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CHAPTER IV.
The little house called Greenbank was like a hundred other little houses in the country, the superior houses of the village, the homes of small people with small incomes, who still are ladies and gentlemen, the equals of those in the hall, not those in the cottage. The drawing-room was darkened in the winter days by the veranda, which was very desirable and pleasant in the summer, and chilled a little by the windows which opened to the floor on a level with the little terrace on which the house stood. It looked most comfortable and bright in the evening when the lamps were lighted and there was a good fire and the curtains were drawn. Mrs. Nugent was considered to have made a great difference in the house since the doctor’s time.{57} His heavy, old furniture was still in the dining-room, and indeed, more or less, throughout the rooms; but chintz or cretonne and appropriate draperies go a long way, according to the taste of the time. The new resident had been moderate and had not overdone it; she had not piled the stuffs and ornaments of Liberty into the old-fashioned house, but she had brightened the whole in a way which was less commonplace. Tiny was perhaps the great ornament of all—Tiny and indeed herself, a young woman not more than thirty, in the fulness of her best time, with a little dignity, which became her isolated position and her widowhood, and showed that, as the ladies in the neighborhood said, she was fully able to take care of herself. He would have been a bold man indeed who would have been rude or, what was more dangerous, overkind to Mrs. Nugent. She was one of those women, who, as it is common to say, keep people in their place. She was very gracious, very kind; but either she never forgot that she was alone and needed to be especially circumspect, or else it was her{58} nature always to hold back a little, to be above impulse. I think this last was the case; for to be always on one’s guard is painful, and betrays a suspicion of others or doubt of one’s self, and neither of these was in Mrs. Nugent’s mind. She liked society, and she did not shut herself out from the kind people who had adopted her, though she did not bring introductions or make any appeal to their kindness. There was no reason why she should shut them out; but she was not one who much frequented her neighbors’ houses. She was always to be found in her own, with her little girl at her knee. Tiny was a little spoiled, perhaps, or so the ladies who had nurseries and many children to regulate, thought. She was only five, yet she sat up till eight, and had her bread-and-milk when her mother had her small dinner, at the little round table before the dining-room fire. Some of the ladies had even said to Mrs. Nugent that this was a self-indulgence on her part, and bad for the child; but, if so, she did not mind, but went{59} on with the custom, which it was evident, for the moment did Tiny no harm.

The excitement of Tiny’s escapade had been got over, and the child was sitting on the carpet in the firelight playing with her doll and singing to herself. She was always singing to herself or to the waxen companion in her arms, which was pale with much exposure to the heat of the fire. Tiny had a little tune which was quite different from the little snatches of song which she picked up from every one—from the butcher’s boy and the postman and the maids in the kitchen, as well as from her mother’s performances. The child was all ear, and sang everything, whatever she heard. But besides all this she had her own little tune, in which she kept singing sometimes the same words over and over again, sometimes her dialogues with her doll, sometimes scraps of what she heard from others, odds and ends of the conversation going on over her head. It was the prettiest domestic scene, the child sitting in front of the fire, in the light of the cheerful blaze, undressing her doll, hushing it in her{60} arms, going through all the baby routine with which she was so familiar, singing, talking, cooing to the imaginary baby in her arms, while the pretty young mother sat at the side of the hearth, with the little table and work-basket overflowing with the fine muslin and bits of lace, making one of Tiny’s pretty frocks or pinafores, which was her chief occupation. Sometimes Tiny’s monologue was broken by a word from her mother; but sewing is a silent occupation when it is pursued by a woman alone, and generally Mrs. Nugent said nothing more than a word from time to time, while the child’s little voice ran on. Was there something wanting to the little bright fireside—the man to come in from his work, the woman’s husband, the child’s father? But it was too small, too feminine a place for a man. One could not have said where he would sit, what he would do—there seemed no place for him, if such a man there had been.

Nevertheless a place was made for Mr. Wradisley when he came in, as he did immediately, announced by the smart little{61} maid, carrying his hat in his hand. A chair was got for him out of the glow of the firelight, which affected his eyes. He made a little apology for coming so late.

“But I have a liking for the twilight; I love the park in the dusk; and as you have been so good as to let me in once or twice, and in the confidence that when I am intrusive you will send me away—”

“If you had come a little sooner,” said Mrs. Nugent, in a frank, full voice, different from her low tones, “you might have taken care of Lucy, who ran in to see me.”

“Lucy was well accompanied,” said her brother; “besides, a walk is no walk unless one is alone; and the great pleasure of a conversation, if you will allow me to say so, is doubled when there are but two to talk. I know all Lucy’s opinions, and she,” he said, pausing with a smile, as if there was something ridiculous in the idea, “knows, or at least thinks she knows, mine.”

“She knows more than she has generally credit for,” said Mrs. Nugent; “but your{62} brother was with her. It has pleased her so much to have him back.”

“Raaf? yes. He has been so long away, it is like a stranger come to the house. He has forgotten the old shibboleths, and it takes one a little time to pick up his new ones. He is a man of the desert.”

“Perhaps he has no shibboleths at all.”

“Oh, don’t believe that! I have always found the more unconventional a man is supposed to be, the furthest from our cut-and-dry systems, the more conventional he really is. We are preserved by the understood routine, and keep our independence underneath; but those who have to make new laws for themselves are pervaded by them. The new, uneasy code is on their very soul.”

He spoke with a little warmth—unusual to him—almost excitement, his correct, calm tone quickening. Then he resumed his ordinary note.

“I hope,” he said, with a keen look at her, “that poor Raaf made a favorable impression upon you.”

Her head was bent over her needlework,{63} which she had gone on with, not interrupting her occupation.

“I did not see him,” she said. “Lucy ran in by herself; they waited for her, I believe, at the door.”

“Me see gemplemans,” sang Tiny, at his feet, making him start. She went on with her little song, repeating the words, “Dolly, such nice gemplemans. Give Dolly ride on’s shoulder ’nother time.”

And then Mrs. Nugent laughed, and told the story of Tiny’s escapade. It jarred somehow on the visitor. He did not know what to make of Tiny; her little breaks into the conversation, the chant that could not be taken for remark or criticism, and yet was so, kept him in a continual fret; but he tried to smile.

“My brother,” he said, “is the kind of primitive man who, I believe, pleases children—and dogs and primitive creatures generally—I—I beg your pardon, Mrs. Nugent.”

“No; why should you?” She dropped her work on her knee and looked up at him with a laugh. “Tiny is quite a primitive{64} creature. She likes what is kind and big and takes her up with firm hands. That is how I have always explained the pleasure infants take often in men. They are only accustomed to us women about them; but they almost invariably turn from us poor small things and rejoice in the hold of a man—when he’s not frightened for them,” she added, taking up her work again.

“As most men are, however,” Mr. Wradisley said.

“Yes; that is our salvation. It would be too humiliating to think the little things preferred the look of a man. I have always thought it was the strength of his grasp.”

“We shall shortly have to give in to the ladies even in that, they say,” Mr. Wradisley went on, with relief in the changed subject. “Those tall girls—while we, it appears, are growing no taller, or perhaps dwindling—I am sure you, who are so womanly in everything, don’t approve of that.”

“Of tall girls? oh, why not? It is not their fault to be tall. It is very nice for them to be tall. I am delighted with my tall{65} maid; she can reach things I have to get up on a chair for, and it is not dignified getting up on a chair. And she even snatches up Tiny before she has time to struggle or remonstrate.”

“Tiny,” said Mr. Wradisley, with a little wave of his hand, “is the be-all and end-all, I know; no one can hope to beguile your thoughts from that point.”

Mrs. Nugent looked up at him quickly with surprise, holding her work suspended in her hand.

“Do you think it is quite right,” he said, “or just to the rest of the world? A child is much, but still only a child; and here are you, a noble, perfect woman, with many greater capabilities. I do not flatter; you must know that you are not like other women—gossips, triflers, foolish persons—”

“Or even as this publican,” said Mrs. Nugent, who had kept her eyes on him all the time, which had made him nervous, yet gave him a kind of inspiration. “I give alms of all I possess—I—Mr. Wradisley, do you really think this is the kind of{66} argument which you would like a woman whom you profess to respect to adopt?”

“Oh, you twist what I say. I am conscious of the same thing myself, though I am, I hope, no Pharisee. To partly give up what was meant for mankind—will that please you better?—to a mere child—”

“You must not say such thing over Tiny’s head, Mr. Wradisley. She understands a great deal. If she were not so intent upon this most elaborate part of Dolly’s toilet for the night—”

“Mrs. Nugent, could not that spectator for one moment be removed?—could not I speak to you—if it were but for a minute—alone?”

She looked at him again, this time putting down the needle-work with a disturbed air.

“I wish to hear nothing, from any one, Mr. Wradisley, which she cannot hear.”

“Not if I implored for one moment?”

His eyes, which were dull by nature, had become hot and shining, his colorless face was flushed; he was so reticent, so calm, that the swelling of something new within him{67} took a form that was alarming. He turned round his hat in his hands as if it were some mystic implement of fate. She hesitated, and cast a glance round her at all the comfort of the little room, as if her shelter had suddenly been endangered, and the walls of her house were going to fall about her ears. Tiny all the time was very busy with her doll. She had arranged its nightgown, settled every button, tied every string, and now, holding it against her little bosom, singing to it, got up to put it to bed. “Mammy’s darling,” said Tiny, “everything as mammy has—dood dolly, dood dolly. Dolly go to bed.”

Both the man and the woman sat watching her as she performed this little ceremony. Dolly’s bed was on a sofa, carefully arranged with a cushion and coverlet. Tiny laid the doll down, listened, made as if she heard a little cry, bent over the mimic baby, soothing and quieting. Then she turned round to the spectators, holding up a little finger. “Gone to sleep,” said Tiny in a whisper. “Hush,{68} hush—dolly not well, not twite well—me go and ask nursie what she sinks.”

The child went out on tip-toe, making urgent little gesticulations that the others might keep silence. There was a momentary hush; she had left the door ajar, but Mr. Wradisley did not think of that. He looked with a nervous glance at the doll on the sofa, which seemed to him like another child laid there to watch.

“Mrs. Nugent,” he said at last, “you must know what I mean. I never thought this great moment of my life would come thus, as if it were a boy’s secret, to be kept from a child!—but you know; I have tried to make it very clear. You are the only woman in the world—I want you to be my wife.”

“Mr. Wradisley—God help me—I have tried to make another thing still more clear, that I can never more be any one’s wife.”

She clasped her hands and looked at him as if it were she who was the supplicant.

He, having delivered himself, became more calm; he regained his confidence in himself.

“I am very much in earnest,” he said;{69} “don’t think it is lightly said. I have known since the first moment I saw you, but I have not yielded to any impulse. It has grown into my whole being; I accept Tiny and everything. I don’t offer you any other inducements, for you are above them. You know a little what I am, but I will change my very nature to please you. Be my wife.”

She rose up, the tears came in a flood to her eyes.

“Be content,” she said; “it is impossible, it is impossible. Don’t ask me any more, oh, for God’s sake don’t ask me any more, neither you nor any man. I would thank you if I could, but it is too dreadful. For the love of heaven, let this be final and go away.”

“I cannot go away with such an answer. I have startled you, though I hoped not to do so. You are agitated, you have some false notions, as women have, of loving only once. Mrs. Nugent—”

She crossed the room precipitately in front of him as he approached toward her, and closing the door, stood holding it with her hand.{70}

“I could explain in a word,” she said, “but do not force me to explain—it would be too hard; it is impossible, only understand that. Here is my child coming back, who must not indeed hear this. I will give you my hand and say farewell, and you will never think of me again.”

“That is the thing that is impossible,” he said.

Tiny was singing at the door, beating against it. What an interruption for a tale—and such a love tale as his! Mr. Wradisley was terribly jarred in all his nerves. He was more vexed even than disappointed; he could not acknowledge himself disappointed. It was the child, the surprise, the shock of admitting for the first time such an idea; he would not believe it was anything else, not even when she held open the door for him with what in any other circumstances would have been an affront, sending him away. The child got between them somehow with her little song. “Dood-night, dood-night,” said Tiny. “Come again anodder day,” holding her mother’s dress with one hand, and{71} with the other waving to him her little farewell, as was her way.

He made a step or two across the little hall, and then came back. “Promise me that you will let this make no difference, that you will come to-morrow, that I shall see you again,” he said.

“No, no; let it be over, let it be over!” she cried.

“You will come to-morrow? I will not speak to you if I must not; but make no difference. Promise that, and I will go away.”

“I will come to-morrow,” she said. “Good-by.”

The maid was standing behind him to close the outer door. Did that account for the softening of her tone? or had she begun already to see that nothing was impossible—that her foolish, womanish prejudice about a dead husband could never stand in the way of a love like his? Mr. Wradisley’s heart was beating in his ears, as he went down the bank, as it had never done before. He had come in great excitement, but it was with much greater excitement that he was going{72} away. When the maid came running after him that laboring heart stood still for an instant. He thought he was recalled, and that everything was to be as he desired; he felt even a slight regret in the joy of being recalled so soon. It would have been even better had she taken longer to think of it. But it was only his umbrella which he had forgotten. Mr. Wradisley to forget his umbrella! That showed indeed the pass to which the man had come.

It was quite dark now, and the one or two rare passers-by that he met on the way passed him like ghosts, yet turned their heads toward him suspiciously, wondering who he was. They were villagers unwillingly out in the night upon business of their own; they divined a gentleman, though it was too dark to see him, and wondered who the soft-footed, slim figure could be, no one imagining for a moment who it really was. And yet he had already made two or three pilgrimages like this to visit the lady who for the first time in his life had made the sublime Mr. Wradisley a suitor. He felt, as he{73} opened softly his own gate, that it was a thing that must not be repeated; but yet that it was in its way natural and seemly that his suit should not be precisely like that of an ordinary man. Henceforward it could be conducted in a different way, now that she was aware of his feelings without the cognizance of any other person. If it could be possible that her prejudices or caprice should hold out, nobody need be the wiser. But he did not believe that this would be the case. She had been startled, let it even be said shocked, to have discovered that she was loved, and by such a man as himself. There was even humility—the sweetest womanly quality—in her conviction that it was impossible, impossible that she, with no first love to give him, should be sought by him. But this would not stand the reflection of a propitious night, of a new day.
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