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SHELFING THE QUESTION
There is a time of day (as everybody must have noticed who is kind enough to attend to things) not to be told by the clock, nor measured to a nicety by the position of the sun, even when he has the manners to say where he is--a time of day dependent on a multiplicity of things unknown to us (who have made our own brains, by perceiving that we had none, and working away till we got them), yet palpable to all those less self-exalted beings, who, or which, are of infinitely nobler origin than we, and have shown it, by humility. At this time of day every decent and good animal feels an unthought-of and untraced desire to shift its position, to come out and see its fellows, to learn what is happening in the humble grateful world--out of which man has hoisted himself long ago, and is therefore a spectre to them--to breathe a little sample of the turn the world is taking, and sue their share of pleasure in the quiet earth and air.
This time is more observable because it follows a period of the opposite tendency, a period of heaviness, and rest, and silence, when no bird sings and no quadruped plays, for about half an hour of the afternoon. Then suddenly, without any alteration of the light, or weather, or even temperature, or anything else that we know of, a change of mood flashes into every living creature, a spirit of life, and activity, and stir, and desire to use their own voice and hear their neighbour's. The usual beginning is to come out first into a place that cannot knock their heads, and there to run a little way, and after that to hop, and take a peep for any people around, and espying none--or only one of the very few admitted to be friends--speedily to dismiss all misgivings, take a very little bit of food, if handy (more as a duty to one's family than oneself, for the all-important supper-time is not come yet), and then, if gifted by the Lord with wings--for what bird can stoop at such a moment to believe that his own grandfather made them?--up to the topmost spray that feathers in the breeze, and pour upon the grateful air the voice of free thanksgiving. But an if the blade behind the heart is still unplumed for flying, and only gentle flax or fur blows out on the wind, instead of beating it, does the owner of four legs sit and sulk, like a man defrauded of his merits? He answers the question with a skip and jump; ere a man can look twice at him he has cut a caper, frolicked an intricate dance upon the grass, and brightened his eyes for another round of joy.
At any time of year almost, the time of day commands these deeds, unless the weather is outrageous; but never more undeniably than in the month of April. The growth of the year is well established, and its manner beginning to be schooled by then; childish petulance may still survive, and the tears of penitence be frequent; yet upon the whole there is--or used to be--a sense of responsibility forming, and an elemental inkling of true duty towards the earth. Even man (the least observant of the powers that walk the ground, going for the signs of weather to the cows, or crows, or pigs, swallows, spiders, gnats, and leeches, or the final assertion of his own corns) sometimes is moved a little, and enlarged by influence of life beyond his own, and tickled by a pen above his thoughts, and touched for one second by the hand that made him. Then he sees a brother man who owes him a shilling, and his soul is swallowed up in the resolve to get it.
But well in the sky-like period of youth, when the wind sits lightly, and the clouds go by in puffs, these little jumps of inspiration take the most respectable young man sometimes off his legs, and the young maid likewise--if she continues in these fine days to possess such continuation. Blyth Scudamore had been appointed now, partly through his own good deserts, and wholly through good influence--for Lord St. Vincent was an ancient friend of the excellent Admiral Darling--to the command of the Blonde, refitted, thoroughly overhauled at Portsmouth, and pronounced by the dock-yard people to be the fastest and soundest corvette afloat, and in every way a credit to the British navy. "The man that floated her shall float in her," said the Earl, when somebody, who wanted the appointment, suggested that the young man was too young. "He has seen sharp service, and done sharp work. It is waste of time to talk of it; the job is done." "Job is the word for it," thought the other, but wisely reserved that great truth for his wife. However, it was not at all a bad job for England. And Scudamore had now seen four years of active service, counting the former years of volunteering, and was more than twenty-five years old.
None of these things exalted him at all in his own opinion, or, at any rate, not very much. Because he had always regarded himself with a proper amount of self-respect, as modest men are almost sure to do, desiring less to know what the world thinks of them than to try to think rightly of it for themselves. His opinion of it seemed to be that it was very good just now, very kind, and fair, and gentle, and a thing for the heart of man to enter into.
For Dolly Darling was close beside him, sitting on a very pretty bench, made of twisted oak, and turned up at the back and both ends, so that a gentleman could not get very far away from a lady without frightening her. Not only in this way was the spot well adapted for tender feelings, but itself truly ready to suggest them, with nature and the time of year to help. There was no stream issuing here, to puzzle and perpetually divert the human mind (whose origin clearly was spring-water poured into the frame of the jelly-fish), neither was there any big rock, like an obstinate barrier rising; but gentle slopes of daisied pasture led the eye complacently, sleek cows sniffed the herbage here and there, and brushed it with the underlip to fetch up the blades for supper-time, and placable trees, forgetting all the rudeness of the winter winds, began to disclose to the fond deceiving breeze, with many a glimpse to attract a glance, all the cream of their summer intentions. And in full enjoyment of all these doings, the poet of the whole stood singing--the simple-minded thrush, proclaiming that the world was good and kind, but himself perhaps the kindest, and his nest, beyond doubt, the best of it.
"How lovely everything is to-day!" Blyth Scudamore spoke slowly, and gazing shyly at the loveliest thing of all, in his opinion--the face of Dolly Darling. "No wonder that your brother is a poet!"
"But he never writes about this sort of thing," said Dolly, smiling pleasantly. "His poems are all about liberty, and the rights of men, and the wrongs of war. And if he ever mentions cows or sheep, it is generally to say what a shame it is to kill them."
"But surely it is much worse to kill men. And who is to be blamed for that, Miss Darling? The Power that wants to overrun all the rest, or the Country that only defends itself? I hope he has not converted you to the worship of the new Emperor; for the army and all the great cities of France have begged him to condescend to be that; and the King of Prussia will add his entreaties, according to what we have heard."
"I think anything of him!" cried Dolly, as if her opinion would settle the point. "After all his horrible murders--worst of all of that very handsome and brave young man shot with a lantern, and buried in a ditch! I was told that he had to hold the lantern above his poor head, and his hand never shook! It makes me cry every time I think of it. Only let Frank come back, and he won't find me admire his book so very much! They did the same sort of thing when I was a little girl, and could scarcely sleep at night on account of it. And then they seemed to get a little better, for a time, and fought with their enemies, instead of one another, and made everybody wild about liberty, and citizens, and the noble march of intellect, and the dignity of mankind, and the rights of labour--when they wouldn't work a stroke themselves--and the black superstition of believing anything, except what they chose to make a fuss about themselves. And thousands of people, even in this country, who have been brought up so much better, were foolish enough to think it very grand indeed, especially the poets, and the ones that are too young. But they ought to begin to get wiser now; even Frank will find it hard to make another poem on them."
"How glad I am to hear you speak like that! I had no idea--at least I did not understand--"
"That I had so much common-sense?" enquired Dolly, with a glance of subtle yet humble reproach. "Oh yes, I have a great deal sometimes, I can assure you. But I suppose one never does get credit for anything, without claiming it."
"I am sure that you deserve credit for everything that can possibly be imagined," Scudamore answered, scarcely knowing, with all his own common-sense to help him, that he was talking nonsense. "Every time I see you I find something I had never found before to--to wonder at--if you can understand--and to admire, and to think about, and to--to be astonished at."
Dolly knew as well as he did the word he longed to use, but feared. She liked this state of mind in him, and she liked him too for all his kindness, and his humble worship; and she could not help admiring him for his bravery and simplicity. But she did not know the value yet of a steadfast and unselfish heart, and her own was not quite of that order. So many gallant officers were now to be seen at her father's house, half a cubit taller than poor Blyth, and a hundred cubits higher in rank, and wealth, and knowledge of the world, and the power of making their wives great ladies. Moreover, she liked a dark man, and Scudamore was fair and fresh as a rose called Hebe's Cup in June. Another thing against him was that she knew how much her father liked him; and though she loved her father well, she was not bound to follow his leadings. And yet she did not wish to lose this useful and pleasant admirer.
"I am not at all ambitious," she replied, without a moment's hesitation, for the above reflections had long been dealt with, "but how I wish I could do something to deserve even half that you say of me! But I fear that you find the air getting rather cold. The weather is so changeable."
"Are you sure that you are not ambitious?" Scudamore was too deeply plunged to get out of it now upon her last hint; and to-morrow he must be far away. "You have every right to be ambitious, if such a word can be used of you, who are yourself the height of so many ambitions. It was the only fault I could imagine you to have, and it seems too bad that you should have none at all."
"You don't know anything about it," said Dolly, with a lovely expression in her face of candour, penitence, and pleasantry combined; "I am not only full of faults, but entirely made up of them. I am told of them too often not to know."
"By miserably jealous and false people." It was impossible to look at her and not think that. "By people who cannot have a single atom of perception, or judgment, or even proper feeling. I should like to hear one of them, if you would even condescend to mention it. Tell me one--only one--if you can think of it. I am not at all a judge of character, but--but I have often had to study it a good deal among the boys."
This made Miss Dolly laugh, and drop her eyes, and smoothe her dress, as if to be sure that his penetration had not been brought to bear on her. And the gentle Scuddy blushed at his clumsiness, and hoped that she would understand the difference.
"You do say such things!" She also was blushing beautifully as she spoke, and took a long time before she looked at him again. "Things that nobody else ever says. And that is one reason why I like you so."
"Oh, do you like me--do you like me in earnest? I can hardly dare to dream even for one moment--"
"I am not going to talk about that any more. I like Mr. Twemlow, I like Captain Stubbard, I like old Tugwell--though I should have liked him better if he had not been so abominably cruel to his son. Now I am sure it is time to go and get ready for dinner."
"Ah, when shall I dine with you again? Perhaps never," said the young man, endeavouring to look very miserable and to inspire sadness. "But I ought to be very happy, on the whole, to think of all the pleasures I have enjoyed, and how much better I have got on than I had any right in the world to hope for."
"Yes, to be the Commander of a beautiful ship, little more than a year from the date of your commission. Captain Stubbard is in such a rage about it!"
"I don't mean about that--though that of course is rare luck--I mean a much more important thing; I mean about getting on well with you. The first time I saw you in that fine old school, you did not even want to shake hands with me, and you thought what a queer kind of animal I was; and then the first time or two I dined at the Hall, nothing but fine hospitality stopped you from laughing at my want of practice. But gradually, through your own kind nature, and my humble endeavours to be of use, I began to get on with you better and better; and now you are beginning almost to like me."
"Not almost, but altogether," she answered, with quite an affectionate glance. "I can tell you there are very few, outside of my own family, that I like half so well as I like you. But how can it matter to you so much?"
She looked at him so that he was afraid to speak, for fear of spoiling everything; and being a very good-natured girl, and pleased with his deep admiration, she sighed--just enough to make him think that he might hope.
"We are all so sorry to lose you." she said; "and no one will miss you so much as I shall, because we have had such pleasant times together. But if we can carry out our little plot, we shall hear of you very often, and I dare say not very unfavourably. Faith and I have been putting our heads together, and for our own benefit, and that of all the house, if we can get you to second it. My father jumped at the idea, and said how stupid we were not to think of it before. You know how very little he can be at home this summer, and he says he has to sacrifice his children to his country. So we suggested that he should invite Lady Scudamore to spend the summer with us, if she can be persuaded to leave home so long. We will do our very utmost to make her comfortable, and she will be a tower of strength to us; for you know sometimes it is very awkward to have only two young ladies. But we dare not do anything until we asked you. Do you think she would take compassion upon us? A word from you perhaps would decide her; and Faith would write a letter for you to send."
Scudamore reddened with delight, and took her hand. "How can I thank you? I had better not try," he answered, with some very tender play of thumb and fore-finger, and a strong impulse to bring lips too into action. "You are almost as clever as you are good; you will know what I mean without my telling you. My mother will be only too glad to come. She knows what you are, she has heard so much from me. And the reality will put to shame all my descriptions."
"Tell me what you told her I was like. The truth, now, and not a word of afterthought or flattery. I am always so irritated by any sort of flattery."
"Then you must let me hold your hands, to subdue your irritation; for you are sure to think that it was flattery--you are so entirely ignorant of yourself, because you never think of it. I told my dear mother that you were the best, and sweetest, and wisest, and loveliest, and most perfect, and exquisite, and innocent, and unselfish of all the human beings she had ever seen, or heard, or read of. And I said it was quite impossible for any one after one look at you to think of himself any more in this world."
"Well done!" exclaimed Dolly, showing no irritation, unless a gleam of pearls inside an arch of coral showed it. "It is as well to do things thoroughly, while one is about it. I can understand now how you get on so fast. But, alas, your dear mother will only laugh at all that. Ladies are so different from gentlemen. Perhaps that is why gentlemen never understand them. And I would always a great deal rather be judged by a gentleman than a lady. Ladies pick such a lot of holes in one another, whereas gentlemen are too large-minded. And I am very glad upon the whole that you are not a lady, though you are much more gentle than they make believe to be. Oh dear! We must run; or the ladies will never forgive us for keeping them starving all this time."
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