THE PONY CARRIAGE
So soon as daylight came, I made a swift cold water toilet, and got out into the open air, with a solemn resolution to see the hated interior of that bed-room no more. When I met Lord Chelford in his early walk that morning, I'm sure I looked myself like a ghost—at all events, very wild and seedy—for he asked me, more seriously than usual, how I was; and I think I would have told him the story of my adventure, despite the secret ridicule with which, I fancied, he would receive it, had it not been for a certain insurmountable disgust and horror which held me tongue-tied upon the affair.
I told him, however, that I had dreamed dreams, and was restless and uncomfortable in my present berth, and begged his interest with the housekeeper to have my quarters changed to the lower storey—quite resolved to remove to the 'Brandon Arms,' rather than encounter another such night as I had passed.
Stanley Lake did not appear that day; Wylder was glowering and abstracted—worse company than usual; and Rachel seemed to have quite passed from his recollection.
While Rachel Lake was, as usual, busy in her little garden that day, Lord Chelford, on his way to the town, by the pretty mill-road, took off his hat to her with a smiling salutation, and leaning on the paling, he said—
'I often wonder how you make your flowers grow here—you have so little sun among the trees—and yet, it is so pretty and flowery; it remains in my memory as if the sun were always shining specially on this little garden.'
Miss Lake laughed.
'I am very proud of it. They try not to blow, but I never let them alone till they do. See all my watering-pots, and pruning-scissors, my sticks, and bass-mat, and glass covers. Skill and industry conquer churlish nature—and this is my Versailles.'
'I don't believe in those sticks, and scissors, and watering-pots. You won't tell your secret; but I'm sure it's an influence—you smile and whisper to them.'
She smiled—without raising her eyes—on the flower she was tying up; and, indeed, it was such a smile as must have made it happy—and she said, gaily—
'You forget that Lord Chelford passes this way sometimes, and shines upon them, too.'
'No, he's a dull, earthly dog; and if he shines here, it is only in reflected light'
'Margery, child, fetch me the scissors.'
And a hobble-de-hoy of a girl, with round eyes, and a long white-apron, and bare arms, came down the little walk, and—eyeing the peer with an awful curiosity—presented the shears to the charming Atropos, who clipped off the withered blossoms that had bloomed their hour, and were to cumber the stalk no more.
'Now, you see what art may do; how passée this creature was till I made her toilet, and how wonderfully the poor old beauty looks now,' and she glanced complacently at the plant she had just trimmed.
'Well, it is young again and beautiful; but no—I have no faith in the scissors; I still believe in the influence—from the tips of your fingers, your looks, and tones. Flowers, like fairies, have their favourites, whom they smile on and obey; and I think this is a haunted glen—trees, flowers, all have an intelligence and a feeling—and I am sure you see wonderful things, by moonlight, from your window.'
With a strange meaning echo, those words returned to her afterwards—'I'm sure you see wonderful things, by moonlight, from your window.'
But no matter; the winged words—making pleasant music—flew pleasantly away, now among transparent leaves and glimmering sun; by-and-by, in moonlight, they will return to the casement piping the same tune, in ghostly tones.
And as they chatted in this strain, Rachel paused on a sudden, with upraised hand, listening pleasantly.
'I hear the pony-carriage; Dorcas is coming,' she said.
And the tinkle of tiny wheels, coming down the road, was audible.
'There's a pleasant sense of adventure, too, in the midst of your seclusion. Sudden arrivals and passing pilgrims, like me, leaning over the paling, and refreshed by the glimpse the rogue steals of this charming oratory. Yes; here comes the fair Brunnisende.'
And he made his salutation. Miss Brandon smiled from under her gipsy-hat very pleasantly for her.
'Will you come with me for a drive, Radie?' she asked.
'Yes, dear—delighted. Margery, bring my gloves and cloak.' And she unpinned the faded silk shawl that did duty in the garden, and drew off her gauntlets, and showed her pretty hands; and Margery popped her cloak on her shoulders, and the young lady pulled on her gloves. All ready in a moment, like a young lady of energy; and chatting merrily she sat down beside her cousin, who held the reins. As there were no more gates to open, Miss Brandon dismissed the servant, who stood at the ponies' heads, and who, touching his hat with his white glove, received his congé, and strode with willing steps up the road.
'Will you take me for your footman as far as the town?' asked Lord Chelford; so, with permission, up he jumped behind, and away they whirled, close over the ground, on toy wheels ringing merrily on the shingle, he leaning over the back and chatting pleasantly with the young ladies as they drove on.
They drew up at the Brandon Arms, and little girls courtesied at doors, and householders peeped from their windows, not standing close to the panes, but respectfully back, at the great lady and the nobleman, who was now taking his leave.
And next they pulled up at that official rendezvous, with white-washed front—and 'post-office,' in white letters on a brown board over its door, and its black, hinged window-pane, through which Mr. Driver—or, in his absence, Miss Anne Driver—answered questions, and transacted affairs officially.
In the rear of this establishment were kept some dogs of Lawyer Larkin's; and just as the ladies arrived, that person emerged, looking overpoweringly gentlemanlike, in a white hat, gray paletot, lavender trowsers, and white riding gloves. He was in a righteous and dignified way pleased to present himself in so becoming a costume, and moreover in good company, for Stanley Lake was going with him to Dutton for a day's sport, which neither of them cared for. But Stanley hoped to pump the attorney, and the attorney, I'm afraid, liked being associated with the fashionable captain; and so they were each pleased in the way that suited them.
The attorney, being long as well as lank, had to stoop under the doorway, but drew himself up handsomely on coming out, and assumed his easy, high-bred style, which, although he was not aware of it, was very nearly insupportable, and smiled very engagingly, and meant to talk a little about the weather; but Miss Brandon made him one of her gravest and slightest bows, and suddenly saw Mrs. Brown at her shop door on the other side, and had a word to say to her.
And now Stanley Lake drew up in the tax-cart, and greeted the ladies, and told them how he meant to pass the day; and the dogs being put in, and the attorney, I'm afraid a little spited at his reception, in possession of the reins, they drove down the little street at a great pace, and disappeared round the corner; and in a minute more the young ladies, in the opposite direction, resumed their drive. The ponies, being grave and trustworthy, and having the road quite to themselves, needed little looking after, and Miss Brandon was free to converse with her companion.
'I think, Rachel, you have a lover,' she said.
'Only a bachelor, I'm afraid, as my poor Margery calls the young gentleman who takes her out for a walk on a Sunday, and I fear means nothing more.'
'This is the second time I've found Chelford talking to you, Rachel, at the door of your pretty little garden.'
'Suppose, some fine day, he should put his hand over the paling, and take yours, and make you a speech.'
'You romantic darling,' she said, 'don't you know that peers and princes have quite given over marrying simple maidens of low estate for love and liking, and understand match-making better than you or I; though I could give a tolerable account of myself, after the manner of the white cat in the story, which I think is a pattern of frankness and modest dignity. I'd say with a courtesy—"Think not, prince, that I have always been a cat, and that my birth is obscure; my father was king of six kingdoms, and loved my mother tenderly," and so forth.'
'Rachel, I like you,' interrupted the dark beauty, fixing her large eyes, from which not light, but, as it were, a rich shadow fell softly on her companion. It was the first time she had made any such confession. Rachel returned her look as frankly, with an amused smile, and then said, with a comic little toss of her head—
'Well, Dorcas, I don't see why you should not, though I don't know why you say so.'
'You're not like other people; you don't complain, and you're not bitter, although you have had great misfortunes, my poor Rachel.'
There be ladies, young and old, who, the moment they are pitied, though never so cheerful before, will forthwith dissolve in tears. But that was not Rachel's way; she only looked at her with a good-humoured but grave curiosity for a few seconds, and then said, with rather a kindly smile—
'And now, Dorcas, I like you.'
Dorcas made no answer, but put her arm round Rachel's neck, and kissed her; Dorcas made two kisses of it, and Rachel one, but it was cousinly and kindly; and Rachel laughed a soft little laugh after it, looking amused and very lovingly on her cousin; but she was a bold lass, and not given in anywise to the melting mood, and said gaily, with her open hand still caressingly on Dorcas's waist—
'I make a very good nun, Dorcas, as I told Stanley the other day. I sometimes, indeed, receive a male visitor, at the other side of the paling, which is my grille; but to change my way of life is a dream that does not trouble me. Happy the girl—and I am one—who cannot like until she is first beloved. Don't you remember poor, pale Winnie, the maid who used to take us on our walks all the summer at Dawling; how she used to pluck the leaves from the flowers, like Faust's Marguerite, saying, "He loves me a little—passionately, not at all." Now if I were loved passionately, I might love a little; and if loved a little—it should be not at all.'
They had the road all to themselves, and were going at a walk up an ascent, so the reins lay loosely on the ponies' necks and Dorcas looked with an untold meaning in her proud face, on her cousin, and seemed on the point of speaking, but she changed her mind.
'And so Dorcas, as swains are seldom passionately in love with so small a pittance as mine, I think I shall mature into a queer old maid, and take all the little Wylders, masters and misses, with your leave, for their walks, and help to make their pinafores.' Whereupon Miss Dorcas put her ponies into a very quick trot, and became absorbed in her driving.