The music, Mr. Dodd," said Lucy, severely.
"Oh, the music! Well, I could hardly take on me to say. You see I heard it by the eye, and that was all in its favor; but I should say the music wasn't worth a button."
"How you run off with one's words, Eve! I mean, played by anybody but her. Why, what was it, when you come to think? Up and down the gamut, and then down and up. No more sense in it than a b c--a scramble to the main-masthead for nothing, and back to no good. I'd as lief see you play on the table, Miss Fountain."
"Poor Moscheles!" said Lucy, dryly.
"Revenge is in your power," said Talboys; "play no more; punish us all for this one heretic."
Lucy reflected a moment; she then took from the canterbury a thick old book. "This was my mother's. Her taste was pure in music, as in everything. I shall be sorry if you do not all like this," added she, softly.
It was an old mass; full, magnificent chords in long succession, strung together on a clear but delicate melody. She played it to perfection: her lovely hands seemed to grasp the chords. No fumbling in the base; no gelatinizing in the treble. Her touch, firm and masterly, yet feminine, evoked the soul of her instrument, as David had of his, and she thought of her mother as she played. These were those golden strains from which all mortal dross seems purged. Hearing them so played, you could not realize that he who writ them had ever eaten, drunk, smoked, snuffed, and hated the composer next door. She who played them felt their majesty and purity. She lifted her beaming eye to heaven as she played, and the color receded from her cheek; and when her enchantment ended she was silent, and all were silent, and their ears ached for the departed charm.
Then she looked round a mute inquiry.
Talboys applauded loudly.
But the tear stood in David's eye, and he said nothing.
"Well, David," said Eve, reproachfully, "I'm sure if that does not please you--"
"Please me," cried David, a little fretfully; "more shame for me if it does not. Please is not the word. It is angel music, I call it--ah!"
"Well, you need not break your heart for that: he is going to cry--ha! ha!"
"I'm no such thing," cried David, indignantly, and blew his nose--promptly, with a vague air of explanation and defiance.
But why the male of my species blows its nose to hide its sensibility a deeper than I must decide.
Mr. Talboys for some time had not been at his ease. He had been playing too, and an instrument he hated--second fiddle. He rose and joined Mr. Fountain, who was sitting half awake on a distant sofa.
"Aha!" thought Eve, exulting, "we have driven him away."
Judge her mortification when Lucy, after shutting the piano, joined her uncle and Mr. Talboys. Eve whispered David: "Gone to smooth him down: the high and mighty gentleman wasn't made enough of."
"Every one in their turn," said David, calmly; "that is manners. Look! it is the old gentleman she is being kind to. She could not be unkind to anyone, however."
Eve put her lips to David's ear: "She will be unkind to you if you are ever mad enough to let her see what I see," said she, in a cutting whisper.
"What do you see? More than there is to see, I'll wager," said David, looking down.
"Ah! that is the way with young men, the moment they take a fancy; their sister is nothing to them, their best friend loses their confidence."
"Don't ye say that, Eve--now don't say that!"
"No, no, David, never mind me. I am cross. And if you saw a sore heart in store for anyone you had a regard for, wouldn't you be cross? Young men are so stupid, they can't read a girl no more than Hebrew. If she is civil and affable to them, oh, they are the man directly, when, instead of that, if it was so, she would more likely be shy and half afraid to come near them. David, you are in a fool's paradise. In company, and even in flirtation, all sorts meet and part again; but it isn't so with marriage. There 'it is beasts of a kind that in one are joined, and birds of a feather that came together.' Like to like, David. She is a fine lady and she will marry a fine gentleman, and nothing else, with a large income. If she knew what has been in your head this month past, she would open her eyes and ask if the man was mad."
"She has a right to look down on me, I know," murmured David, humbly; "but" (his eye glowing with sudden rapture) "she doesn't--she doesn't."
"Look down on you! You are better company than she is, or anyone she can get in this-out-of-the-way place; it is her interest to be civil to you. I am too hard upon her. She is a lady--a perfect lady--and that is why she is above giving herself airs. No, David, she is not the one to treat us with disrespect, if we don't forget ourselves. But if ever you let her see that you are in love with her, you will get an affront that will make your cheek burn and my heart smart--so I tell you."
"Hush! I never told you I was in love with her."
"Never told me? Never told me? Who asked you to tell me? I have eyes, if you have none."
"Eve," said David imploringly, "I don't hear of any lover that she has. Do you?"
"No," said Eve carelessly. "But who knows? She passes half the year a hundred miles from this, and there are young men everywhere. If she was a milkmaid, they'd turn to look at her with such a face and figure as that, much more a young lady with every grace and every charm. She has more than one after her that we never see, take my word."
Eve had no sooner said this than she regretted it, for David's face quivered, and he sighed like one trying to recover his breath after a terrible blow.
What made this and the succeeding conversation the more trying and peculiar was, that the presence of other persons in the room, though at a considerable distance, compelled both brother and sister, though anything but calm, to speak sotto voce. But in the history of mankind more strange and incongruous matter has been dealt with in an undertone, and with artificial and forced calmness.
"My poor David!" said Eve sorrowfully; "you who used to be so proud, so high-spirited, be a man! Don't throw away such a treasure as your affection. For my sake, dear David, your sister's sake, who does love you so very, very dearly!"
"And I love you, Eve. Thank you. It was hard lines. Ah! But it is wholesome, no doubt, like most bitters. Yes. Thank you, Eve. I do admire her v-very much," and his voice faltered a little. "But I am a man for all that, and I'll stand to my own words. I'll never be any woman's slave."
"That is right, David."
"I will not give hot for cold, nor my heart for a smile or two. I can't help admiring her, and I do hope she will be--happy--ah!--whoever she fancies. But, if I am never to command her, I won't carry a willow at my mast-head, and drift away from reason and manhood, and my duty to you, and mother, and myself."
"Ah! David, if you could see how noble you look now. Is it a promise, David? for I know you will keep your word if once you pass it."
"There is my hand on it, Eve."
The brother and sister grasped hands, and when David was about to withdraw his, Eve's soft but vigorous little hand closed tighter and kept it firmer, and so they sat in silence.
"Now don't you be cross."
"No, dear. Eve is sad, not cross; what is it?
"Well, Eve--dear Eve."
"Don't be afraid to speak your mind to me--why should you?"
"Well, then, Eve, now, if she had not some little kindness for me, would she be so pleased with these thundering yarns I keep spinning her, as old as Adam, and as stale as bilge-water? You that are so keen, how comes it you don't notice her eyes at these times? I feel them shine on me like a couple of suns. They would make a statue pay the yarn out. Who ever fancied my chat as she does?"
"David," said Eve, quietly, "I have thought of all this; but I am convinced now there is nothing in it. You see, David, mother and I are used to your yarns, and so we take them as a matter of course; but the real fact is, they are very interesting and very enticing, and you tell them like a book. You came all fresh to this lady, and, as she is very quick, she had the wit to see the merit of your descriptions directly. I can see it myself now. All young women like to be amused, David, and, above all, excited; and your stories are very exciting; that is the charm; that is what makes her eyes fire; but if that puppy there, or that book-shelf yonder, could tell her your stories, she would look at either the puppy or the book-stand with just the same eyes she looks on you with, my poor David."
"Don't say so, Eve. Let me think there is some little feeling for me inside those sweet eyes, that look so kind on me--"
"And on me, and on everybody. It is her manner. I tell you she is so to all the world. She isn't the first I've met. Trust me to read a woman, David; what can you know?"
"I know nothing; but they tell me you can fathom one another better than any man ever could," said David, sorrowfully.
"'David, just now you were telling as interesting a story as ever was. You had just got to the thrilling part."
"Oh, had I? What was I saying?"
"I can't tell you to the very word; I am not your sweetheart any more than she is; but one of the sailors was in danger of his life, and so on. You never told me the story before; I was not worth it. Well, just then does not that affected puppy choose his time to come meandering in?"
"Puppy! I call him a fine gentleman."
"Well, there isn't so much odds. In he comes; your story is broken off directly. Does she care? No, she has got one of her own set; he is not a very bright one; he is next door to a fool. No matter; before he came, to judge by her crocodile eyes, she was hot after your story; the moment he did come, she didn't care a pin for you nor your story. I gave her more than one opening to bring it on again; not she. I tell you, you are nothing but a pass time;* you suit her turn so long as none of her own set are to be had. If she would leave you for such a jackanapes as that, what would she do for a real gentleman? such a man as she is a woman, for instance, and as if there weren't plenty such in her own set--oh, you goose!"
* I write this word as the lady thought proper to pronounce it.
David interrupted her. "I have been a vain fool, and it is lucky no one has seen it but you," and he hid his face in his hands a moment; then, suddenly remembering where he was, and that this was an attitude to attract attention, he tried to laugh--a piteous effort; then he ground his teeth and said: "Let us go home. All I want now is to get out of the house. It would have been better for me if I had never set foot in it."
"Hush! be calm, David, for Heaven's sake. I am only waiting to catch her eye, and then we'll bid them good-evening."
"Very well, I'll wait"; and David fixed his eyes sadly and doggedly on the ground. "I won't look at her if I can help it," said he, resolutely, but very sadly, and turned his head away.
"Now, David," whispered Eve.
David rose mechanically and moved with his sister toward the other group. Miss Fountain turned at their approach. Somewhat to David's surprise, Eve retreated as quickly as she had advanced.
"We are to stay."
"She made me a signal."
"Not that I saw," said David, incredulously.
"What! didn't you see her give me a look?"
"Yes, I did. But what has that to do with it?"
"That look was as much as to say, Please stay a little longer; I have something to say to you."
"I think it is about a bonnet, David. I asked her to put me in the way of getting one made like hers. She does wear heavenly bonnets."
"Ay. I did well to listen to you, Eve; you see I can't even read her face, much less her heart. I saw her look up, but that was all. How is a poor fellow to make out such craft as these, that can signal one another a whole page with a flash of the eye? Ah!"
"There, David, he is going. Was I right?"
Mr. Talboys was, in fact, taking leave of Miss Fountain. The old gentleman convoyed his friend. As the door closed on them Miss Fountain's face seemed to catch fire. Her sweet complacency gave way to a half-joyous, half-irritated small energy. She came gliding swiftly, though not hurriedly, up to Eve. "Thank you for seeing." Then she settled softly and gradually on an ottoman, saying, "Now, Mr. Dodd."
David looked puzzled. "What is it?" and he turned to his interpreter, Eve.
But it was Lucy who replied: "'His messmate was crying like a child. At sunrise poor Tom must die. Then up rose one fellow' (we have not any idea who one fellow means in these narratives--have we, Miss Dodd?) 'and cried, "I have it, messmates. Tom isn't dead yet."' Now, Mr. Dodd, between that sentence and the one that is to follow all that has happened in this room was a hideous dream. On that understanding we have put up with it. It is now happily dispersed, and we--go ahead again."
"I see, Eve, she thinks she would like some more of that China yarn."
"Her sentiments are not so tame. She longs for it, thirsts for it, and must and will have it--if you will be so very obliging, Mr. Dodd." The contrast between all this singular vivacity of Miss Fountain and the sudden return to her native character and manner in the last sentence struck the sister as very droll--seemed to the brother so winning, that, scarcely master of himself, he burst out: "You shan't ask me twice for that, or anything I can give you;" and it was with burning cheeks and happy eyes he resumed his tale of bold adventure and skill on one side, of numbers, danger and difficulty on the other. He told it now like one inspired, and both the young ladies hung panting and glowing on his words.
David and Eve went home together.
David was in a triumphant state, but waited for Eve to congratulate him. Eve was silent.
At last David could refrain no longer. "Why, you say nothing."
"No. Common sense is too good to be wasted; don't go so fast."
"No. There--I heave to for convoy to close up. Would it be wasted on me? ha! ha!"
"To-night. There you go pelting on again."
"Eve, I can't help it. I feel all canvas, with a cargo of angels' feathers and sunshine for ballast."
"Sun, moon, and stars, and all that is bright by night or day. I'll tell you what to do; you keep your head free, and come on under easy sail; I'll stand across your bows with every rag set and drawing, so then I shall be always within hail."
This sober-minded maneuver was actually carried out. The little corvette sailed steadily down the middle of the lane; the great merchantman went pitching and rolling across her bows; thus they kept together, though their rates of sailing were so different.
Merry Eve never laughed once, but she smiled, and then sighed.
David did not heed her. All of a moment his heart vented itself in a sea-ditty so loud, and clear, and mellow, that windows opened, and out came nightcapped heads to hear him carol the lusty stave, making night jolly.
Meantime, the weather being balmy, Mr. Fountain had walked slowly with Mr. Talboys in another direction. Mr. Talboys inquired, "Who were these people?"
Oh, only two humble neighbors," was the reply.
"I never met them anywhere. They are received in the neighborhood?"
"Not in society, of course."
"I don't understand you. Have not I just met them here?"
"That is not the way to put it," said the old gentleman, a little confused. "You did not meet them; you did me and my niece the honor to dine with us, and the Dodds dropped in to tea--quite another matter."
"Oh, is it?"
"Is it not? I see you have been so long out of England you have forgotten these little distinctions; society would go to the deuce without them. We ask our friends, and persons of our own class, to dinner, but we ask who we like to tea in this county. Don't you like her? She is the prettiest girl in the village."
"Pretty and pert."
"Ha! ha! that is true. She is saucy enough, and amusing in proportion."
"It is the man I alluded to."
"What, David? ay, a very worthy lad. He is a downright modest, well-informed young man."
"I don't doubt his general merits, but let me ask you a serious question: his evident admiration of Miss Fountain?"
"His ad-mi-ration of Miss Fountain?"
"Is it agreeable to you?"
"It is a matter of consummate indifference to me."
"But not, I think, to her. She showed a submission to the cub's impertinence, and a desire to please instead of putting him down, that made me suspect. Do you often ask Mr. Dodd--what a name!--to tea?"
"My dear friend, I see that, with all your accomplishments, you have something to learn. You want insight into female character. Now I, who must go to school to you on most points, can be of use to you here." Then, seeing that Talboys was mortified at being told thus gently there was a department of learning he had not fathomed, he added: "At all events, I can interpret my own niece to you. I have known her much longer than you have."
Mr. Talboys requested the interpreter to explain the pleasure his niece took in Mr. Dodd's fiddle.
"Part politeness, part sham. Why, she wanted not to ask them this evening, the fiddle especially. I'll give you the clue to Lucy; she is a female Chesterfield, and the droll thing is she is polite at heart as well. Takes it from her mother: she was something between an angel and a duchess."
"Politeness does not account for the sort of partiality she showed for these Dodds while I was in the room."
"Pure imagination, my dear friend. I was there; and had so monstrous a phenomenon occurred I must have seen it. If you think she could really prefer their society to yours, you are as unjust to her as yourself. She may have concealed her real preference out of finesse, or perhaps she has observed that our inferiors are touchy, and ready to fancy we slight them for those of our own rank."
Talboys shrugged his shoulders; he was but half convinced. "Her enthusiasm when the cub scraped the fiddle went beyond mere politeness."
"Beyond other people's, you mean. Nothing on earth ever went beyond hers--ha! ha! ha! To-morrow night, if you like, we will have my gardener, Jack Absolom, in to tea."
"No, I thank you. I have no wish to go beyond Mr. and Miss Dodd."
"Oh, only for an experiment. The first minute Jack will be wretched, and want to sink through the floor; but in five minutes you will fancy Lucy will have made Jack Absolom at home in my drawing-room. He will be laying down the law about Jonquilles, and she all sweetness, curiosity, and enthusiasm outside--ennui in."
"Can her eyes glisten out of politeness?" inquired Talboys, with a subdued sneer.
"They could shed tears, perhaps, for the same motive?" said Talboys, with crushing irony.
"Well! Hum! I'd back them at four to seven."
Mr. Talboys was silent, and his manner showed that he was a little mortified at a subject turning to joke which he had commenced seriously. He must stop this annoyance. He said severely, "It is time to come to an understanding with you."
At these words, and, above all, at their solemn tone, the senior pricked his ears and prepared his social diplomacy.
"I have visited very frequently at your house, Mr. Fountain."
"Never without being welcome, my dear sir."
"You have, I think, divined one reason of my very frequent visits here."
"I have not been vain enough to attribute them entirely to my own attractions."
"You approve the homage I render to that other attraction?"
"Am I so fortunate as to have her suffrage, too?"
"I have no better means of knowing than you have."
"Indeed! I was in hopes you might have sounded her inclinations."
"I have scrupulously avoided it," replied the veteran. "I had no right to compromise you upon mere conjecture, however reasonable. I awaited your authority to take any move in so delicate a matter. Can you blame me? On one side my friend's dignity, on the other a young lady's peace of mind, and that young lady my brother's daughter."
"You were right, my dear sir; I see and appreciate your reserve, your delicacy, though I am about to remove its cause. I declare myself to you your niece's admirer; have I your permission to address her?"
"You have, and my warmest wishes for your success."
"Thank you. I think I may hope to succeed, provided I have a fair chance afforded me."
"I will take care you shall have that."
"I should prefer not to have others buzzing about the lady whose affection I am just beginning to gain."
"You pay this poor sailor an amazing compliment," said Mr. Fountain, a little testily; "if he admires Lucy it can only be as a puppy is struck with the moon above. The moon does not respond to all this wonder by descending into the whelp's jaws--no more will my niece. But that is neither here nor there; you are now her declared suitor, and you have a right to stipulate; in short, you have only to say the word, and 'exeunt Dodds,' as the play-books say."
"Dodds? I have no objection to the lady. Would it not be possible to invite her to tea alone?"
"Quite possible, but useless. She would not stir out without her brother."
"She seems a little person likely to give herself airs. Well, then, in that case, though as you say I am no doubt raising Mr. Dodd to a false importance, still--"
"Say no more; we should indulge the whims of our friends, not attack them with reasons. You will see the Dodds no more in my house."
"Oh, as to that, just as you please. Perhaps they would be as well out of it," said Talboys, with a sudden affectation of carelessness. I must not take you too far. Good-night."
Poor David. He was to learn how little real hold upon society has the man who can only instruct and delight it.
Mr. Fountain bustled home, rubbing his hands with delight. "Aha!" thought he; "jealous! actually jealous! absurdly jealous! That is a good sign. Who would have thought so proud a man could be jealous of a sailor? I have found out your vulnerable point, my friend. I'll tell Lucy; how she will laugh. David Dodd! Now we know how to manage him, Lucy and I. If he freezes back again, we have but to send for David Dodd and his fiddle." He bustled home, and up into the drawing-room to tell Lucy Mr. Talboys had at last declared himself. His heart felt warm. He would settle six thousand pounds on Mrs. Talboys during his life and his whole fortune after his death.
He found the drawing-room empty. He rang the bell. "Where is Miss Fountain?" John didn't know, but supposed she had gone to her room.
"You don't know? You never know anything. Send her maid to me."
The maid came and courtesied demurely at the door.
"Tell your mistress I want to speak to her directly--before she undresses."
The maid went out, and soon returned to say that her mistress had retired to rest; but that, if he pleased, she would rise, and just make a demi-toilet, and come to him. This smooth and fair-sounding proposal was not, I grieve to say, so graciously received as offered. "Much obliged," snapped old Fountain. "Her demi-toilette will keep me another hour out of my bed, and I get no sleep after dinner now among you. Tell her to-morrow at breakfast time will do."
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