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way; he was not going to let Miss Matthews make a fool of him, though he was excited.
"Well "—Miss Matthews smiled placidly down on her hands; she had not the smallest sympathy with Will's passion, she only wanted to be sure of it—" I have, of course, nothing definite to tell you; you do not expect me to repeat Nuna's secrets, do you?" Here she looked up in what she meant to be an arch, playful manner, and met such a fierce frown in the blue eyes gazing down on her, that her words came considerably faster. "I can only tell you that she always looked pleased when you came, and more than once I heard her say, 'What a time it is since Will has been here !'"
Both Will's large, shapely hands had got entangled in his tawny beard. "Are' you sure of this?" he said, damaging the beard in his agitation.
"Yes, quite sure ;" and then Miss Matthews' proprieties were really quite disturbed; this simple Cymon pulled his hands out of the tangle he had been making, and nearly smashed her delicate lingers in his firm clasp.
"Thank you, thank you," he said; "I can't tell you how happy you have made me.
Miss Matthews was so startled that she thought he had better be left to cool, there was no knowing how far his gratitude might carry him.
"I will go and see if Nuna has come in; she only went down the village," she said, and she got up from her chair.
Will snatched up his hat.
"I'll go and meet her, don't you trouble ;" and then he thanked Miss Matthews again, and went away.
"Dear me, what a very vehement person," said the spinster; "my wrist is red still, and my knuckles quite ache. But he is quite the sort of person for Nuna."
Fate, or rather the Fates, all three sisters, must have been hard at work that morning, trying to complicate the tangle of Nuna and her lovers. The Fates thus arranged that, as Mr. Bright came in sight of the cross roads beyond Lottie's cottage, he saw Nuna coming out of the cottage, and he also saw, walking leisurely along one of the cross roads, with his eyes bent on the ground, Mr. Paul Whitmore.
Will came to a sudden halt. Nuna did not see him yet, but she was coming to
wards him with graceful, springing steps, each one of which took her farther from the artist, and it was possible that Mr. Whitmore might pursue his way along the cross road, unconscious of her presence. Will fancied Nuna must have seen his rival, and it cheered him that she was hurrying away from Paul.
She saw Will, and her pace slackened.
He was beside her in a moment, and then turned and walked with her towards the village.
"I hope you enjoyed your visit to Beanlands," he said.
Nuna did not know how she answered. She had seen Paul, and she had also seen that he was unconscious of her presence. Following her impulse of sudden shyness, she hastened away from all appearance of seeking him, and then, too late to turn again, saw that she had hurried forward to meet Will.
"Why am I such a weak coward?" she thought. "Why don't I leave Will and go back and meet Mr. Whitmore? How can I avoid him when my heart is dragging me back every step I take?"
But almost with the thought came the sound of footsteps behind her, and Paul passed rapidly on the farther side of the road. He raised his hat and nodded smilingly both to Bright and to Nuna. She saw he did not look vexed: Either Paul did not love her and was indifferent to her conduct, or else he trusted her fully; but neither of these solutions gave Nuna peace. She knew that if she had met Mr. Whitmore walking with another woman she could not have given the smile she had just seen in his eyes. She was utterly miserable.
"Nuna "—Will felt encouraged by her silence—" I want you to listen to me; will you listen patiently?"
"Yes." But Nuna's thoughts were following Paul to Ashton.
"Years ago "—Will cleared his throat as if he were going to tell a story—" when you were still a little girl, do you remember climbing a tree? You had sent me up first to look at a bird's nest. You always ruled in those days, Nuna, and then you tried to come up by yourself and see the young birds, and you fell and twisted your foot. Do you remember?"
Will spoke as if it were a matter of deep interest, and Nuna smiled. That past which in his memory formed a mosaic picture, each event clearly marked out, yet uniting to form a harmonious whole, was to her a half-forgotten dream. Nuna lived in the future; the past held no golden days for her, and till lately the present had been barren also. She did not try to call up this special recollection; she only thought Will very tiresome.
"I dare say you picked me up and brought me home," she smiled. "I know you used to be very kind and good to me. You have always been like a brother to me, Will."
At the words a warm flow of gratitude welled up in Luna's heart; in that moment she was nearer doing justice to her old playfellow than she had ever been in her life. How he had loved her, and how little love or kindness she had shown in return I The sudden revulsion from the dislike with which she had seen him approach, and the weariness which had succeeded, threw her into that dangerous state for a woman with warm deep feelings, and a quick impulsive nature—a state of remorse which prompted reparation in looks and words. So that her eyes were full of tenderness as she raised them to his, and her lips trembled.
"I, who so prize, who pine for want of love," she thought, "how often I have inflicted sufferings on poor Will."
Will's heart throbbed violently, but the word brother jarred him. "Ah! but I want you to remember this special day, Nuna. I think you could remember if you tried." Will was keeping his voice calm and steady; spite of the encouragement in her eyes, he was resolved not to be over-hasty this time. "Don't you remember your foot was painful, and so I waited a little before I took you home,
and you said Nuna, do you recollect
what you said?"
A blush flitted across Nuna's face; a vague memory was stirring, but the blush increased Will's hope; he went on eagerly: "You said, 'You take care of me like a husband, Will. I will be your wife some day.' Don't laugh, Nuna; I can't bear it. Despise me if you choose, but leave those days bright and true. Ah, Nuna, in those days I was all you wanted, I was everything to you. Can't I be the same now?"
He spoke passionately. His handsome tace glowed with the love he was burning
to offer, and then he almost stamped on the hard road to think how completely he had let himself be carried out of the calm deliberate part he had resolved on.
They had reached the village, but Will did not care who heard him; he forgot all his customary reticence. He did not care for the blacksmith who stood at the door of his smithy, with bright eyes and brawny arms, gazing on the young pair; nor yet for Mrs. Tomkins, the laundress, peeping through the gaps in her garden hedge as she hung the clothes up to dry. Will did not care if the whole world knew that he loved Nuna. He was not ashamed of it. But Nuna shrank from these busy eyes. It seemed as if the careful, decorous man and the dreamy, unobservant girl had changed places. Nuna's nature was thoroughly roused; this must be ended once and for ever. It was sheer cruelty to give Will the slightest hope that she could return his love.
"I want you to listen to me," she said, so earnestly that he was taken by surprise. "Don't talk any more here. Come down Carving's Wood Lane; we shall be quieter."
His heart sank in his breast like a stone. He knew her so well that this told him all was over. But still he clung to hope. There was silence till they were under the leafless far-stretching oak branches, out of sight of the high road.
Then Nuna spoke fast and earnestly.
"Will, you are making a mistake. You have cared about me as a sister till you think you love me. But indeed I could never make you happy." Will stopped and took both her hands to make her stop too. "Hush, Will, dear Will: I listened to you so long, won't you listen? do let me tell you all I want. I can never love you more than I do now, and next to papa I do love you, Will. Why don't you be content, and let us be dear friends always?"
Will's heart leapt up again.
"I never said I wanted much love; if you love mc next your father, I am willing and thankful to begin on that. Oh, Nuna, if you could see how I love you, how I long for the least love from you !— darling, you must take pity on me; you must be my wife."
The last word changed her feelings. As he said it, she drew her hands away.
"You are unreasonable, Will: you have known me so long that you ought to believe me. Do you think that if there was the least hope of my changing, I would not give it to you? Do you think I am ungrateful for your love? No, indeed, Will; but it would be so false to give you any hope. I never, never can love you in the way you want to be loved." She tried so much to speak convincingly that her words sounded cold.
The eager light faded from Will's blue eyes. He stood there, pale, and yet with a hunger in his face that made Nuna shrink away from him.
He saw that she so shrank.
"O God, it is too hard !" he said hoarsely. "What have I done to deserve this from you,- Nuna, of all women? I am despicable then ; there is something in me you loathe—impossible for you to love?" He shook with the violence of his passion.
Nuna stood looking at him with a scared white face, struck dumb by his agitation. The poor child had never seen a man so deeply moved—she was utterly terrified. She despise Will! how could he think it? Surely he might hope to win the love of some one very superior to herself; she must show him this. And then the girl's pure, generous heart came to help her; she would trust Will—it would wound him less to know that she had no love left to give, than to feel himself unworthy of being loved at all. The effort was painful, but just then pain was a relief to Nuna; it brought her into sympathy with poor Will.
"Will,"—she spoke very humbly— "you wrong us both by saying this; how could I despise you? I said just now that next to my father I loved you. In all these years have I ever deceived you? I will give you a proof of love. I will tell you what even my father does not know —that I have no better love left to give."
Will had stood quite still; he knew every word that was coming; he seemed to have heard all this before in some faroff time; even after Nuna ceased speaking, he stood silent, his eyes fixed sternly on her as if he were waiting to hear a yet fuller revelation.
He had no gratitude in that moment for her frankness; his only defined sensation was a longing to meet Paul Whitmore, and try, man to man, which had the best claim to win Nuna's love.
And Nuna was too much moved out of
herself to soothe him as a wilier, cooler woman would have known how to soothe.
"Let us part friends, Will,"—she put out her hand, and looked imploringly at him,—" you have been such a good friend to me."
But Will would not take her hand in his.
"Friends! I hate friendship. Do yon remember what is said about asking for bread, and giving a man a stone ?—that's what you have done, Nuna. I asked you for your love, and you won't give it, but I'll not have your friendship; you'll offer me next the pity of that confounded artist who has stolen your love away from me. You needn't look frightened, Nuna, I'm not going to tell your secret; though, if you take my advice, you'll not keep it secret, you'll have it ail out as soon as you can." Such a look of distress came in her face, that he softened—"Good-bye, Nuna; I know I am not good enough for you, but no more is he: no one ever could be worth your love." He stopped and looked tenderly at the blushing face, blushing with the bitter humiliation of her confession: "Nuna," he said gently, "you may live to wish you had married the man who loved you, instead of the man you love yourself."
Mrs. Fagg rarely stirred abroad unless it was to go to church. The most cogent reason for a habit being seldom that which is acknowledged, it is possible that Mrs. Faggfs pretext of only having one bonnet at a time was not the true cause of her stay-at-home habits. A Sunday bonnet, in the opinion of the mistress of "The Bladebone," was an article to be kept specially for going to church in, not to be in any way used on week-days. Perhaps she thought that secular sights and sounds had some mysterious power of lingering in the bows and quillings, and of whispering distractions amid her devotions. The bonnet was duly replaced in its tissue-paper wrappings on her second return from church, and stayed there till the next Sunday.
Still Mrs. Fagg loved air, and therefore when she was not wanted in the kitchen or to superintend the servant's housework, she was fond of standing at the entrance of " The Bladebone," usually with a duster to hem, as she took her accustomed airing. When the Rector came back from visiting the poor cripple, Mrs. Fagg stood leaning against the door hemming a red pocket-handkerchief with white spots, for the use of her darling Bobby. The needle flew in and out as deftly as if Mrs. Fagg had never anything else to do but needlework. Arachne has a way of sneering at Calliope. "Bless your heart, my dear, you'll never sew neatly ; you must give all your time to needlework if you want to excel in it." Calliope only smiles, perhaps with a little contempt, but she never wastes words in answering. She knows that if the brains are cultivated, the fingers will move deftly, although the maxim may not admit of a reversed application. It may be well for Arachne's destined spouse if the fair creature so wholly bent on stitching would remember that brains were given to use just as much as fingers were, and that every woman has about the same amount of talent, of one kind or another, if she only chose to exert it, and keep it free from rust.
"Good morning Mrs. Fagg," said the Rector; "so I find you have your artist lodger again."
"Yes, sir, we have." Mrs. Fagg spoke dryly. Since her conversation about Mr. Whitmore with the Rector, more than one circumstance had combined to prove that her lodger's acquaintance with Fatty had gone to what she considered "lengths." "Yes, sir, but I don't somehow think he'll be long with us; he don't sketch as he did last time, he seems altogether duller like."
"Ah, he had better go over to Gray's. I fancy Ashton must be dull for a single man."
Mrs. Fagg put her head a little on one side, and looked sharply at her pastor.
"You see, sir," she said, "there's no amusement now in going down Carving's Wood Lane."
The Rector shook his head.
"Ah, Mrs. Fagg, you were hard on poor Patty. I am afraid she had not many friends."
"And no wonder, sir!" The matron spoke indignantly. She had finished hemming the red handkerchief, and she folded it up in exquisite squareness, giving it an admonitory pat at each fresh folding. "There are them that'll take away a neighbor's character while they go on
praising all the time; that's like stroking a cat while you make off with her kittens. That's not my way, sir, and I should not trouble to move my tongue against Patty Westropp only for something I was told yesterday."
"Well, but, Mrs. Fagg, don't you know we must never believe half we are told in the way of scandal? Why, suppose any one were to come and tell me Dennis was lazy, you wouldn't like me to believe it, would you?"
The Rector smiled, with an attempt at mischief in his quiet blue eyes.
"You couldn't, sir, you'd know better." Mrs. Fagg paused, and thought a minute before she went on. "No one could call a man lazy who works as hard at reading as Dennis does; why, it's my belief he gets through every column of the news, down to the coal advertisements, and all in one day, and to hear him talk Parliament speeches is most improving to them as can understand. A lazy man does nothing at all, sir. No, sir, everyone's got his line as plain marked out as the stripe on a donkey's back, and the folks as don't get on in life is them as takes to the wrong line; and it's my belief that girl Patty never took to the right from the beginning; she can't go straight now, sir, it ain't in reason to expect it. Do you know where she is, sir, and what she's doing with her fortune?"
"No, I wish I did." Mr. Beaufort was surprised at the landlady's excitement. Mrs. Fagg was known to have prickles on her tongue for those who deserved them; but she was not a gossip, and it was most unusual, and it seemed to the Rector most uncalled for, that she should persist in this attack on a motherless girl. "Oh, women, women, you are all alike," he thought, "if one among you happens to be prettier than the rest."—" I wish," he said, "I could find out what has become of that girl and her father."
"Well, sir, it was that made me speak. I thought you was trying to find out. I was told that you had thought of inviting Patty to stay at the Rectory, and be a friend like for Miss Nuna. No, sir, you needn't be afraid I believed it, I knew better; but I heard yesterday that Patty said to a person in Ashton before she went away, that she shouldn't have anything to say to Miss Beaufort after a bit; she meant to be a quite better sort oi lady than Miss Nuna; and this did put my back up, it did. When I heard, sir, as I did, that you'd been over to Guildford making inquiries, I was determined to tell you about it. To think of the notice Miss Nuna showed that girl! Why, she used to speak to Patty Westropp more than any one else in the village. It's downright shameful! And that's not all, sir. You weren't pleased last autumn with what I said. I knew! I saw plain enough you thought me as spiteful as a toad."
"Really, Mrs. Fagg, I am not aware
"Mr. Beaufort shrank from this
"No, sir, no doubt you were not aware —you'll excuse ine saying it—no one ever is aware of half their feelings while they last, and very often never, if something nnlooked-for turns up at the time and wipes 'em out; but that girl Patty, at that very time I was talking to you, either then or the day before, or most like both, was letting herself be regularly courted •by this lodger of ours"—Mr. Beaufort gave a sudden nervous look of inquiry to the upper window—" oh, it's all right, Mr. YVhitmore's out walking, sir, and besides, I don't blame him half nor a quarter what I blame the girl; if Mr. Bright chose to speak, he knows all about it, for he was just at the corner of the lane when the person as told me was on the common."
Mr. Beaufort felt annoyed and irritable; his own encounter with Paul seemed to take a deeper shade under this new tale, and it was specially vexing that Will, of all people in the world, should be cognizant of Mr. Whitmore's conduct with Patty Westropp.
"Well, I must bid you good morning," he said. "You know young men will admire a pretty face; we can only say it is perhaps a good thing that no worse happened. Take my advice, and never believe half you hear, Mrs. Fagg; no, nor three-quarters; and, above all, don't repeat it."
He had relieved some of his vexation by giving this pastoral advice, but he could not shake it all off. He had been very severe on misdemeanors of this kind among his flock, and it was mortifying to have given public countenance to a stranger while he was actually carrying on this sort of acquaintance with Patty. Mr. Beaufort chose to reprove Mrs. Fagg, but
he believed Paul's conduct to have been much worse than it really had been. He called to mind now his first meeting with the artist—even then he was walking with Patty; he remembered how coldly the young man had accepted his invitation to spend that first Sunday at the parsonage, and last of all his final interview with Paul outside Roger's cottage.
He could not understand how, in the face of all this, he had asked the artist again to his house—above all to meet Will Bright.
Mr. Beaufort had been struck with the visible coolness between the two young men, but Mrs. Fagg's words seemed to explain it
"I must say Will might have told me; so strict as he is, he must have known that a man who sets public opinion at defiance in such a way as this is not the sort of person to be countenanced by a clergyman."
It was a relief to be able to blame some one besides himself, but Mr. Beaufort was still in a very perplexed state when he reached home.
It has been said that the Fates had been working at cross purposes this morning. Paul Whitmore had hurried past Nuna to put into effect a resolution —a resolution which had been quickened to immediate action by the sight of the Rector's daughter walking with Will Bright. Paul did not doubt Nuna; he had read her love for him in that brief glance yesterday; but she must be wholly his, and he could not endure that Will should even approach her. He meant to have seen Nuna once more alone before he spoke to her father, but this meeting changed his plans, and he hurried on fast to seek Mr. Beaufort.
The Rector was not in. "He can't be long now, sir," said Jane; "Master never do take long walks."
"I want to see him on business, so I can wait, I suppose.
"Will you please walk this way, sir?"
He followed into the Rector's study. There was not much in it likely to attract Paul Whitmore—shelves of dully-bound volumes of English divinity, other shelves full of Latin and Greek and even Hebrew volumes, for Mr. Beaufort was a scholar; treatises on cows and pigs and horses, and oil-cake and farming; county maps, and histories, and peerages, and books on