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I've no doubt it will be disagreeable. Medicines are seldom sweet to the palate. Mrs. Meredith, I will out with it at once, not to keep you in suspense.”
Here, however, he paused to take out his handkerchief, and blew his nose with a very resounding utterance. After he had finished this operation, he resumed :
“I don't presume to teach a lady of your sense what is her duty; and I don't need to tell you that the world exercises a great supervision over women who, from whatever cause, are left alone."
“What have I done?” cried Mrs. Meredith, half frightened, half laughing. “I must have made some mistake, or you would not speak so."
“I doubt if it could be called a mistake; perhaps it would be better to say a misapprehension. Mrs. Meredith, there is one of your friends who pays you a visit every day.” “ Several," she said, relieved. “You know how kind people are to
Instead of supervision, as you say, I get a great deal of sympathy- "
Mr. Sommerville waved his hand, as if to ward off her explanation. “I am speaking of one person,” he said: “a man—who is here every evening of his life, or I'm mistaken--your neighbour, Mr. Beresford, next door."
“Mr. Beresford !” she said, with a thrill of disagreeable surprise ; and there came to her instantaneously one of those sudden realisations of things that might be thought or said, such as sometimes overwhelm the unsuspecting soul at the most inappropriate moment; her colour rose in spite of herself.
“ Just Mr. Beresford. He means no harm and you mean no harm ; but he should be put a stop to, my dear lady. You gave me your word you would not be angry? But, madam, you're a married lady, and your husband is at a distance. It's not for your credit or his good that he should visit you every night.”
“Mr. Sommerville! stop, please! I cannot let you talk so—or anyone.”
“But you must, my dear lady, unless you want everybody to talk, and in a very different spirit. The world is a wicked world, and takes many things into its head. You're a very attractive woman still, though you're no longer in your first youth-"
“Mr. Sommerville, what you say is very disagreeable to me," said Mrs. Meredith, offended. “Poor Mr. Beresford ! since he lost his wife he has been miserable. Nobody ever mourned more truly; and now, when he is trying to learn a little resignation, a little patience--"
“He should not learn those virtues, madam, at your expense.”
At my expense !” she said, with sparkling eyes; “ at what expense to me? I allow him to come and sit with me when he has no one at home to bear him company. I allow him
“I thought his daughter had come to keep him company."
“ Poor Cara ! she is a sweet child; but, at seventeen, what can she know of his troubles ?”
“Softly, softly," said Mr. Sommerville ; “one plea is enough at a time. If Mr. Beresford is without a companion, it does not matter that his daughter is only seventeen ; and whatever her age may be, if she is there he cannot be without companionship. My dear lady, be reasonable. If he has a child grown up, or nearly so, he should stay at home. A great many of us have not even that inducement,” said the old man, who was an old bachelor ; “but no kind lady opens her doors to us." He looked at her sharply with his keen eyes ; and she felt, with intense annoyance, that she was getting agitated and excited in spite of herself.
“ Mr. Sommerville,” she said, with some dignity,“ if anyone has been misrepresenting my friendship for Mr. Beresford, I cannot help that. It is wicked as well as unkind; for I think I have been of use to him. I think I have helped him to see that he cannot abandon his life. I don't mean to defend myself. I have not done anything to be found fault with ; friendship
“Is a delusion," said the old man. “Friendship between a man and a woman! There is no sense in it. I don't believe a word of it. Meaning no harm to you, my dear lady. You don't mean any harm ; but if you talk to me of friendship!"
“ Then I had better say nothing,” she answered quickly. husband's representative—if you call yourself so-has no right to treat me with rudeness. I have nothing more to say.”
“My dear lady," said old Mr. Sommerville, “ if I have appeared rude I am unpardonable. But you'll forgive me? I mean nothing but your good. And all I want is a little prudence--the ordinary precautions."
“I will none of them !” she said, with a flush of indignation. “I have nothing to be afraid of, and I will not pretend to be prudent as you call it. Let the world think or say what it pleases—it is nothing to me."
Then there was a pause, and Mrs. Meredith betook herself to her work—a woman's safety-valve, and laboured as if for a wager, while the old plenipotentiary sat opposite to her, confounded and abashed as she thought. But Mr. Sommerville was too old and experienced to be much abashed by anything. He sat silent, collecting his forces for a renewed attack. That was all. He had a sincere friendship for her in his way, and was as anxious to prevent scandal as any father could have been ; and now it occurred to him that he had begun at the wrong end, as he said. Women were kittle cattle. He had failed when he dwelt upon the danger to herself. Perhaps he might succeed better if he represented the danger to him.
“I have made a mistake,” said the hypocritical old man. do no harm to you, all that has come and gone. I was thinking of my own selfish kind that give most weight to what affects themselves, and I am rightly punished. A lady sans reproche like yourself may well be sans peur. But that is not the whole question, my dear madam. There is the man to be considered."
“ It can
When he said this she raised her eyes, which had been fixed on her work, and looked at him with some anxiety, which was so much gained.
“ You will not doubt my word when I say there's a great difference between men and women," said the old diplomatist. “What is inno
“ cent for one is often very dangerous for the other, and vice versd : you will not deny that."
Then he made a pause, and looking at her for reply, received a sign of assent to his vague proposition, which indeed was safe enough.
“How can you tell that Mr. Beresford receives as pure benevolence all the kindness you show him ? It is very unusual kindness. You are kind to everybody, madam, above the ordinary level ; and human creatures are curious—they think it is their merit that makes you good to them, not your own bounty."
She did not make any reply, but continued to look at him. Her attention at least was secured.
“ If I were to tell you the instances of this that have come under my own observation! I have known a poor creature who got much kindness in a house on account of his defects and deficiencies, and because everybody was sorry for him ; who gave it out, if you'll believe me, and really thought, that what his kind friends wanted was to marry him to the daughter of the house! It's not uncommon, and I dare say, without going further, that you can remember things—which perhaps you have laughed at
-" “All this has nothing to do with Mr. Beresford," she said, quietly, but with a flush of rising offence.
“No, no." He made a hesitating answer and looked at her. Mrs. Meredith fell into the snare.
“ If he has misunderstood my sympathy for his troubles, if he has ventured to suppose
"Cara has gone out with her aunt," said Edward, coming in hastily; “ but there is surely something wrong in the house. Mr. Beresford called me into his room, looking very much distressed. He told me to tell you that he thought of leaving home directly; then changed his mind, and said I was not to tell you."
“Why do you tell me, then ?" cried his mother, with impatience. “What is it to me where he is going? Am I always to be worried with other people's troubles? I think I have plenty of my own without that.”
Edward looked at her with great surprise. Such outbreaks of impatience from his gentle mother were almost unknown to him. looks very ill,” he said ; “very much disturbed : something must have happened. Why should not I tell you? Are you not interested in our old friend? Then something very extraordinary has happened, I suppose."
“Oh, my boy," cried Mrs. Meredith, in her excitement, “ that is what Mr. Sommerville has come about. He says poor James Beresford comes too often here. He says I am too kind to him, and that people will talk, and he himself thinks- Ah!" she cried suddenly, “what am I saying to the boy ?”
Edward went up to her hurriedly and put his arm round her, and thus standing looked round defiant at the meddler. Oswald, too, entered the room at this moment. The hour for luncheon approached, and naturally called these young men, still in the first bloom of their fine natural
appetites, from all corners of the house. “ What's the matter ?” he said. But he had another verse of his poem in his head which he was in great haste to write down, and he crossed over to the writing-table in the back drawing-room, and did not wait for any reply Edward, on the contrary, put the white shield of his own youthfulness at once in front of his mother, and indignant met the foe.
“People have talked a long time, I suppose,” said Edward, “ that there was nobody so kind as my mother; and I suppose because
have trained us, mamma, we don't understand what it means to be too kind. You do, sir ?" cried the young man, with generous impertinence; “you think it is possible to be too innocent-too good ?”
“Yes, you young idiot !” cried the old man, jumping up in a momentary fury. Then he cooled down and reseated himself with a laugh. “ There is the bell for lunch," he said ; "and I don't mean to be cheated out of the luncheon, which, of course, you will give me, by the freaks of these puppies of yours, madam. But Oswald is a philosopher ; he takes it easy," he added, looking keenly at the placid indifference of the elder son.
“Oswald takes everything easy," said Mrs. Meredith, with a sigh. And they went downstairs to luncheon, and no man could have been more cheerful, more agreeable than the old Indian. He told them a hundred stories, and paid Mrs. Meredith at least a score of compliments. “This indulgence will put it out of my power to be at your levée this afternoon," he said ; “but there will be plenty of worshippers without me. I think the neglected women in this town—and no doubt there's
manyshould bring a prosecution against ladies like you, Mrs. Meredith, that charm more than your share; and both sexes alike, men and women. I hear but one chorns, “There's nobody so delightful as Mrs. Meredith,' wherever I go."
“We are all proud of your approbation,” said Oswald, with much solemnity: he was always light-hearted, and had no desire to inquire particularly into the commotion of which he had been a witness. But Edward kept his eyes upon his mother, who was pale with the excitement she had come through. What that excitement meant, the young man had very little idea. Something had disturbed her, which was enough for her son ; and, curiously enough, something had disturbed the neighbours too, whom Edward accepted without criticism as we accept people whom we have known all our lives. He was curious, and rather anxious, wondering what it might be.
But as for Mrs. Meredith, the idea of communicating to her sons even the suggestion that she could be spoken of with levity, or criticised as a woman, appalled her when she thought of it. She had cried out,
appealing to the boys in her agitation, but the moment after felt that she could bear anything rather than make them aware that any one had ventured upon a word to her on such subjects. She exerted herself to be as vivacious as her visitor ; and as vivacity was not in her way, the little forced gaiety of her manner attracted the attention of her sons more than the greatest seriousness would have done. Even Oswald was roused to observe this curious change. “What has happened ?” he said to his brother. He thought the Spy had been finding fault with the expenditure of the household, and thought with alarm of his own bills, which had a way of coming upon him as a surprise when he least expected them. It was almost the only thing that could have roused him to interest, for Oswald felt the things that affected Oswald to be of more importance than anything else could be. As for Edward, he awaited somewhat tremulously the disclosure which he expected after Mr. Sommerville's departure. But Mrs. Meredith avoided both of them in the commotion of her feelings. She shut herself up in her own room to ponder the question, and, as was natural, her proud impulse of resistance yielded to reflection. Her heart ached a good deal for poor Beresford, a little for herself. She, too, would miss something. Something would be gone out of her life which was good and pleasant. Her heart gave a little sob, a sudden ache came into her being. Was there harm in it? she asked herself, aghast. Altogether the day was not a pleasant one for Mrs. Meredith. It seemed to plunge her back into those agitations of youth from which surely middle age ought to deliver a woman. It wronged her in her own eyes, making even her generous temper a shame to her. Had she been too good ? as he said—too kind ? an accusation which is hurtful, and means something like insult to a woman, though to no other creature. Too kind! No expression of contempt, no insinuated slander can be more stinging than this imputation of having been too kind. Had she been too kind to her sorrowful neighbour? had she led him to believe that her kindness was something more than kindness ? She, whose special distinction it was to be kind, whose daily court was established on no other foundation, whose kindness was the breath of her nostrils; was this quality, of which she had come to be modestly conscious, and of which, perhaps, she was a little proud, to be the instrument of her humiliation? She was not a happy wife, nor indeed a wife at all, except in distant and not very pleasant recollection, and in the fact that she had a watchful husband, at the end of the world, keeping guard over her. Was it possible that she had given occasion for his interference, laid herself open to his scorn? It seemed to the poor woman as if heaven and earth had leagued against her. Too kind; suspected by the jealous man who watched her, despised by the ungrateful man by whom her tender generosity had been misinterpreted. She sent down a message to Cara that she was not going out. She sent word to her visitors that she had a headache. She saw nobody all day long. Too kind ! The accusation stung in the tenderest point, and was more than she could bear.