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Cometh Up as a Flower: an Autobiography, Vol. 1. Broughton, Rhoda, 1840–1920.
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page: 165

CHAPTER XII.

LUNCHEON over, we betook ourselves (the weather being too hot to go out) to the hall, and there prepared for an afternoon of coma. The blinds were pulled down “On purpose to keep out the light,” but stealthy arrows crept through, and lay along the faded blue and red patches of the Turkey carpet and the dim worsted work of the straight‐backed chairs. It was profoundly still; one could hear the silence, which was only broken by the buzzing of the flies on the window‐pane. Dolly had thrown herself—nay, not thrown, for that suggests an idea of violence never conveyed by Dolly's roughest movement—had sunk into a rocking‐chair, and sat swaying gently to and fro.

Miss Lestrange never read, and seldom page: 166 spoke in the family circle. I think she thought it waste of time. She knitted now, mute as Andersen's poor pretty mermaid, and meditated on heavenly themes, to judge by her countenance. I sat on a bench by the long table in the window; a tall bench, whence my legs dangled like gallows' birds, while my elbows rested on a big book, of which I read a page and a half. The book was Burton's “Anatomy of Melancholy,” and it did not interest me in the least. I had selected it as being one of the biggest and most ponderous volumes in the library, as having likewise a ponderous title, promising to be good for edification. I, arguing, with faulty logic, that from so weighty a tome I must needs extract much weighty matter.

Truth to tell, I was deeply dissatisfied with myself, and with the weedy unstocked condition of my mind's fair garden. Dolly did well to despise me; I was but a poor creature, and despicable; foolishest, childishest, among women. I knew absolutely nothing; I had not the least idea what the Bill of Rights was about, nor who page: 167 fought the battle of Fontenoy, or any other battle either. Dick would despise me too when he came to know me better; would get tired of me, and find me insipid. Whether a more accurate knowledge of dates would make me a more original companion, I did not stop to inquire. To remedy my deficiencies I turned to Burton, and asked him to tell me something about something; tell me a few facts, was my cry, like the little turnip in Kingsley's “Water Babies.”

“Knowledge is Power,” is a true aphorism, I suppose; but, after all, what is all human knowledge? The sum of our knowing is to leave a deeper, more hopeless conviction of our utter unknowingness. What a chétif scrap of a science is mastered by the greatest proficient in, the foremost pioneer of that science? How the ripened spirits of the departed wise, bathing in wisdom's clear fount above, must smile, looking down on the smatterings of learning, on the strength of which we dub ourselves philosophers and pundits. Solomon, saith the Book of Kings, knew three thousand proverbs, and his songs page: 168 were a thousand and five. Doubtless; and yet assuredly there must have been ten times three thousand proverbs that he knew not—a hundred thousand songs never sung by him.

In the morning of this our little life, we set forth on some one of the many paths that lead to knowledge's citadel. The way is steep, but we are resolute; it is hedged with briars, and encumbered with great stones; the briars scratch us, and we break our shins over the stones, but we struggle on with a good courage. Our road is becoming smooth; we shall reach the prize in time. Then Death lays his numb hands on our hearts, and we are still, and the path is closed to us for ever. Is it for ever, though? Is not the pitiful incompleteness of our labours here, the fragmentary character of our best efforts, strongest, most convincing proofs of our soul's undyingness? Shall we not trace out in a nobler sphere that same path we loved on earth? the same, only with the briars cut down and the stones cleared away? Will not our poor crooked lives he rounded into Wisdom's perfect circle? page: 169 Our Elysium is no occupationless, pleasureless Ner wana of swinish, plethoric repose; in our asphodel meadows we shall each of us have some mighty problem to work out, some godlike scheme to effect; and our brains will not tire, our eyes will not ache, and our hands not fail in the doing.

To what a distance have I strayed from myself and my self‐disgust? I have been up to heaven and down again. Burton's very detailed and minute analysis of the corporeal humours, which are melancholy's parents and grandparents, failed to enchain my attention. An idea struck me.

“Dolly,” said I, and my sudden word cut the silence sharply.

“Well?”

“Do you know much, Dolly?”

“What do you mean?” measuredly came the words from her lips.

“I mean, do you know much about any sensible sort of things? Are you very well up in history and biography, and those sort of things?”

“Had not you better add ‘Shakespeare and the musical glasses?’ I suppose I page: 170 am about as well informed as most other people.”

Click, click, go her needles.

“Do you know enough to be able to teach me. I wonder?”

“Probably; my acquirements would be small else.”

I pass by the sneer on the other side; it was but my ignorance's due.

“I wish you would give me lessons in something, Dolly; we used to learn German together once. Do you remember? Why cannot we begin again?”

“Thank you very much, but I'd infinitely rather be excused.”

The long gray stocking grows under the swift white fingers; she ruffles her smooth brow in the agony of counting stitches.

“I'd do my best to get on; I'd do whatever you told me; I do feel my ignorance so oppressive, Dolly—quite a heavy burden.”

“I'm extremely sorry to hear it, and I'm sure you'd make a delightful pupil, but I think, on the whole, I should prefer not. I don't want to qualify myself for a gover‐ governess page: 171 ness just yet, though I daresay that's what I shall have to come to.”

I was baffled, and returned discouraged to my atrabilarious studies. Audible silence again for an hour or more; then the lower iron gate is heard creaking on its hinges, the gravel grating under approaching feet, and voices talking. Dolly is not above mundane curiosity; she rises and peeps softly round the curtain. “Mrs. Coxe,” says she, “But no livelier than the dame That whispered ‘Asses' Ears’ among the sedge,” “and a man” (with slight animation), “good‐looking too” (with interest), “very,” (with symptoms of excitement), “who is he? do you happen to know, Nell?”

“N‐o‐o‐o,” I stutter, “I don't think so.”

“You do know,” says she, paling a little with anger, “and why you should think it worth while to lie about such a trifle I cannot conceive. If his name is ever such a mystery I don't doubt I shall fathom it without your help.”

No more in that strain; the key changes page: 172 to a “pathetic minor,” for Collins entering announces “Mrs. Coxe and Major M'Gregor.” Dolly's tongue was an instrument of great compass; it could play any tune, from the Hundredth Psalm to “Wapping Old Stairs,” and discourse excellent music. I did not, assuredly, expect my lover to kiss me, or take me in his arms then and there, but I felt a thrill of cold disappointment when I found him shaking hands with me in the same commonplace manner that Sir Hugh Lancaster or Mr. Bowles the curate might have done. He was presented by Mrs. Coxe to Dolly, who smiled pensively, and cast down her eyes.

I made no attempt to entertain our guests, but clave to my tall bench and my folio. I remember I read one inverted sentence over six times running, without a glimmering of its meaning penetrating to my brain. Dick came over presently, and looked over my shoulder.

“What light literature have you got there?”

I turn to the title‐page and point gravely, Burton's “Anatomy of Melancholy.”

page: 173

“H'm! cheerful kind of title! and is that Mr. Burton himself? Rum old party, isn't he?”

The curled Greek head stoops lower; the amber moustache touches my ear.

“Did you get home all right last night, Nell?”

“Yes.”

“Did not catch a cold?”

“No.”

“Nor get a blowing up?”

“No.”

“That's all right; where's your father to‐day?”

“Gone into Berkshire for a week.”

“H'm! when the cat's away you know; and so that's Miss Dolly, is it?”

“Yes, isn't she lovely?”

Thus I ask, unknowing that never will man, come to years of discretion, be betrayed into the smallest commendation of one woman's beauty to another.

“Oh, I don't know; I haven't thought about it; I suppose I have been thinking too much of how lovely somebody else is.”

“Who?” ask I, looking up with inno‐ innocent page: 174 cent inquiry; but somehow I read in the deep loving eyes who it is, and I begin to fiddle nervously with good Master Burton's yellowing leaves. Dolly's voice breaks upon my trance; it comes cooing softly across the hall.

“Nelly, dear, will you kindly run and get my portfolio of Bournemouth sketches; Mrs. Coxe is good enough to say she should like to see them; do go, there's a dear child! they are in the left top corner of my chiffonier; you cannot miss finding them.”

I rise and go reluctant; I misdoubt me concerning Dolly and her sketches. They are not in the left top corner of the chiffonier, nor indeed in the chiffonier at all, and it takes me ten minutes diligent search to find them. When I return the position of affairs is changed, which does not tend to the ameliorating of my temper. Dick is balancing himself on a three‐legged stool within six inches of Dolly's knee, and she (her knitting dropped, her soul in her eyes) is gazing at him with mournful absorption, while he narrates some trivial incident of everyday life.

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I move a small table in front of Mrs. Coxe, place the portfolio upon it, and retire to my distant comer, fully expecting my handsome Gilderoy to come and share my solitude. Whether he would have done so or not is a question now to be classed with such as “What would have been the course of English history had Queen Elizabeth married Philip of Spain? or had Richard Cromwell been the man his father was? or what would have been the fate of Norwich, if the man in the moon had not come down too soon?” Whatever Dick's intentions were, Dolly was too prompt for him.

“Oh, Mrs. Coxe,” cried she, sinking on her knees, in the prettiest attitude of despair, beside that lady, who, being short‐sighted, was holding one of my sister's artistic efforts within a quarter of an inch of her snub nose, feeling its beauties with that sensitive feature, “Oh, Mrs. Coxe, I could not possibly think of letting you examine my poor little daubs so critically; you'd find as many faults in them as there are stars in heaven. They ought to be looked at at the distance of page: 176 half a mile at least. Major M'Gregor” (diffidently, with a slight tremor in her voice), “would it trouble you very much, or could you, would you be so very kind as to hold up this one, only just this one, at the proper distance, for Mrs. Coxe to see? There, oh thanks so much. Nothing could be better! Oh, how good you are!”

Poor Mrs. Coxe screws up her eyes, and peers, and succeeds in discerning a confused blotch of blue and green and yellow.

“H'm! h'm! yes! yes!” says she, knowing that say something she must. “What a fine bit of colouring! and how well you have managed that patch of light on the hill‐side!”

“It isn't a patch of light, Mrs. Coxe—it's a white cow,” says Dolly, sweetly, correcting her.

Mrs. Coxe has her back to me, but by the wobbling motion of her big blue feather, I see that she is discomfited. I grin a ghastly grin.

“It's a shame to detain you so long, Major M'Gregor, isn't it?” asks Dolly, speaking with some little effort, in her page: 177 coyness, at having to address a stranger again. “Nelly is showwoman generally, and a very good one she is too, but somehow she seems a little knocked up with the heat or something to‐day.”

“I'm not the least knocked up,” growl I, “brief and stern,” as the skipper in the song.

“Aren't you, dear? I'm glad of that: I thought you were. You see, Major M'Gregor, you're the only gentleman to‐day, and we think we have a right to make a sort of slave of you—don't we, Mrs. Coxe?” The soft fawn eyes seek his with timid deprecation, and then droop suddenly, and the velvet cheeks deepen in colour to the hue of a dog‐rose's heart. Dick, of course, protests that if there is one employment he loves above another it is holding up water‐colour sketches at arm's length for his hostess's inspection. If it is an irksome task to him he disguises his tedium under it uncommonly well. I meanwhile bite my nails, my lips, the top of a pencil, and anything else I can lay my teeth on. There are about a hundred sketches, and on each one Mrs. page: 178 Coxe has to make comments; some few as fortunate as the one I have recorded; some more, some less so. At length they come to an end, and our guests rise to depart. I take a sudden resolution; nobody shall hinder me; the bit is between my teeth. I would open the hall‐door myself for our visitors.

“Nelly, dear,” cooes my sister‐cushat, “will you ring the bell for Collins to open the door?”

“No,” said I, doughtily, “I will not; I'll open it myself.”

Dick was looking at her, and she could not scowl prohibition at me; but I think she made a little memorandum of it. However, I gained my point; ran and opened the heavy door while Dolly remained in the inner room. Mrs. Coxe passed out first, and having so passed was good‐natured, and “never looked behind.”

Dick loitered, and (Mrs. Coxe's extensive back being turned) took my face between his two broad hands.

“Bad luck, Nell! bad luck!” he said, a little disappointedly; “not five words with you to‐day!”

page: 179

“No,” said I, and my countenance was troubled; “nor you won't either, now Dolly has come home!”

“Dolly be blowed!” said he, irreverently. “We must pack her off pretty quick if she spoils our sport, mustn't we? but she won't, I'm sure; she looks good‐natured; she'll help us.”

I shook my head.

“Give me one kiss, pretty one, to take away with me; nobody's looking!”

Our lips met—met joyfully, clingingly; parted grudgingly.

One more, Nell!”

“No, no, no! Mrs. Coxe will turn round.”

“Mrs. Coxe will do nothing of the kind; Mrs. Coxe is a sensible woman, and minds her own business.”

“Indeed, indeed, you ought to go and open the gate for her,” I said, wrenching my countenance out of his hands.

“In a minute! in a minute! no hurry. Nell, you're looking rather pretty to‐day, only your cheeks want pinching or doing something to, to put a little colour into them.”

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“They never have any colour; it would not look natural.”

“Well, then, I suppose I must put up with them, ugly as they are! Nell, where will you come and meet me tonight?”

My eyes clave to his face, and feasted on its beauty. I would have gone to meet him in a dungeon, in a charnel, in death's stronghold itself. The door to the hall opened softly, and he dropped my hand like a hot potato. Enter Dolly, not a whit discomposed by her position of Mar Plot.

“I thought,” she said, suavely, “that this might be your stick, and that you had forgotten it!”

So speaking, she held up a walking‐stick for his inspection. It had been in papa's possession full twenty years, and she knew it.

“Oh, thanks, thanks; no, it isn't mine; I've got mine here. Well, I won't keep you out in the sun any longer—good morning!”

Thus he departed. My wrath surged and boiled like broth in a pot.

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“You knew that stick wasn't his, Dolly?” quoth I, irefully.

She shrugged her shoulders.

“Hein! if I did, what then? One little ruse is as good as another, isn't it? Your little ruse was the hall‐door,mine was the walking‐stick, that's all; quits, don't you see?”

I did not see, nor did I vouchsafe another word to Dorothea that evening.

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