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This is the tale of Diana, the Gipsy, the Goddess, the Woman, one in all and all in one and that one so wonderful, so elusive, so utterly feminine that I, being but a man and no great student in the Sex, may, in striving to set her before you in cold words, distort this dear image out of all semblance and true proportion.
Here and now I would begin this book by telling of Diana as I remember her, a young dryad vivid with life, treading the leafy ways, grey eyes a-dream, kissed by sun and wind, filling the woodland with the glory of her singing, out-carolling the birds.
I would fain show her to you in her swift angers and ineffable tenderness, in her lofty pride and sweet humility, passionate with life yet boldly virginal, fronting evil scornful and undismayed, with eyes glittering bright as her "little churi" yet yielding herself a willing sacrifice and meekly enduring for Friendship's sake.
With her should this book properly commence; but because I doubt my pen (more especially at this so early stage) I will begin not with Diana but with my aunt Julia, my uncle Jervas, my uncle George and my painfully conscious self, trusting that, as this narrative progresses, my halting pen may grow more assured and my lack of art be atoned for by sincerity. For if any writer or historian were sincere then most truly that am I.
Therefore I set forth upon this relation humbly aware of my failings, yet trusting those who read will not fall asleep over my first ineffectual chapter nor throw the book aside after my second, but with kind and tolerant patience will bear with me and read bravely on until, being more at my ease, I venture to tell of Diana's wonderful self.
And when they shall come to the final chapter of this history (if they ever do) may they be merciful in their judgment of their humble author, that is to say this same poor, ineffectual, unheroical person who now subscribes himself
"Nineteen to-day, is he!" said my uncle Jervas, viewing me languidly through his quizzing-glass. "How confoundedly the years flit! Nineteen--and on me soul, our poor youth looks as if he hadn't a single gentlemanly vice to bless himself with!"
"Not one, Jervas, my boy," quoth my uncle George, shaking his comely head at me. "Not one, begad, and that's the dooce of it! It seems he don't swear, he don't drink, he don't gamble, he don't make love, he don't even--"
"Don't, George," exclaimed my aunt Julia in her sternest tone, her handsome face flushed, her stately back very rigid.
"Don't what, Julia?"
"Fill our nephew's mind with your own base masculine ideas--I forbid."
"But damme--no, Julia, no--I mean, bless us! What's to become of a man--what's a man to do who don't--"
"But he's almost a man, ain't he?"
"Certainly not; Peregrine is--my nephew--"
"And ours, Julia. We are his legal guardians besides--"
"And set him in my care until he comes of age!" retorted my aunt defiantly.
"And there, happy youth, is his misfortune!" sighed my uncle Jervas.
"Misfortune?" echoed my aunt in whisper so awful that I, for one, nearly trembled. "Misfortune!" she repeated. "Hush! Silence! Not a word! I must think this over! Misfortune!"
In the dreadful pause ensuing, I glanced half-furtively from one to other of my three guardians; at my uncle Jervas, lounging gracefully in his chair, an exquisite work of art from glossy curls to polished Hessians; at my uncle George, standing broad back to the mantel, a graceful, stalwart figure in tight-fitting riding-coat, buckskins and spurred boots; at my wonderful aunt, her dark and statuesque beauty as she sat, her noble form posed like an offended Juno, dimpled chin on dimpled fist, dark brows bent above long-lashed eyes, ruddy lips close-set and arched foot tapping softly beneath the folds of her ample robe.
"His misfortune!" she repeated for the fourth time, softly and as to herself. "And ever have I striven to be to him the tender mother he never knew, to stand in place of the father he never saw!"
"I'm sure of it, Julia!" said my uncle George, fidgeting with his stock.
"His misfortune! And I have watched over him with care unfailing--"
"Er--of course, yes--not a doubt of it, Julia," said uncle George, fiddling with a coat button.
"His upbringing has been the passion of my life--"
"I'm sure of it, Julia, your sweet and--er--womanly nature--"
"George, have the goodness not to interrupt!" sighed my aunt, with a little gesture of her hand. "I have furthermore kept him segregated from all that could in any way vitiate or vulgarise; he has had the ablest tutors and been my constant companion, and to-day--I am told--all this is but his misfortune. Now and therefore. Sir Jervas Vereker, pray explain yourself."
"Briefly and with joy, m'dear Julia," answered my uncle Jervas, smiling sleepily into my aunt's fierce black eyes. "I simply mean that your meticulous care of our nephew has turned what should have been an ordinary and humanly promising, raucous and impish hobbledehoy into a very precise, something superior, charmingly prim and modest, ladylike young fellow--"
"Ladyli--!" My stately aunt came as near gasping as was possible in such a woman, then her stately form grew more rigidly statuesque, her mouth and chin took on that indomitable look I knew so well, and she swept the speaker with the blasting fire of her fine black eyes. "Sir Jervas Vereker!" she exclaimed at last, and in tones of such chilling haughtiness that I, for one, felt very like shivering. There fell another awful silence, aunt Julia sitting very upright, hands clenched on the arms of her chair, dark brows bent against my uncle Jervas, who met her withering glance with all his wonted impassivity, while my uncle George, square face slightly flushed, glanced half-furtively from one to the other and clicked nervous heels together so that his spurs jingled.
"George!" exclaimed my aunt suddenly. "In heaven's name, cease rattling your spurs as if you were in your native stables."
"Certainly, m'dear Julia!" he mumbled, and stood motionless and abashed.
"'Pon me life, Julia," sighed my uncle Jervas, "I swear the years but lend you new graces; time makes you but the handsomer--"
"Begad, but that's the very naked truth, Julia!" cried uncle George. "You grow handsomer than ever."
"Tush!" exclaimed my aunt, yet her long lashes drooped suddenly.
"Your hair is--" said uncle Jervas.
"Wonderful!" quoth uncle George. "Always was, begad!"
"Tchah!" exclaimed my aunt.
"Your hair is as silky," pursued my uncle Jervas, "as abundant and as black as--"
"As night!" added uncle George.
"A fiddlestick!" exclaimed my aunt.
"A raven's wing!" pursued my uncle Jervas. "Time hath not changed the wonder of it--"
"Phoh!" exclaimed my aunt.
"Devil a white hair to be seen, Julia!" added uncle George.
"While as for myself, Julia," sighed my uncle Jervas, "my fellow discovered no fewer than four white hairs above my right ear this morning, alas! And look at poor George--as infernally grey as a badger."
"I think," said my aunt, leaning back in her chair, "I think we were discussing my nephew Peregrine--"
"Our mutual ward--precisely, Julia."
"Aye," quoth uncle George, "we are legal guardians of the lad and--"
"Fie, George!" cried aunt Julia. "A vulgar word, an unseemly word!"
"Eh? Word, Julia? What word?"
"'Lad'!" exclaimed my aunt, frowning. "A most obnoxious word, applicable only to beings with pitchforks and persons in sleeved waistcoats who chew straws and attend to horses. Lads pertain only to your world! Peregrine never was, will, or could be such a thing!"
"Good God!" exclaimed my uncle George feebly, and groped for his short, crisp-curling whisker with fumbling fingers.
"Peregrine never was, will, or could be such a thing!" repeated my aunt in a tone of finality.
"Then what the dev--"
"I should say then--pray, Julia, what the--hum--ha--is he?"
"Being my nephew, he is a young gentleman, of course!"
"Ha!" quoth my uncle George.
"Hum!" sighed my uncle Jervas. "A gentleman is usually a better man for having been a lad! As to our nephew--"
"Pray, Jervas," said aunt Julia, lifting white imperious hand, "suffer me one word, at least; in justice to myself I can sit mute no longer--"
"Mute?" exclaimed uncle George, grasping whisker again. "Mute, were you, Julia; oh, begad, why then--"
"George--silence--I plead!" said my aunt, and folding her white hands demurely on her knee gazed down at them wistfully beneath drooping lashes.
"Proceed, Julia," quoth my uncle Jervas, "your voice is music to my soul--"
"Mine too!" added uncle George, "mine too, dooce take me if 't isn't!"
MY AUNT (her voice soft and plaintively sad). For nineteen happy years I have devoted myself to caring for my nephew Peregrine, body and mind. My every thought has been of him or for him, my love has been his shield against discomforts, bodily ailments and ills of the mind--
MY UNCLE JERVAS. And precisely there, Julia, lies his happy misfortune. You have thought for him so effectively he has had small scope to think for himself; cared for him so sedulously that he shall hardly know how to take care of himself; sheltered him so rigorously that, once removed from the sphere of your strong personality, he would be pitifully lost and helpless. In short, he is suffering of a surfeit of love, determined tenderness and pertinacious care--in a word, Julia, he is over-Juliaized!
MY UNCLE GEORGE (a little diffidently, and jingling his spurs). B'gad, and there ye have it, sweet soul--d'ye see--
MY AUNT (smiting him speechless with flashing eye). I--am--not your sweet soul. And as for poor dear Peregrine--
MY UNCLE JERVAS. The poor youth is become altogether too preternaturally dignified, too confounded sober, solemn and sedate for this mundane sphere; he needs more--
UNCLE GEORGE. Brimstone and the devil!
MY AUNT (freezingly). George Vereker!
UNCLE JERVAS. Wholesome ungentleness.
UNCLE GEORGE (hazarding the suggestion). An occasional black eye--bloody nose, d'ye see, Julia, healthy bruise or so--
MY AUNT. Mr. Vereker!
UNCLE GEORGE (groping for whisker). What I mean to say is, Julia, a--ha--hum! (Subsides.)
UNCLE JERVAS. George is exactly right, Julia. Our nephew is well enough in many ways, I'll admit, but corporeally he is no Vereker; he fills the eye but meanly--
MY AUNT (in tones of icy gloom). Sir Jervas--explain!
UNCLE JERVAS. Well, my dear Julia, scan him, I beg; regard him with an observant eye, the eye not of a doting woman but a dispassionate critic--examine him!
(Here I sank lower in my great chair.)
MY AUNT. If Peregrine is not so--large as your robust self or so burly as--monstrous George, am I to blame?
MY UNCLE JERVAS. The adjective robust as applied to myself is, I think, a trifle misplaced. I suggest the word "elegant" instead.
MY AUNT (patient and sighful). What have you to remark, George Vereker?
UNCLE GEORGE (measuring me with knowing eye). I should say he would strip devilish--I mean--uncommonly light--
MY AUNT (in murmurous horror). Strip? An odious suggestion! Only ostlers, pugilists, and such as yourself, George, would stoop to do such a thing! Oh, monstrous!
UNCLE GEORGE (pathetically). No, no, Julia m'dear, you mistake; to "strip" is a term o' the "fancy"--milling, d'ye see--fibbing is a very gentlemanly art, assure you; I went three rounds with the "Camberwell Chicken" before I--
My AUNT (scornfully). Have done with your chickens, sir--
UNCLE GEORGE (ruefully). B'gad, he nearly did for me--naked mauleys, you'll understand. In--
MY AUNT (covers ears). Horrors! this ribaldry, George Vereker!
UNCLE GEORGE. O Lord! (Sinks into chair and gloomy silence.)
MY UNCLE JERVAS (rising gracefully, taking aunt Julia's indignant hands and kissing them gallantly). George is perfectly right, dear soul. Our Peregrine requires a naked mauley (clenches Aunt Julia's white hand into a fist)--something like this, only bigger and harder--applied to his torso--
UNCLE GEORGE. Of course, above the belt, you'll understand, Julia! Now the Camberwell Chicken--
MY UNCLE JERVAS. Applied, I say, with sufficient force to awake him to the stern--shall we say the harsh realities of life.
AUNT JULIA. Life can be real without sordid brutality.
UNCLE JERVAS. Not unless one is blind and deaf, or runs away and hides from his fellows like a coward; for brutality, alas, is a very human attribute and slumbers more or less in each one of us, let us deny it how we will.
UNCLE GEORGE. True enough, Jervas, and as you'll remember when I fought the "Camberwell Chicken," my right ogle being closed and claret flowing pretty freely, the crowd afraid of their money--
MY AUNT (coldly determined). Enough! My nephew shall never experience such horrors or consort with such brutish ruffians.
UNCLE GEORGE. Then he'll never be a man, Julia.
MY AUNT. Nature made him that. I intend him for a poet.
Here my uncle George rose up, sat down and rose again, striving for speech, while uncle Jervas smiled and dangled his eyeglass.
MY UNCLE GEORGE (breathing heavily). That's done it, Jervas, that's one in the wind. A poet! Poor, poor lad.
MY AUNT (triumphantly). He has written some charming sonnets, and an ode to a throstle that has been much admired.
UNCLE GEORGE (faintly). Ode! B'gad! Throstle!
MY UNCLE JERVAS. He trifles with paints and brushes, too, I believe?
MY AUNT. Charmingly! He may dazzle the world with a noble picture yet; who knows?
MY UNCLE JERVAS. Oh, my dear Julia, who indeed! He has a pronounced aversion for most manly sports, I believe: horses, for instance--
MY AUNT. He rides with me occasionally, but as for your inhuman hunting and racing--certainly not!
UNCLE GEORGE. And before we were his age, I had broken my collarbone and you had won the county steeplechase from me by a head, Jervas. Ha, that was a race, lad, never enjoyed anything more unless it was when the "Camberwell Chicken" went down and couldn't come up to time and the crowd--
AUNT JULIA. You were both so terribly wild and reckless!
UNCLE JERVAS. No, my sweet woman, just ordinary healthy young animals.
AUNT JULIA. My nephew is a young gentleman.
UNCLE GEORGE. Ha!
UNCLE JERVAS. H'm! A gentleman should know how to use his fists--there is Sir Peter Vibart, for instance.
UNCLE GEORGE. And to shoot straight, Julia.
UNCLE JERVAS. And comport himself in the society of the Sex. Yet you keep Peregrine as secluded as a young nun.
MY AUNT. He prefers solitude. Love will come later.
UNCLE JERVAS. Most unnatural! Before I was Peregrine's age I had been head over ears in and out of love with at least--
MY AUNT. Reprobate!
UNCLE GEORGE. So had I, Julia. There was Mary--or was it Ann--at least if it wasn't Ann it was Betty or Bessie; anyhow, I know she was--
AUNT JULIA. Rake!
UNCLE JERVAS. Remember, we were very young and had never been privileged to behold the Lady Julia Conroy--
UNCLE GEORGE. Begad, Julia--and there y'have it!
MY AUNT. We were discussing my nephew, I think!
MY UNCLE JERVAS. True, Julia, and I was about to remark that since you refuse to send him up to Oxford or Cambridge, the only chance I see for him is to quit your apron strings and go out into the world to find his manhood if he can.
My aunt turned upon the speaker, handsome head upflung, but, ere she could speak, the grandfather clock in the corner rang the hour in its mellow chime. Thereupon my aunt rose to her stately height and reached out to me her slender, imperious hand.
"Peregrine, it is ten o'clock. Good night, dear boy!" said she and kissed me. Thereafter, having kissed the hand that clasped mine, I bowed to my two uncles and went dutifully to bed.
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