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Isabel sat on the bench under an ancient oak for half an hour or more, but took no note of the time. In rural America one always seems to hear the whir of distant machinery and responds to its tensity in the depths of some nerve centre; but in England's open the tendency is to dream away the hours, the nerves as blunt as in the tropics; unless, indeed, one happens to be so astir within that one rebels in responding, and conceives of ultimate hatred for this incompassionate arrogant peace of England.
Isabel had been roused from her mood of unreasoning content by her contact with the older woman, but for a few moments her thoughts waved to and fro in that large tranquillity like pendent moss in a gentle breeze. There was a stir of life in the little village; a window was thrown open; a man came out to the pump and filled a bucket with water; a child cried for its breakfast; the birds were singing in the trees. But they barely rippled the calm. Isabel's eyes dwelt absently upon a white line along a distant hill-top, made, no doubt, by Cæsar's troops; for she had heard that the mosaic floors of Roman houses had been discovered under one of the fields in the neighborhood. This information, imparted by Lord Hexam's cousin, Mrs. Throfton, a lady interested in neither Bridge nor gossip, had not excited her as it might have done before her archæological experience at headquarters, but she was glad to recall it now, for that white road, sharply insistent in the surrounding green, was one of the perceptible vincula of history.
It was all old—old—old; an illimitable backward vista. And she was as new, as out of tune with it as the motorcar flashing like a lost and distracted comet along that hill-top in a cloud of historied dust: she with her problems, her egoisms, the fateful independence of the modern girl. In a fashion she was one of the chosen of earth, but she doubted if the women who had toiled in these villages, or in centuries past had lived their lives in the mansions of their indubious lords, had not had greater compensations than she. Unbroken monotony and a saving sense of the inevitable must in time create for the soul something of the illimitable horizon of the vast level spaces of the earth.
And she? At twenty-five she had lost her old habit of staring with veiled eyes into some sweet ambiguous future, her girlish intensity of emotion. But her theories, in general, were sound, and she had ticketed even her minor experiences. She knew that character was the most significant of all individual forces, and that if developed in strict adjustment to the highest demands of society, dragging strength out of the powers of the universe, were it not inborn, the book of one's objective future at least need never be closed prematurely by those inexorable social forces, which, whatever the weak spots on the surface of life, invariably place a man in the end according to his deserts. She had seen her father, with all his advantages of birth and talents, and early importance in the community, gradually shunned, shelved, dismissed from the daily life of steadier if less gifted men, almost unknown to the young generation. He had clung to certain strict notions of honor through it all, however, and at his death the county had experienced a spasm of remorse and attended his funeral; the sermon had been eloquent with masterly omissions, and even the newspaper that had vilified him in his days of political influence came out with an obituary, which, when included in some future county history, would give to posterity quite as good an impression of him as he deserved.
And James Otis had had his virtues. One of his claims to redemption survived in his daughter. He had reared her in the strict principles and precepts of his New England ancestors, many of which are generally more useful in the life of a man. This early instillation, taken in connection with himself as a commanding illustration in subcontraries, had given Isabel a directness of vision invaluable to a girl in no haste to place her life in stronger hands. Whatever her dissatisfactions and disillusions, her road lay along the upper reaches; the second rate, the failures from birth, the criminal classes, far below. Her start in life was indefectible, and she knew that did the necessity arise to-morrow she could support herself and ask no quarter.
Perhaps, she mused, she would be happier in the necessity, for the problem of roof and bread is an abiding substitute for the problem of what to do with one's life. But she had never known an anxious moment regarding the bare necessities, and although there was something pleasantly stimulating in the prospect of making a fortune and being able to live as she wished in the city of her birth—the only object for which she retained any passion in her affections—she smiled somewhat cynically at the modest outlook.
Environments like the present were uplifting, almost deindividualizing, and there had been a time when she had known seconds in the face of nature's surprises that were distinct spiritual experiences. She believed they would return when she was in her own land once more, and Europe a book of fading memories. Her love of beauty at least was as keen as ever, and now that Europe was off her mind, leaving the proper sense of surfeit behind it, no doubt she would have a sense of actually beginning life when the time came to take an active part in it, and she assumed a position of some importance in her own community. She was far too sensible for ingratitude, and fully appreciated the gifts that life had so liberally dealt her. And she fully believed in work as the universal panacea. The mere thought of a busy future brought a glow to her heart. She rose with a smile as Lady Victoria emerged from the cottage at the upper end of the village.
Lady Victoria was not smiling. Her brows were drawn, and she looked angry and contemptuous.
"The little idiot!" she exclaimed, as they started briskly for home. "This is the first failure I have had in ten years. That is one of my boasts. And I took particular pains with that girl. Now Jack will have the agreeable task of coercing the man into marrying her, for it appears that his ardor has cooled."
Her brow cleared in a few moments, but she seemed to have had enough of conversation, and it was evident that words for words' sake, or as a flimsy chain between signposts of genuine interest, had no place in her social rubric. Isabel, who was equally indifferent, strode along beside her without so much as a comment, and so confirmed the good impression she had made on her mettlesome relative. As they approached the house, Lady Victoria turned to her with a smile that brought sweetness to her eyes rather than any one of her more dazzling qualities.
"I am generally in my boudoir at five," she said. "Come in this afternoon for a chat before tea, if you have nothing better to do. Now run and get ready for breakfast."
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