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OF A LADY OF SENSIBILITY THAT, BEING AWKWARDLY PLACED, MIGHT EASILY HAVE SET MATTERS RIGHT, BUT DID NOT: WITH MUCH BESIDE.
It is hardly necessary by this time to inform my readers that Miss Priscilla Limpenny was a lady of sensibility. We have already seen her obey the impulse of the heart rather than the cool dictates of judgment: her admiration of natural beauty she has herself confessed more than once during the voyage up the river. But lest more than a due share of this admiration should be set down to patriotism, I wish to put it on record that she possessed to an uncommon degree an appreciative sense of the poetic side of Nature. She was familiar with the works of Mrs. Hemans and L. E. L., and had got by heart most of the effusions in "Affection's Keepsake" and "Friendship's Offering." Nay, she had been, in her early youth, suspected, more than vaguely, of contributing fugitive verse to a periodical known as the Household Packet. She had even, many years ago, met the Poet Wordsworth "at the dinner-table," as she expressed it, "of a common friend," and was never tired of relating how the great man had spoken of the prunes as "pruins," and said "Would you obleege me with the salt?"
With such qualifications for communion with nature it is not wonderful that, on this particular afternoon, Miss Limpenny should have wandered pensively along the river's bank, and surrendered herself to its romantic charm. Possessed by the spirit of the place and hour, she even caught herself straying by the extreme brink, and repeating those touching lines from "Affection's Keepsake":--
"The eye roams widely o'er glad Nature's face, To mark each varied and delightful scene; The simple and magnificent we trace, While loveliness and brightness intervene; Oh! everywhere is something found to--"
At this point Miss Limpenny's gaze lost its dreamy expansiveness, and grew rigid with horror. Immediately before her feet, and indelicately confronting her, lay a suit of man's clothing.
It is a curious fact, though one we need not linger to discuss, that while clothes are the very symbol and first demand of decency, few things become so flagrantly immodest when viewed in themselves and apart from use. The crimson rushed to Miss Limpenny's cheek. She uttered a cry and looked around.
Inexorable fate, whose compulsion directed that gaze! If raiment apart from its wearer be unseemly, how much more--
About thirty yards from her, wading down the stream, and tugging the painter of his recovered boat, advanced Mr. Fogo.
To add a final touch of horror, that gentleman, finding that the damp on his spectacles completely dimmed his vision, had deposited them in the boat, and was therefore blind to the approaching catastrophe. Unconscious even of observation, he advanced nearer and nearer.
Miss Limpenny's emotion found vent in a squeal.
Mr. Fogo, heard, halted, and gazed blankly around.
"How singular!" he murmured. "I could have sworn I heard a cry."
He made another step. The sound was repeated, more shrilly.
"Again! And, dear me, it sounds human--as of some fellow-creature in distress."
"Go away! Go away at once!"
"Eh? Bless my soul, what can it be?" Mr. Fogo stared in the direction whence the voice proceeded, but of course without seeing anything.
"I beg your pardon?" he observed mildly.
"If you will allow me--" he began, courteously addressing vacancy.
The awful truth began to dawn upon him, and was followed by a hasty impulse to dive.
"If," he stammered, "I am right in supposing myself to address a lady--"
"Don't talk to me, but go away."
"I was about to ask permission to resume my spectacles, which I have unfortunately laid aside."
"No, no. That would be worse. Oh! go away at once."
"Pardon me, madam. I am aware that spectacles are insufficient as a--I mean, I did not propose to consider them in the light of a costume, but as an assistance to my sight, without which--"
"Oh! I shall faint."
"Without which it will be impossible for me to extricate myself from this extremely unfortunate situation. I am notoriously short-sighted, madam, and at this distance could not tell you from Adam--I should say, from Eve," continued Mr. Fogo, desperately reaching out for his spectacles and adjusting them.
By the imperfect glimpse which he obtained through the glasses (which were still damp) he was almost moved to adopt his first impulse of deserting the boat and diving. But even if he swam away the case would be no better, for this unreasonable female stood sentry beside his clothes.
"If I might make a suggestion, madam--"
But by this time Miss Limpenny had broken forth into a series of sobs and plaintive cries for protection. Alas! the rest of the picnic-party were deep within the woods, and out of hearing.
"Believe me, my dear madam--"
"I am not your dear madam."
"I have no other intention than to get out of this."
"Ah! he confesses it."
"I assure you--"
"Will no one protect me?" wailed the lady, wringing her hands and sobbing anew. But help was near, though from an unexpected quarter.
"Hulloa!" cried a voice on the bank above, "what be all this?"
And Peter Dearlove pushed aside the bushes and descended to the shingle, closely followed by Paul. He was just in time, for Miss Limpenny, with a thankful little cry, staggered and fell fainting into his arms.
"Mercy 'pon us!" exclaimed Peter, seeing only the lady, and not at first the cause of her distress, "'tes Miss Limpenny."
"Well, I'm jiggered!" ejaculated Paul, "so 'tes."
The Twins bent over the lady, and looked at each other in dismay. To Mr. Fogo the tableau might have borne a ridiculous likeness to that scene in Cymbeline where Guiderius and Arviragus stoop over the unconscious Imogen. But Mr. Fogo, as he stood neck-high in water, was far beyond drawing any such comparison; and Peter, instead of adjuring Miss Limpenny to fear no more the heat o' the sun, accinged himself to the practical difficulty.
"Did 'ee iver hear tell o' what's best to be done when a leddy's took like this?" he asked his brother.
"No," answered Paul; "Tamsin was niver took this way. But that there little book us used to study when her had the whoopin'-cough an' measles wud likely tell all about et; I wish 'twas here. Wait a bit. I remembers the 'Instructions for Discoverin' th' Appariently Drownded.' Do 'ee reckon Miss Limpenny here es 'appariently drownded'?"
"I don't think so nuther. Ef she was," added Paul regretfully, "you'd have to be extry partic'lar not to roll her body 'pon casks. That was a great p'int."
"'Tes a long step round to fetch that book," sighed Peter.
"An' terrable long words i' th' index when you've got et. Stop, now: es et faintin', do 'ee think?"
"Well," answered Paul thoughtfully, "et mou't be faintin'."
"'Cos, ef so, the best way es to hold the sufferer upsi-down an' dash cold water over the face."
"That wud be takin' too much of a liberty, wudn' et, Paul?"
But at this point the blood came trickling back into Miss Limpenny's cheeks; the eyelids fluttered, opened; she gasped a little, looked up, and--
"Is he gone?" she asked in a weak whisper.
"Gone? Who, ma'am?"
"Light-headed yet," muttered Peter. But following Miss Limpenny's stare the brothers caught sight of Mr. Fogo simultaneously, and for the first time. Their mahogany faces grew sensibly paler.
"Well, this beats cock-fightin'!"
"Would you mind taking that lady away?" pleaded Mr. Fogo, through his chattering teeth; "I am very cold indeed, and wish to dress."
"Oh! that voice again," sobbed Miss Limpenny; "please tell him to go away."
Being nonplussed by these two appeals, Peter addressed his reply to his brother.
"I dunno, Paul, as we've a-got to the bottom o' this; but I reck'n Mr. Fogo's been a-lettin' hes principles take 'n too far. As for dislikin' womankind, 'tes in a way 'scuseable p'raps; but notices es wan thing, an' teasin' anuther."
"That's so, Peter. Ef 'tes a matter o' fash'n, tho', I dunno as we've any call to interfere, not knawin' what's what."
"Ef you plaise, sir," shouted Peter, "Paul an' me wants to know whether you be a-doin' et by way o' bein' fash'nubble?"
"I don't know what you mean. I only wish to be allowed to get at my clothes. I really am suffering considerably, being quite unused to these long immersions."
Peter looked around and caught sight of the neat pile of Mr. Fogo's attire lying underneath the bank. Light began to dawn on him; he turned to Miss Limpenny--
"You'll excuse me, ma'am, but was you present by any chance when--?"
"Heaven forbid!" she cried, and put her hands before her face.
"Then, beggin' your pard'n, but how did you come here?"
"I was wandering on the bank--and lost in thought--and came upon these--these articles. And then--oh! I cannot, I cannot."
"Furder question es," pursued Peter, with an interrogative glance at his brother, who nodded, "why not ha' gone away?"
"Dear me!" exclaimed Miss Limpenny, "I never thought of it!"
She gathered up her skirts, and disdaining the assistance of the gallant Paul, clambered up the bank, and with a formal bow left the Twins staring. As she remarked tearfully to Lavinia that evening, "What one requires in these cases is presence of mind, my dear," and she heaved a piteous little sigh.
"But consider," urged the sympathetic Lavinia, "your feelings at the moment. I am sure that under similar circumstances"--she shuddered-- "I should have behaved in precisely the same way."
Mr. Fogo emerged in so benumbed a condition, his teeth chattered so loudly, and his nose had grown so appallingly blue, that the Twins, who had in delicacy at first retired to a little distance, were forced to return and help him into his clothes. Even then, however, he continued to shiver to such an extent that the pair, after consulting in whispers for some moments, took off their coats, wrapped him carefully about, set him in the stern of his boat, and, jumping in themselves, pushed off and rowed rapidly homewards.
Their patient endeavoured to express his thanks, but was gravely desired not to mention it. For ten minutes or so the Twins rowed in silence, at the end of this time Paul suddenly dropped the bow oar; then, leaning forward, touched his brother on the shoulder and whispered one word--
"Or Samson," said Peter.
"I think poorly o' Samson."
"Wi' hes hair on?"
"Wi' or wi'out, I don't lay no store by Samson."
"Very well, then--Shenachrum."
The rowing was resumed, and Mr. Fogo left to speculate on these dark sayings. But as the boat drew near the column of blue smoke that, rising from the hazels on the left bank, marked the whereabouts of the Dearloves' cottage, he grew aware of a picture that, perhaps by mere charm of composition, set his pulse extravagantly beating.
At the gate above the low cliff, her frock of pink print distinct against the hazels, stood Tamsin Dearlove, and looked up the river.
She was bare-headed; and the level rays of evening powdered her dark tresses with gold, and touched the trees behind into bronze. One hand shielded her eyes; the other rested on the half-open gate, and swayed it softly to and fro upon its hinge. As she stood thus, some happy touch of opportunity, some trick of circumstance or grouping, must, I think, have helped Mr. Fogo to a conclusion he had been seeking for weeks. It is certain that though he has since had abundant opportunities of studying Tamsin, and noting that untaught grace of body in which many still find the secret of her charm, to his last day she will always be for him the woman who stood, this summer evening, beside the gate and looked up the river.
And yet, as the boat drew near, the pleasantest feature in the picture was the smile with which she welcomed her brothers, though it contained some wonder to see them in Mr. Fogo's boat, and gave place to quick alarm as she remarked the extreme blueness of that gentleman's nose and the extreme pallor of his other features.
"Tamsin, my dear, es the cloth laid?"
"Yes, Peter, and the kettle ready to boil."
"We was thinkin' as Shenachrum would be suitin' Mr. Fogo better. He've met wi' an accident."
"Again?" There was something of disdain in her eyes as she curtseyed to him, but it softened immediately. "You're kindly welcome, sir," she added, "and the Shenachrum shall be ready in ten minutes."
Within five minutes Mr. Fogo was seated by the corner of the hearth, and watching her as she heated the beer which, together with rum, sugar, and lemon, forms the drink known and loved by Trojans as Shenachrum. The Twins had retired to wash in the little out-house at the back, and their splashing was audible every now and again above the crackling of the wood fire, which now, as before, filled the kitchen with fragrance. Its warmth struck kindly into Mr. Fogo's knees, and coloured Tamsin's cheeks with a hot red as she bent over the flame. He watched her profile in thoughtful silence for some moments, and then fell to staring at the glowing sticks and the shadows of the pot-hooks and hangers on the chimney-back.
"So that is Shenachrum?" he said at last, to break the silence.
"And what, or who, is Samson?"
"Samson is brandy and cider and sugar."
"With his hair on?"
"That means more brandy. Samson was double as strong, you know, with his hair on."
The silence was resumed. Only the tick-tack of the tall clock and the splashing of the Twins disturbed it. She turned to glance at him once, and then, seeing his gaze fixed upon the fire that twinkled on the rim of his spectacles and emphasised the hollows of his face, had looked for a moment more boldly before she bent over her task again.
"She is quite beautiful, but--"
He spoke in a dreamy abstracted tone, as if addressing the pot-hooks. Tamsin started, set down the pan with a clatter, and turned sharply round.
"Eh?" said Mr. Fogo, aroused by the clatter, "you were saying--?" And then it struck him that he had spoken aloud. He broke off, and looked up with appealing helplessness.
There was a second's pause.
"You were saying--"
The words came as if dragged from her by an effort. Her eyes were full of wrath as she stood above him and waited for his reply.
"I am very sorry," he stammered; "I never meant you to hear."
"You were talking of--?"
"Of you," he answered simply. He was horribly frightened; but it was not in the man's nature to lie, or even evade the question.
The straightforwardness of the reply seemed to buffet her in the face. She put up a hand against the chimney-piece and caught her breath.
"What is 'but'?" she asked with a kind of breathless vehemence. "Finish your sentence. What right have you to talk of me?" she went on, as he did not reply. "If I am not a lady, what is that to you? Oh!" she persisted, in answer to the swift remonstrance on his face, "I can end your sentence: 'She is quite beautiful, but--quite low, of course.' What right have you to call me either--to speak of me at all? We were content enough before you came--Peter and Paul and I. Why cannot you let us alone? I hate you! Yes, I hope there is no doubt now that I am low--hate you!"
She stamped her foot in passion as two angry tears sparkled in her eyes.
"Why, Tamsin!" cried Paul's voice at the door, "the Shenachrum not ready yet? I niver knawed 'ee so long afore."
She turned sharply, caught up the pan, and stooped over the fire again. But the glow on her cheeks now was hotter than any fire could bring.
"'Tes rare stuff, sir," said the Twin encouragingly, as Tamsin filled a steaming glass, and handed it, without a look, to Mr. Fogo. "Leastways, 'tes thought a deal of i' these parts by them as, wi'out bein' perlite, es yet reckoned jedges."
Mr. Fogo took the glass and sipped bravely. The stuff was so hot that tears sprang to his eyes, but he gulped it down, nevertheless.
"An' now, sir," began Peter, who had joined the group, and was looking on approvingly, "Paul an' me was considerin' in the back-kitchen, an' agreed that makin' so bold as to ax 'ee, an' hopin' 'twont' be thought over free, you must stay the night, seein' you've took this cold, an' the night air bein', as es well known, terrable apt to give 'ee inflammation."
"We'd planned," put in Paul, "to go down wi' the boat to Kit's House an' fetch up your things, and tell Caleb about et, so's he shudn' be decomposed. An' Tamsin'll tell 'ee there's a room at your sarvice, an' reckoned purty--lookin' on to the bee-skeps an' the orchard at the back," he explained with a meaning glance at Tamsin, who was silent.
"Why, Tamsin, girl, what's amiss that you don't spake?" asked Peter; and then his amazement got the better of his tact, as he added in a stage whisper, "'Tes on'y to change rooms. Paul an' me can aisy sleep down here afore the fire; an' us on'y offered your room as bein' more genteel--"
"I assure you," broke in Mr. Fogo, "that I am quite recovered of my chill, thanks to your kindness, and would rather return--much rather: though I thank you all the same." He spoke to the Twins, but kept his eyes on Tamsin.
"No kindness at all," muttered Peter. His face fell, and he, too, looked at the girl.
Finding their eyes upon her, she was compelled to speak.
"Mr. Fogo wudn' care for the likes o' what we cou'd offer him," she said. Then, seeing the pain on the men's faces, she added with an effort to be gracious, "But ef he can put up wi' us, he knows he shall be made welcome."
She did not look up, and her voice, in which the peculiar sing-song of Trojan intonation was intentionally emphasised, sounded so strangely that still greater amazement fell upon the Twins.
"Why, Tamsin, I niver knawed 'ee i' this mood afore," stammered Paul.
"I assure you," interposed Mr. Fogo, "that I value your hospitality more than I can say, and shall not forget it. But it would be absurd to accept it when I am so near home. If one of you would consent to row me down to Kit's House, it would be the exact kindness I should prefer."
The Twins assented, though not without regret at his refusal to accept more. Paul agreed to row him down, and the two started in the early twilight. As he shook Peter's hand, Mr. Fogo looked at Tamsin.
"Good-night," he said.
She did not offer to shake hands; she scarcely even looked up, but stood there before the chimney-place, with the fire-light outlining her form and throwing into deep shadow the side of her face that was towards him. One arm was thrown up to grasp the mantelshelf, and against this her head rested. The other hung listlessly at her side. And this was the picture Mr. Fogo carried out into the grey evening.
As the door closed upon him, Peter sank into the stiff-backed chair beside the hearth with a puzzled sigh.
"Why, Tamsin," he said, as he slowly drew out his pipe and filled it, "what ailed 'ee, girl, to behave like that?"
Looking up, he saw a tear, and then a second, drop brightly on the hearth-stone.
Before he could say more she had stepped to him, and, sitting on the chair-arm, had flung her arms around his neck and drawn his head towards her, that he might not look into her face.
"I hate him," she sobbed--"I hate him! I wish I had never seen him. He despises us, and--and I was so happy before he came."
The Twin set down his pipe upon his knee, and stared into the fire.
"As for hatin', Tamsin," he said gravely, "'tain't right. Us shud love our neighbours, Scriptur' says; an' I reckon that includes tenants. I' the matter o' hes despisin' us, I dunno as you'm right nuther. He's fash'nubble, o' cou'se; but very conformable, considerin'--very conformable. You bain't sorry us let Kit's House, eh, Tamsin? Not hankerin'--"
"I doubt, my dear, we'm poor hands to take care of 'ee, Paul an' me. Us talks et over togither at times, an' agrees 'twas wrong not to ha' sent 'ee away to school. Us got a whack o' handbills down, wan time, from different places. You wudn' believe et, my dear," he went on, with something like a laugh, "but Paul an' me a'most came to words over they handbills. 'Tes a curious fac', but at the places where they allowed most holidays, they was most partic'lar about takin' your own spoon and fork, an' Paul was a stickler agen that. Et grew to be a matter o' prenciple wi' Paul that wheriver you went you shudn' take your own spoon and fork. So us niver came to no understandin'. I doubt 'twas selfish an' us can't understand maidens an' their ways; but say, my dear, ef there's anything can be set right, an' us'll try--"
"No, no. Let me sit here beside you, and I shall be better presently."
She drew a low stool to his side, and sat with her head against his knee, and her dark eyes watching the fire. Peter laid one hand gently on her hair, and wound the brown locks around his fingers.
"All right now?" he asked, after several minutes had passed with no sound but the ticking of the clock.
"All right beside you, brother. It is always all right beside you."
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