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THE BULLSOM FAMILY AT HOME
There were fans upon the wall, and much bric-a-brac of Oriental shape but Brummagem finish, a complete suite of drawing-room furniture, incandescent lights of fierce brilliancy, and a pianola. Mrs. Peter Bullsom, stout and shiny in black silk and a chatelaine, was dozing peacefully in a chair, with the latest novel from the circulating library in her lap; whilst her two daughters, in evening blouses, which were somehow suggestive of the odd elevenpence, were engrossed in more serious occupation. Louise, the elder, whose budding resemblance to her mother was already a protection against the over-amorous youths of the town, was reading a political speech in the Times. Selina, who had sandy hair, a slight figure, and was considered by her family the essence of refinement, was struggling with a volume of Cowper, who had been recommended to her by a librarian with a sense of humour, as a poet unlikely to bring a blush into her virginal cheeks. Mr. Bullsom looked in upon his domestic circle with pardonable pride, and with a little flourish introduced his guest.
"Mrs. Bullsom," he said, "this is my young friend, Kingston Brooks. My two daughters, sir, Louise and Selina." The ladies were gracious, but had the air of being taken by surprise, which, considering Mr. Bullsom's parting words a few hours ago, seemed strange.
"We've had a great meeting," Mr. Bullsom remarked, sidling towards the hearthrug, and with his thumbs already stealing towards the armholes of his waistcoat, "a great meeting, my dears. Not that I am surprised! Oh, no! As I said to Padgett, when he insisted that I should take the chair, 'Padgett,' I said, 'mark my words, we're going to surprise the town. Mr. Henslow may not be the most popular candidate we've ever had, but he's on the right side, and those who think Radicalism has had its day in Medchester will be amazed.' And so they have been. I've dropped a few hints during my speeches at the ward meetings lately, and Mr. Brooks, though he's new at the work, did his best, and I can tell you the result was a marvel. The hall was packed--simply packed. When I rose to speak there wasn't an empty place or chair to be seen."
"Dear me!" Mrs. Bullsom remarked, affably. "Supper is quite ready, my love."
Mr. Bullsom abandoned his position precipitately, and his face expressed his lively satisfaction.
"Ah!" he exclaimed. "I was hoping that you would have a bite for me. As I said to Mr. Brooks when I asked him to drop in with me, there's sure to be something to eat. And I can tell you I'm about ready for it."
Brooks found an opportunity to speak almost for the first time. He was standing between the two Misses Bullsom, and already they had approved of him. He was distinctly of a different class from the casual visitors whom their father was in the habit of introducing into the family circle.
"Mr. Bullsom was kind enough to take pity on an unfortunate bachelor," he said, with a pleasant smile. "My landlady has few faults, but an over-love of punctuality is one of them. By this time she and her household are probably in bed. Our meeting lasted a long time."
"If you will touch the bell, Peter," Mrs. Bullsom remarked, "Ann shall dish up the supper."
The young ladies exchanged shocked glances. "Dish up." What an abominable phrase! They looked covertly at their guest, but his face was imperturbable.
"We think that we have been very considerate, Mr. Brooks," Selina remarked, with an engaging smile. "We gave up our usual dinner this evening as papa had to leave so early."
Mr. Brooks smiled as he offered his arm to Mrs. Bullsom--a courtesy which much embarrassed her.
"I think," he said, "that we shall be able to show you some practical appreciation of your thoughtfulness. I know nothing so stimulating to the appetite as politics, and to-day we have been so busy that I missed even my afternoon tea."
"I'm sure that we are quite repaid for giving up our dinner," Selina remarked, with a backward glance at the young man. "Oh, here you are at last, Mary. I didn't hear you come in."
"My niece, Miss Scott," Mr. Bullsom announced. "Now you know all the family."
A plainly-dressed girl with dark eyes and unusually pale cheeks returned his greeting quietly, and followed them into the dining-room. Mrs. Bullsom spread herself over her seat with a little sigh of relief. Brooks gazed in silent wonder at the gilt-framed oleographs which hung thick upon the walls, and Mr. Bullsom stood up to carve a joint of beef.
"Plain fare, Mr. Brooks, for plain people," he remarked, gently elevating the sirloin on his fork, and determining upon a point of attack. "We don't understand frills here, but we've a welcome for our friends, and a hearty one."
"If there is anything in the world better than roast beef," Brooks remarked, unfolding his serviette, "I haven't found it."
"There's one thing," Mr. Bullsom remarked, pausing for a moment in his labours, "I can give you a good glass of wine. Ann, I think that if you look in the right-hand drawer of the sideboard you will find a bottle of champagne. If not I'll have to go down into the cellar."
Ann, however, produced it--which, considering that Mr. Bullsom had carefully placed it there a few hours ago, was not extraordinary--and Brooks sipped the wine with inward tremors, justified by the result.
"I suppose, Mr. Brooks," Selina remarked, turning towards him in an engaging fashion, "that you are a great politician. I see your name so much in the papers."
"My political career," he answered, "dates from yesterday morning. I am taking Mr. Morrison's place, you know, as agent for Mr. Henslow. I have never done anything of the sort before, and I have scarcely any claims to be considered a politician at all."
"A very lucky change for us, Brooks," Mr. Bullsom declared, with the burly familiarity which he considered justified by his position as chairman of the Radical committee. "Poor Morrison was past the job. It was partly through his muddling that we lost the seat at the last election. I'd made up my mind to have a change this time, and so I told 'em."
Brooks was tired of politics, and he looked across the table. This pale girl with the tired eyes and self-contained manner interested him. The difference, too, between her and the rest of the family was puzzling.
"I believe, Miss Scott," he said, "that I met you at the Stuarts' dance."
"I was there," she admitted. "I don't think I danced with you, but we had supper at the same table."
"I remember it perfectly," he said. "Wasn't it supposed to be a very good dance?"
She shrugged her shoulders.
"I believe so," she answered. "There was the usual fault--too many girls. But it was very pretty to watch."
"You do not care for dancing, yourself, perhaps?" he hazarded.
"Indeed I do," she declared. "But I knew scarcely any one there. I see a good deal of Kate sometimes, but the others I scarcely know at all."
"You were in the same position as I was, then," he answered, smiling.
"Oh, you--you are different," she remarked. "I mean that you are a man, and at a dance that means everything. That is why I rather dislike dances. We are too dependent upon you. If you would only let us dance alone."
Selina smiled in a superior manner. She would have given a good deal to have been invited to the dance in question, but that was a matter which she did not think it worth while to mention.
"My dear Mary!" she said, "what an idea. I am quite sure that when you go out with us you need never have any difficulty about partners."
"Our programmes for the Liberal Club Dance and the County Cricket Ball were full before we had been in the room five minutes," Louise interposed.
Mary smiled inwardly, but said nothing, and Brooks was quite sure then that she was different. He realized too that her teeth were perfect, and her complexion, notwithstanding its pallor, was faultless. She would have been strikingly good-looking but for her mouth, and that--was it a discontented or a supercilious curl? At any rate it disappeared when she smiled.
"May I ask whether you have been attending a political meeting this evening, Miss Scott?" he asked. "You came in after us, I think."
She shook her head.
"No, I have a class on Wednesday evening."
"A class!" he repeated, doubtfully.
Mr. Bullsom, who thought he had been out of the conversation long enough, interposed.
"Mary calls herself a bit of a philanthropist, you see, Mr. Brooks," he explained. "Goes down into Medchester and teaches factory girls to play the piano on Wednesday evenings. Much good may it do them."
There was a curious gleam in the girl's eyes for a moment which checked the words on Brooks' lips, and led him to precipitately abandon the conversation. But afterwards, while Selina was pedalling at the pianola and playing havoc with the expression-stops, he crossed the room and stood for a moment by her chair.
"I should like you to tell me about your class," he said. "I have several myself--of different sorts."
She closed her magazine, but left her finger in the place.
"Oh, mine is a very unambitious undertaking," she said. "Kate Stuart and I started it for the girls in her father's factory, and we aim at nothing higher than an attempt to direct their taste in fiction. They bring their Free Library lists to us, and we mark them together. Then we all read one more serious book at the same time--history or biography--and talk about it when we meet."
"It is an excellent idea," he said, earnestly. "By the bye, something occurs to me. You know, or rather you don't know, that I give free lectures on certain books or any simple literary subject on Wednesday evenings at the Secular Hall when this electioneering isn't on. Couldn't you bring your girls one evening? I would be guided in my choice of a subject by you."
"Yes, I should like that," she answered, "and I think the girls would. It is very good of you to suggest it."
Louise, with a great book under her arm, deposited her dumpy person in a seat by his side, and looked up at him with a smile of engaging candour.
"Mr. Brooks," she said, "I am going to do a terrible thing. I am going to show you some of my sketches and ask your opinion."
Brooks turned towards her without undue enthusiasm.
"It is very good of you, Miss Bullsom," he said, doubtfully; "but I never drew a straight line in my life, and I know nothing whatever about perspective. My opinion would be worse than worthless."
Louise giggled artlessly, and turned over the first few pages.
"You men all say that at first," she declared, "and then you turn out such terrible critics. I declare I'm afraid to show them to you, after all."
Brooks scarcely showed that desire to overcome her new resolution which politeness demanded. But Selina came tripping across the room, and took up her position on the other side of him.
"You must show them now you've brought them out, Louise," she declared. "I am sure that Mr. Brooks' advice will be most valuable. But mind, if you dare to show mine, I'll tear them into pieces."
"I wasn't going to, dear," Louise declared, a little tartly. "Shall I begin at the beginning, Mr. Brooks, or--"
"Oh, don't show those first few, dear," Selina exclaimed. "You know they're not nearly so good as some of the others. That mill is all out of drawing."
Mary, who had been elbowed into the background, rose quietly and crossed to the other end of the room. Brooks followed her for a moment with regretful eyes. Her simple gown, with the little piece of ribbon around her graceful neck, seemed almost distinguished by comparison with the loud-patterned and dressier blouses of the two girls who had now hemmed him in. For a moment he ignored the waiting pages.
"Your cousin," he remarked, "is quite unlike any of you. Has she been with you long?"
Louise looked up a little tartly.
"Oh, about three years. You are quite right when you say that she is unlike any of us. It doesn't seem nice to complain about her exactly, but she really is terribly trying, isn't she, Selina?"
Selina nodded, and dropped her voice.
"She is getting worse," she declared. "She is becoming a positive trouble to us."
Brooks endeavoured to look properly sympathetic, and considered himself justified in pursuing the conversation. "Indeed! May I ask in what way?"
"Oh, she has such old-fashioned ideas," Louise said, confidentially. "I've quite lost patience with her, and so has Selina; haven't you, dear? She never goes to parties if she can help it, she is positively rude to all our friends, and the sarcastic things she says sometimes are most unpleasant. You know, papa is very, very good to her."
"Yes, indeed," Selina interrupted. "You know, Mr. Brooks, she has no father and mother, and she was living quite alone in London when papa found her out and brought her here--and in the most abject poverty. I believe he found her in a garret. Fancy that!"
"And now," Louise continued, "he allows her for her clothes exactly the same as he does us--and look at her. Would you believe it, now? She is like that nearly every evening, although we have friends dropping in continually. Of course I don't believe in extravagance, but if a girl has relations who are generous enough to give her the means, I do think that, for their sake, she ought to dress properly. I think that she owes it to them, as well as to herself."
"And out of doors it is positively worse," Selina whispered, impressively. "I declare," she added, with a simper, "that although nobody can say that I am proud, there are times when I am positively ashamed to be seen out with her. What she does with her money I can't imagine."
Brooks, who was something of a critic in such matters, and had recognized the art of her severely simple gown, smiled to himself. He was wise enough, however, not to commit himself.
"Perhaps," he suggested, "she thinks that absolute simplicity suits her best. She has a nice figure."
Selina tossed her much-beaded slipper impatiently.
"Heaven only knows what Mary does think," she exclaimed, impatiently.
"And Heaven only knows what I am to say about these," Brooks groaned inwardly, as the sketch-book fell open before him at last, and its contents were revealed to his astonished eyes.
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