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It was the height of the season, and sir Wilton and lady Ann were in London--I cannot say enjoying themselves, for I doubt if either of them ever enjoyed self, or anything else. Their daughters were at home, in the care of the governess. Theodora had been out a year or two, but preferred Mortgrange to London. She was one of the few girls--perhaps not very few--who imagine themselves uglier than they are. Miss Malliver, the governess, was a lady of uncertain age, for whom lady Ann had an uncertain liking. The younger girl, her pupil, was named Victoria, but commonly called Vic, and not uncommonly Vixen. The younger boy was at school, where they were constantly threatening to send him home. He had been already dismissed from Eton.
In their elder son, Arthur, his parents had as perfect a confidence as such parents could have in any son.
The little lady that rode the great mare, and sat in the beech-tree, was at present their guest--as she often was, in a fluctuating or intermittent fashion. She lived in the neighbourhood, but was more at Mortgrange than at home; one consequence of which was, that, as would-be-clever Miss Malliver phrased it, the house was very much B. Wyldered. Nor was that the first house the little lady had bewildered, for she was indeed an importation from a new colony rather startling to sedate old England. Her father, a younger son, had unexpectedly succeeded to the family-property, a few miles from Mortgrange. He was supposed to have made a fortune in New Zealand, where Barbara was born and brought up. They had been home nearly two years, and she was almost eighteen. Absurd rumours were abroad concerning their wealth, but there were no great signs of wealth about the place. Wylder Hall was kept up, and its life went on in good style, it is true, but mainly because the old servants perpetuated the customs of the house.
The squire was said to have shared in some of the roughest phases of colonial life. Whether he was better or worse for falling in love with the money of an older colonist, and marrying his daughter, it is certain that, for a time at least, he grew a shade or two more respectable. Far from being a woman of refinement, she had more character and more strength than he, and brought him, not indeed into the highways of wisdom, but into certain by-paths of prudence.
Upon his return to his native country, they were everywhere received; but had it not been for their reported wealth, I doubt if the ladies of the county, after some experience of her manners and speech, which were at times very rough, would have continued to call on Mrs. Wylder.
But everybody liked Barbara; and nobody could think how such a flower should have come of two such plants. She seemed to regard every one as of her own family. People were her property--hers to love! And her brain was as active as her heart, and constantly with it. She wanted to know what people thought and felt and imagined; what everything was; how a thing was done, and how it ought to be done. She seemed to understand what the animals were thinking, and what the flowers were feeling. She had from infancy spent the greater part of her life, both night and day, in the open air; and, having no companion, had sought the acquaintance of every live thing she saw--often to the disgust of her mother, and occasionally to the annoyance of her father. She was a child of the whole world, as the naiad is the child of the river, and the oread of the mountain. She could sit a horse's bare back even better than a saddle, could guide him almost as well with a halter as with a bridle, and in general control him without either, though she had ridden more than one horse with terrible bit and spurs. She did not remember the time when she could not swim, and she tried her own running against every new horse, to find what he could do. Some highland girl might perhaps have beaten her, up hill, but I doubt it. She was so small that she looked fragile, but she had nerves such as few men can boast, and muscles like steel. It never occurred to her not to say what she thought, believed, or felt; she would show favour or dislike with equal readiness; and give the reason for anything she did as willingly as do the thing. She was a special favourite at Mortgrange. Not only did she bewitch the blasť man of the world, sir Wilton, but the cold eye of his lady would gleam a faint gleam at the thought of her dowry. Her father "prospected" a little for something higher than a mere baronetcy, but he had in no way interfered. Of herself, divine little savage, she would never have thought of love until she fell in love: a flower cannot know its own blossom until it comes. It did not yet interest her, and until it did, certainly marriage never would. Thus was she healthier-minded than any one born of society-parents, and brought up under the influences of nurse-morality, can well be. When she came to England, it was hard to teach her the ways of the so-called civilized. Servants would sometimes be out searching for her after midnight, perhaps to find her strayed beyond the park, out upon the solitary heath. She knew most of the stars, not by their astronomical names indeed, but by names she had herself given them. She had tales of her own, fashioned in part from the wild myths of the aborigines, to account for the special relations of such as made a group. She would weave the travels of the planets into the steady history of the motionless stars. Waning and waxing moons had a special and strange influence upon her. She would dart out of doors the moment she saw the new moon, and give a wild cry of joy if the old moon was in her arms. Any moon in a gusty night, with a scud of torn clouds, would wake in her an ecstasy. Her old nurse, who had come with her--a strange creature, of what mingled blood no one knew--told of her that she was sometimes seized with such a longing for the ocean, that she would lie for hours ere she went to sleep, moaning with the very moan of its pebble-margined waves. When "in the bush," she would upon occasion wander about from morning to night. No trouble able to keep her still had ever yet laid hold of her. But she had grown neither coarse nor unfeeling through lack of human intercourse. Nature was to her what she was to Wordsworth's Lucy, and made her a lady of her own.
As to what is commonly called education, she had not had the best. Since coming to England, she had had governesses, but none fit for the office. Not merely had no one of them that rare gift, the teaching genius--the faculty of waking hunger and thirst; that would have mattered little, for Barbara needed no such rousing; she was eager to know, and yet more eager to understand; but not one of those teachers knew enough to answer a quarter of Barbara's questions, or was even capable of perceiving that those she could not answer, pointed to anything worth knowing.
Among fashionable girls, affecting a free and easy, or even rough style, Barbara was notable for a sweet, unconscious, graceful daring, never for even a playful rudeness. Nothing she ever did or said or attempted could be called rough, while yet she would say things to make a vulgar duchess stare. Had she been affected, she would have drawn fools and repelled men; real, she charmed alike men and fools.
She had read few books worth reading--had read a few which one would not have chosen she should read, for she grasped at anything a passer-by might have left. Of books properly so called, she knew nothing, therefore had not a notion which to read now she might choose. She imagined them all attractive--but at the first assay turned from the burlesque with a kind of loathing. This made some of her new acquaintance, not refined enough to understand the peculiarity, as it seemed to them, set her down as stupid.
As to religion, she had never been taught any. But from before her earliest recollection she had had the feeling of a Presence. For this feeling she never thought of attempting to account, neither would have recognized it as what I have called it. The sky over her head brought it; a sweep of the earth away from her feet would bring it; any horizon far or near called it up, perhaps most keenly of all. In England she often sorely missed her horizon, and in cities was even unhappy for lack of one. If she could have crystallized, and then formulated her feeling, she would have said she felt lonely, that something or somebody had gone away. Had she been a pagan, it would have been her gods that had forsaken her. Without a horizon she felt as if the wind had forgotten her, the sky did not know her. Often indeed even the farthest horizon could not prevent her from feeling that she had come to a dead country; that things here did not mean anything; that the life was out of them. Was the world so crowded with men and their works as to shut out from her the Presence? When she went to church, nothing received her, nothing came near her, nothing brought her any message. Something was done, she supposed, that ought to be done--something she had no inclination to dispute, no interest in questioning; a certain good power called God, required from people, in return for the gift of existence, the attention of going to church; therefore she went sometimes. She had no idea of ever having done wrong, no feeling that God was pleased or displeased with her, or had any occasion to be either. She did not know that it was God that came near her in her horse, in her dog, in the people about her who so often disappointed her. He came nearer in a thunderstorm, a moonlit night, a sweet wind--anything that woke the sense of the old freedom of her childhood. She felt the presence then, but never knew it a presence.
Neither did she know that there was a place where the very essence, of that whose loss made her sad was always waiting her--a place called in a certain old book "thy closet." She did not know that there opened the one horizon--infinitely far, yet near as her own heart. But He is there for them that seek him, not for those who do not look for him. Till they do, all he can do is to make them feel the want of him. Barbara had not begun to seek him. She did not know there was anybody to seek: she only missed him without knowing what she missed. The blind, almost meaningless reverence for the name of God, which somehow she learned at church, had not led her in any way to associate him with her sense of loss and need.
Her father's desire was to see her so married as to raise his influence in the county. He was proud of her--selfishly proud. Was she not his? Was he not "the author of her being"? If he did not quite imagine he had created her, he certainly never thought of any one but himself as having to do with her existence. All the credit in it was his! He forgot even what share her mother might claim; not to mention what in her might belong to the Sum of Things, the insensate Pan. A self-glorious man is the biggest fool in the world.
Her mother, too, was proud of her--loved her indeed after a careless fashion--was even in a sort obliged to her for having come to her. But she did not care for her enough to interfere with her. Notwithstanding the mother's coarseness, her outbursts of temper, her intolerance of opposition, she and her daughter had never yet come into collision. The reason did not entirely lie in the sweetness of the daughter, but partly in the fact that the mother had two children besides, one of whom she loved far more, and the other far less.
Barbara had no pride. She spoke in the same tone to lord and tradesman. She had been the champion of the blacks in her own country, and in England looked lovingly on the gypsies in their little tents on the windy downs.
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