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Chapter 27


One afternoon when Vavasor was in his room, writing a letter to his aunt, in which he described in not too glowing terms, for he knew exaggeration would only give her a handle, the loveliness of the retreat among the hills where he was spending his holiday--when her father was in his study, her mother in her own room, and the children out of doors, a gentleman was shown in upon her as she sat alone in the drawing-room at her piano, not playing but looking over some books of old music she had found in the house. The servant apologized, saying he thought she was out. The visitor being already in the room, the glance she threw on the card the man had given her had had time to teach her little or nothing with regard to him when she advanced to receive him. The name on the card was Major H.G. Marvel. She vaguely thought she had heard it, but in the suddenness of the meeting was unable to recall a single idea concerning the owner of it. She saw before her a man whose decidedly podgy figure yet bore a military air, and was not without a certain grace of confidence. For his bearing was even marked by the total absence of any embarrassment, anxiety, or any even of that air of apology which one individual seems almost to owe to another. At the same time there was not a suspicion of truculence or even repulse in his carriage. There was self-assertion, but not of the antagonistic--solely of the inviting sort. His person beamed with friendship. Notably above the middle height, the impression of his stature was reduced by a too great development of valor in the front of his person, which must always have met the enemy considerably in advance of the rest of him. On the top of rather asthmatic-looking shoulders was perched a head that looked small for the base from which it rose, and the smaller that it was an evident proof of the derivation of the word bald, by Chaucer spelled balled; it was round and smooth and shining like ivory, and the face upon it was brought by the help of the razor into as close a resemblance with the rest of the ball as possible. The said face was a pleasant one to look at--of features altogether irregular--a retreating and narrow forehead over keen gray eyes that sparkled with intelligence and fun, prominent cheek-bones, a nose thick in the base and considerably elevated at the point, a large mouth always ready to show a set of white, regular, serviceable teeth--the only regular arrangement in the whole facial economy--and a chin whose original character was rendered doubtful by its duplicity--physical, I mean, with no hint at the moral.

"Cousin Hester!" he said, advancing, and holding out his hand.

Mechanically she gave him hers. The voice that addressed her was at once a little husky, and very cheery; the hand that took hers was small and soft and kind and firm. A merry, friendly smile lighted up eyes and face as he spoke. Hester could not help liking him at first sight--yet felt a little shy of him. She thought she had heard her mother speak of a cousin somewhere abroad: this must be he--if indeed she did remember any such!

"You don't remember me," he said, "seeing you were not in this world, wherever else you may have been, for a year or two after I left the country: and, to tell the truth, had I been asked, I should have objected to your appearance on any terms."

As this speech did not seem to carry much enlightenment with it, he went on to explain. "The fact is, my dear young lady, that I left the country because your mother and I were too much of one mind."

"Of one mind?" said Hester, bewildered.

"Ah, you don't understand!" said the major, who was all the time standing before her with the most polite though confident bearing. The thing you see, was this: I liked your mother better than myself, and so did she; and without any jealousy of one another, it was not an arrangement for my happiness. I had the choice between two things, stopping at home and breaking my heart by seeing her the wife of another man, and going away and getting over it the best way I could. So you see I must by nature be your sworn enemy, only it's of no use, for I've fallen in love with you at first sight. So now, if you will ask me to sit down, I will swear to let bygones be bygones, and be your true knight and devoted servant as long as I live. How you do remind me of your mother, only by Jove, you're twice as handsome."

"Do pray sit down, Mr. Marley----"

"Marvel, if you please," interrupted the major; "and I'm sure it's a great marvel if not a great man I am, after what I've come through! But don't you marvel at me too much, for I'm a very good sort of fellow when you know me. And if you could let me have a glass of water, with a little sherry just to take the taste off it, I should be greatly obliged to you. I have had to walk farther for the sight of you than on such a day as this I find altogether refreshing: it's as hot as the tropics, by George! But I am well repaid--even without the sherry."

As he spoke he was wiping his round head all over with a red silk handkerchief.

"I will get it at once, and let my mother know you are here," said Hester, turning to the door.

"No, no, never mind your mother; I daresay she is busy, or lying down. She always went to lie down at this time of the day; she was never very strong you know, though I don't doubt it was quite as much to get rid of me. I shouldn't wonder if she thought me troublesome in those days. But I bear no malice now, and I hope she doesn't either. Tell her I say so. It's more than five and twenty years ago, though to me it don't seem more than so many weeks. Don't disturb your mother, my dear. But if you insist on doing so, tell her old Harry is come to see her--very much improved since she turned him about his business."

Hester told a servant to take the sherry and the water to the drawing-room, and, much amused, ran to find her mother. "There's the strangest gentleman down-stairs, mamma, calling himself old Harry. He's having some sherry and water in the drawing-room! I never saw such an odd man!" Her mother laughed--a pleased little laugh. "Go to him, Hester dear, and say I shall be down directly." "Is he really a cousin, mamma?" "To be sure--my second cousin! He was very fond of me once." "Oh, he has told me all about that already. He says you sent him about his business." "If that means that I wouldn't marry him, it is true enough. But he doesn't know what I went through for always taking his part. I always stood up for him, though I never could bear him near me. He was such an odd, good-natured bear! such a rough sort of creature! always saying the thing he ought not to, and making everybody, ladies especially, uncomfortable! He never meant any harm, but never saw where fun should stop. You wouldn't believe the vulgar things Harry would say out of pure fun!--especially if he got hold of a very stiff old maid; he would tease her till he got her in a passion. But if she began to cry, then Harry had the worst of it, and was as penitent as any good child. I daresay he's much improved by this time." "He told me to tell you he was. But if he is much improved--well, what he must have been! I like him though, mamma--I suppose because you liked him a little. So take care you are not too hard upon him; I'm going to take him up now."

"I make over my interest in him, and have no doubt he will be pleased enough with the change, for a man can't enjoy finding an old woman where he had all the time been imagining a young one. But I must warn you, Hester, as he seems to have made a conquest of you already, that he has in the meantime been married to a black--or at least a very brown Hindoo woman."

"That's nothing to his discredit with you, mamma, I hope. Has he brought her home with him, I wonder."

"She has been dead now for some ten years. I believe he had a large fortune with her, which he has since by judicious management increased considerably. He is really a good-hearted fellow, and was kind to every one of his own relations as long as there was one left to be kind to."

"Well, I shall go back to him, mamma, and tell him you are coming as soon as you have got your wig and your newest lace-cap on, and your cheeks rouged and pearl-powdered, to look as like the lady that would none of him as you can."

Her mother laughed merrily, and pretended to box her daughter's ears. It was not often any mood like this rose between them; for not only were they serious in heart, but from temperament, and history, and modes and direction of thought, their ways were serious as well. Yet who may so well break out in childlike merriment as those whose life has in it no moth-eaten Mammon-pits, who have no fear, no greed, and live with a will--rising like the sun to fill the day with the work given them to do!

"Look what I have brought you, cousin," said major Marvel, the moment Hester re-entered the room, holding out to her a small necklace. "You needn't mind taking them from an old fellow like me. It don't mean that I want to marry you off-hand before I know what sort of a temper you've got. Take them."

Hester drew near, and looked at the necklace.

"Take it," said the major again.

"How strangely beautiful it is!--all red, pear-shaped, dull, scratched-looking stones, hanging from a savage-looking gold chain! What are they, Mr. Marvel?"

"You have described it like a book!" he said. "It is a barbarous native necklace--but they are fine rubies--only rough--neither cut nor polished."

"It is beautiful," repeated Hester. "Did you really mean it for me?"

"Of course I did!"

"I will ask mamma if I may keep it."

"Where's the good of that? I hope you don't think I stole it? Though faith there's a good deal that's like stealing goes on where that comes from!--But here comes the mother!--Helen, I'm so glad to see you once more!"

Hester slipped away with the necklace in her hand, and left her mother to welcome her old admirer before she would trouble her about the offered gift. They met like trusting friends whom years had done nothing to separate, and while they were yet talking of bygone times, Mr. Raymount entered, received him cordially, and insisted on his remaining with them as long as he could; they were old friends, although rivals, and there never had been any ground for bitterness between them. The major agreed; Mr. Raymount sent to the station for his luggage, and showed him to a room.

George MacDonald