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"L'HOMME PROPOSE: DIEU
By IDA MAR.
brothers during the week following their father's death, but it was only on the day after the funeral that the elder reluctantly put it into words.
“ We can never think of marrying,” he said ; "the likelihood of our ending our days in a lunatic asylum is too strong. Besides, as a family, we must be stamped out, like hydrophobia or the slave-trade. Of course, our poor mother might have recovered her reason if she had lived. The doctors say it is not unusual for women to go mad after the birth of a child, and yet be perfectly sane once more in a few weeks. But our father's case is not so easily disposed of."
“ No, indeed," answered Peter Heriot; "it is unfortunate, but we must face the situation. For my own part, I don't fancy I shall ever wish to marry. I am quite satisfied with my savage isolation in the Argentine Republic, and I couldn't possibly ask any woman to share it with me. Besides, she would be so frightfully in the way. But it is different for you, old fellow. You have heaps of friends, and will certainly be wanting to get married if you don't put yourself beyond the reach of temptation."
Stephen gave a little impatient sigh. "Thank goodness," he said, “that I have not already fallen a victim to some charmer to whom I should have to go now and pray her to excuse me. Poor little Alison ! it is rough on her. But we needn't bother the child VOL, CCLXXIII.
about it now. Matrimony is as far from her thoughts as it could be from an archangel's or a schoolboy's. Suppose we join you in the Estancia de los Alamos ? Alison would be out of harm's way, and perfectly happy ; and I suppose I should get used to it. What do you think? Would your 'savage isolation' be utterly spoilt by the introduction of a tame domestic petticoat ?”
“Not a bit. Alison is different. There's not a creature of either sex within thirty miles that either of you would care to look at, twice, and if you can endure the exile, I see no reason why we shouldn't all three live and die there in single blessedness. Alison is the only girl I know fit for the life ; we have to thank the poor governor's fads for that. Spelling isn't necessary, but riding and cooking and perfect health are ; and she hasn't her match in those. Marriage is the greatest humbug. She'll be out and away happier with us two, whom she knows, and who are her best friends, than with some fellow from Heaven knows where, who might be ill-using her and drinking himself to death before they'd been married a year.”
“Poor little Alison !” said Stephen again, thinking more of the lonely life to which she was being condemned than of the cruelties the husband of Peter's imagination would perpetrate. “Poor little girl! It is rough on her.” But, then, Stephen was looking on ahead to the time when riding and cooking in the wilderness should have lost their charm, and roughing it become a terrible trial, and isolation an unbearable grievance.
ALISON was not of those who borrow trouble, as the Americans say. She enjoyed her present, invested the dreariest episode of the past with a kindly halo, and saw the future not simply in rosy hues but in dazzling sunshine. Peter's estancia had been, ever since he went to South America, Alison's Promised Land, for had he not said that “some day” Alison should go out and be his housekeeper ?-a cheap way patronising elder brothers have of earning their little sister's gratitude. Such promises generally come to nothing, but this one was to be fulfilled, and Alison's joy thereat vented itself now and then in gay laughs and birdlike whistlings, and in a running up and down of stairs two steps at a time, all highly indecorous in a house of mourning, and looked coldly on by the servants, who were deeply sensible of all that their brand-new black “russell cords” and "paramattas” (according to their station) implied, and behaved suitably.
It was nearly sixteen years since Alison's mother had died, leaving her -a baby of a week old-and the two boys, then aged
eight and thirteen, to the care of her somewhat eccentric husband. Stephen was at school at the time, and his education, physical as well as mental, taken out of his father's hands ; but Peter and the baby were brought up from that day with a view to preserving their minds from undue strain and developing their bodily powers to the highest possible degree. Mr. Heriot had proved himself competent so far as the latter object was concerned, but he had carried the idea of not overtaxing his children's brains farther than was altogether wise. So that the difficulties presented by the competitive system were to Peter insurmountable, and the deficiencies in Alison's education became a stumbling-block to her friends, a thorn in Stephen's side, and, I am afraid, a cause of unholy exultation to the naughty little girl herself, for whom the glories of passing Oxford and Cambridge Locals (whatever that might mean) had no charm.
Mr. Heriot's busy mind required more occupation than the training of his children could afford him, and in an evil hour he became interested in the working of lunatic asylums. In the pursuit of information concerning them he travelled far and wide. From a hobby this became a mania, then a monomania. By Alison's fifteenth birthday he had himself become an inmate of a private asylum, and within a year he had died there.
When his father was placed under restraint," as the phrase goes, Stephen was serving with his battery in India ; but on Alison's account he bade good-bye for ever to his beloved regiment, and hurried home to take care of her, Peter joining them from South America shortly before Mr. Heriot's death. When, some months later, the lease of their house in Harley Street ran out, Stephen found himself unfettered by either town or country residence, and the possessor of something like fifteen hundred a year. His mother's fortune of £12,000 fell to Peter, and Alison's share amounted to five hundred a year. It was thus quite unnecessary for them to adopt the life of settlers, or any other entailing privation and exile; and many were the hands, and voices too, uplifted in horror over the Heriots' decision to bury themselves in South America fifty miles from anywhere.
“Crazy, of course, but what can you expect?” whispered the British matron, who could hardly witness unmoved the self-expatriation of two non-detrimentals; and her circle of listeners tapped their foreheads in a sort of dumb chorus.
No music-printer in all the world can have had amongst his type a "hairpin," as we used to call the crescendo marks, large enough to express the ever-increasing delirium of Alison's joy at this period.
One day it was riding-habits, another it was cooking-stoves, and on a third Peter took her with him to make inquiries about the Royal Mail steamers. When they were fairly on board the “ La Plata,” and Alison had discovered that she was a good sailor, it seemed as if the open end of the hairpin had been reached ; and with her usual happy blindness to the corresponding decrescendo that must some day follow, Alison was like nothing so much as an incarnate sunbeam. Her hair of half a dozen shades, from dark brown to pale-gold, curled all the more wildly under the influence of wind and spray, instead of hanging in limp" drake's-tails," as ordinary hair is oniy too apt to do on sea-voyages. Her very freckles reminded one of the sun which had brought them, and her smiling gray eyes, her seductive dimples, which as a baby she had called “ cups to keep her kisses in,” her well-knit figure and springy step, made her a delight and a tonic to her fellow-passengers ; her obvious unconsciousness-not the least charming thing about her-acting as a safeguard when idle youths showed a disposition to make tender, or at least complimentary, speeches to the pretty child. Not the only safeguard, though, for Stephen watched over her with a somewhat pathetic anxiety, ever haunted by the fear that she might learn, before she reached the haven (or prison?) to which they were hurrying her, the meaning of lovethat love which she, although so lovable, was to live and die without knowing, supposing always that they could so order her fate.
But Alison's awakening was not yet; and the three reached the estancia in safety, with a sense of relief, as far as Stephen was concerned, which with him supplied the place of any keener feeling of pleasure. It was a large azotea house--as any two-storied, brick-walled house with a tiled roof is called in South America-commonplace enough, but not quite hopeless. It was not long before Alison had laid out a simple garden, in which she sowed her English seeds, and where oleanders and the sweet-scented verbena flourished mightily. Indoors she managed to invest the barrack-like rooms with a certain air of decency and propriety, taking all the pride of a very young housekeeper in her domestic arrangements, and appreciated and applauded by Stephen. Peter, on the other hand, might have been a genius, if one judged by his incapacity for observing the efforts of his womenkind to make him comfortable. Stephen, like his brother and sister, was fond of horses, and liked riding for riding's sake, not