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It was when Mr. John Germain, a gentleman of fifty, and of fine landed estate in Berks—head of his family, Deputy-Lieutenant, Chairman of Quarter Sessions, and I don’t know what not—was paying one of his yearly visits to his brother James, who was Rector of Misperton Brand, in Somerset, that an adventure of a sentimental kind presented itself to him, engaged him, carried him into mid-air upon a winged horse, and set him treading clouds and suchlike filmy footing. Chance-caught combinations, associations tenderly touched—what do I know? He had a vision and located it; he dreamed a dream, and began to live it out; out of a simple maid he read a young goddess, into a lover’s ardent form he pressed his leanness and grey hairs. Bluntly, he, a widower of ten years’ standing, fell in love with a young person half his age, and of no estate at all—but quite the contrary; and, after an interval of time which he chose to ignore, applied himself earnestly to the practice of poetry. There ensued certain curious relationships between quite ordinary people which justify me in calling my book a Comedy of Degrees.

This sudden seizure of the heart overtook him one afternoon in July, on the occasion of a Sunday-school feast, an annual affair. He had lent himself to that because, while he claimed his mornings, his afternoons were always at the disposition of his hostess and sister-in-law, the Hon. Mrs. James Germain, who naturally made the most of them. She, of course, must be present at the affair, must have a tea-party for the notables. The Cantacutes always came, and the Binghams; there might be others: John must really consent to be bored. There would be no occasion to pass the railing which separated the revellers in the paddock from the Rectory lawn; all he had to do was to show himself and allow Mrs. Bingham to talk round about him. True, the afternoon was very hot; but the Rectory garden was at its best, velvet-lawned, shady and trim. Mr. Germain confessed that it was the very day for out-of-door merrymaking—by other people—and smilingly added that the exertion of the school-feasters would lend a savour to the leisure he was promised. He appeared—somewhat late—in a suit of summer coolness, and white spats, and was charming with Lady Cantacute, an old friend; perfect with Mrs. Bingham, whose fault was that she was too anxious to please. In the absence of the Rector and Lord Cantacute, who were conferring on parish business, these ladies made much of their cavalier. He had a comfortable chair, which allowed him to stretch his long legs before him at the right and only angle. Leisurely and measured in all that he did, talking but little, he was allowed to feel that his presence was the utmost that would be asked of him, and that leisure and measure were at his disposal. When, therefore, he had said all that seemed proper, he adjusted his glasses, gave one glance to the white spat upon the foot of his crossed leg, put his elbows on the arms of his chair, clasped his hands, and set himself to observe the sports. All was well with the world so far, and he—the handsome, fine-featured, thin gentleman—as good a thing as this fraction of a world contained. He was in the mood to receive impressions and be charitable to them. This was the moment chosen by the Blind God.

The flags drooped lazily about their poles, the great elms beyond the paddock seemed muffled in their July wrappage, and a swoon; but over the sward the figures of the children and their friends flashed and darted, and crossed each other as on a scene. A stentorian curate in black and white cap directed the cricket. Mr. Germain marked his flying coat-tails and approved them. “Ha! my excellent friend Soames!” he reflected aloud, and added that years left no marks upon Soames. The swiping boys were young England at play—our future was safe in their hands, Soames to urge them. He had his own ideas about our future, and called himself a Liberal in politics; but confessed that Young England was all the better for a Soames or two to guide it. He was a sound Churchman.

His benevolent eye, seeking other objects of interest, was now turned to the girls.

Oranges and Lemons was the cry with them: a pretty game, as elaborate and rhythmical as an old-world dance, with a romp interposed. Two of the tallest hold the gate—their raised arms make it. About the skirts of each you see the clustered bevy of her capture; the doomed ones creep in a file beneath their hands; the sing-song swells, rises, grows, holds—and presently falls with the blow.

The gate-keepers stoop, they clasp, they catch close some struggling prisoner; hot cheek lies fast to pillowing breast, laughing child to laughing maid. It is the strife of love in a dream; like all figure-dances, it figures that; for what cuddling girl but mimics there the transports she is to know one day? Sometimes the captive breaks away and runs; then must the taker give chase: and as the race is swift, and may be long, so is the end the sweeter both for huntress and for quarry. Kisses mark the end; you die of a surfeit of kisses. The strife of love in a dream—a gentle, innocent parody of it!

Whether these amiable musings were cause or consequence of what happened to catch Mr. Germain’s eye more than once or twice, there’s no telling. I content myself with recording that the most active of those young people beyond the railings was a graceful, quick-limbed girl in white muslin—whose long black sash-ribbons and wide-brimmed hat of straw marked her vividly out for his contemplation. He was near-sighted and could get no details, but was agreeably aware of her, as the swiftest in pursuit, the hardiest to catch and hold, to be chased by whom and to be caught was the aim of every flying child. She was the beloved, it was plain; her close arms the haven of choice. Sitting in the pleasant shade, at peace with himself and all mankind, Mr. Germain found in her a stimulating vein for thought to explore, and pursued it with zest, while Lady Cantacute murmured “Dear things!” at intervals, or sighed for tea, and Mrs. Bingham felt it her duty as a guest to envy the lot of Misperton Rectory.

She had envied the garden, the weather, the curate, the cricket field, and might have gone on to covet her friend her rector had not the “I say, Aggie,” from her youngest daughter, Cecily, given her a new object to admire.

“Aggie, I say,” said Cecily to her sister, “you know—that girl can run.” Mr. John Germain, as the pivot of his thoughts was touched, turned with animation to the speaker.

“Indeed, yes. She runs like Atalanta, Miss Cecily, if you know who Atalanta was.”

Miss Cecily wriggled. She was fifteen. “Yes, I know. She raced with Milanion, and picked up the apple. I don’t think Mary’s a bit like her.”

“She is as swift, I am sure,” said Mr. Germain. “But it’s true she has not yet picked up the apple. Perhaps that will lie in front of her some day, and then she’ll be caught.”

“He didn’t catch her,” said Cecily. “She stopped, and he won.”

“True,” Mr. Germain replied smiling. “You and I mean the same thing, I believe.”

To this Miss Cecily had no reply but a sudden jerk of the leg. Mrs. Bingham beamed upon her hostess.

“The Earthly Paradise! My Cecily adores it. But who is their Atalanta, dear Mrs. Germain?”

Mrs. James Germain said that she had no notion, which was quite untrue. Aggie replied to her mother by pointing out the nymph of the chase. Mrs. Bingham clasped her hands.

“There again! Your extraordinary fortune! Mary, of course—that nice teacher you have. Quite a charming person!”

Mrs. Germain primmed her lips. “Very charming, I believe. But she’s in private service.”

“Do you mean she’s somebody’s maid, Constantia?” This came briskly from Lady Cantacute, who knew very well what had been meant, but had a kind heart. Mr. John Germain, while watching the players, listened.

“I think you must know her,” Mrs. James explained. “She is governess—I suppose you would call it—to Nunn’s family. Nursery-governess, I fancy, is the phrase. She teaches in our Sunday-school, it is true; but that is a privilege rather than a duty. At least, we consider it so.”

“Quite so, quite so,” said Mrs. Bingham. “You mean that one doesn’t pay——”

“Of course one doesn’t,” replied the Rector’s wife, and would have closed the discussion.

But her brother-in-law reopened it by saying that she appeared to him an attractive young lady, and caused Mrs. James to sniff.

“I should not have said that; indeed, we think her plain.” Surely enough of the young person: but the conversation hung about her yet.

“She has pretty manners,” Lady Cantacute considered; and her eyes were good. Mrs. James allowed her eyes. “They speak, I believe, upon occasion,” she added. “But I am rather deaf to that kind of language.”

“Perhaps, my dear Constantia, they don’t address themselves to you,” said Lady Cantacute, and Mr. Germain, stretching his arms forward to the fulness of comfort, resumed his observation of Oranges and Lemons. Cecily Bingham heard the click of his clasped fingers.

“Very possibly I should be the last to receive them,” Mrs. James was heard to say, “though I believe they address themselves otherwise impartially.”

“I am sure she is a good girl,” said Mrs. Bingham, and to that the lady of Misperton said “We all hope so.”

A merry, a warm-hearted girl. Mr. Germain was confident of that. When a child of her party tripped in running, and fell, how she picked her up, and sitting, cradled her upon her lap and soothed her with voice and soft cheek and quick, kissing lips. A pretty sight, a gracious act sweetly done. Absorbed, he lost the thread of the talk about him, but awoke to hear his sister-in-law’s tones of authority telling Mrs. Bingham things which he wished to know.

“Yes, Middleham—Mary Middleham.—No, she’s three or four and twenty, I believe. She has been here a year or two—teaching the little Nunns. No, no French; and the merest rudiments of piano. But for children of that position piano I consider absurd. Nunn is a most sensible man—no airs at all. . . . Yes, she has nice ways with children; they mind her and like her, too. Really, she and Soames manage everything—but—that is most tiresome!” Mrs. James sat upright. “I must speak to her. I see that they are doing precisely what I did not intend with the tea. It’s very stupid of Mrs. Blain. I’ll send somebody for her if I—.” She looked about her, vaguely offended that a footman did not emerge from the clump of pampas; and—“Cecily, darling,” said Mrs. Bingham.

Cecily jumped up. “I’ll go, Mrs. Germain.”

“That is very nice of you, my dear. Do. Tell Mary that I want to speak to her here.”

Miss Cecily vaulted her black legs over the railing and ran up the field whistling. Conversation, unaided now by Mrs. Germain, ran a languid course.

But Oranges and Lemons stopped short, and crimped tresses could be swept from shoulders and eyes, the better to regard Miss Cecily from the Rectory party. Presently, after an eager colloquy, expressive on one side of dismay and disarray, Miss Cecily was seen returning with her convoy, talking gaily. The captive nymph, though still busy with hat and hairpins, or fanning herself with her pocket handkerchief, walked confidently, carried her head well, and joined happily in the laugh. This until within hail. But then she changed. Her tongue was still, her head was bent the least in the world, and her eyes became guarded and watchful. At the railing, which Miss Cecily again neatly vaulted, Miss Middleham paused, and blushed before she climbed. But she had nothing to be afraid of, for Mr. Germain was looking at his white spats. When she stood before her betters, however, he, following her example, stood before her. And now he observed her sedately.

He was struck first by a caution in her fine eyes which caused them to loom as with reproach, to peer as if she doubted. Her colour, heightened by exertion and, perhaps, by shyness, was very becoming to her. She glowed like a peach burnt by the sun. She looked wholesome and healthy, and her voice did not belie her appearance—a fresh, confident, young voice. She kept her hands behind her—as if she were a catechumen—and with her shoulders back, looked watchfully at you as she listened and replied. The attitude showed her figure to be charming—softly, tenderly curved; a budding figure. Undoubtedly she was pleasant to behold, but she would have been no more to any one but a confirmed amorist had it not been for her eyes.

Mr. Germain was little of an amorist by temperament, though time and the hour had led him to muse over maids at play. And that being so, he was shocked rather than struck by the discrepancy between the playing nymph of his fancies and this healthy sunburnt girl with peering eyes. It almost shocked him to see her so wary. It gave her a guilty look as if she feared detection momently. He thought of a squirrel in leafage, of a dormouse by a tree-bole; he thought, above all, of flinching, of harsh treatment, of the whip. “Great God,” he cried to himself, “what a state of things is this when, upon a summons suddenly, flashing limbs grow stiff and sparkling eyes burn large with apprehension!” And then he said in his heart, “To woo the confidence back to such eyes, to still the doubts in such a breast, were work for a true man.”

From the height of his argument to the flat of the facts is a longish drop. The Catechism had taken this simple form. “Mary,” Mrs. Germain had said with something, but very little after all, of the air of a proprietor, “I see that they are bringing out the tea.”

“Yes, Mrs. Germain.” A young, fresh, confident voice.

“Surely, it is not time?”

“Tea was to be at four, Mrs. Germain.”

“Oh. Well, the Rector is busy with his lordship and cannot be disturbed. Tea must not begin until he can say Grace.”

“Very well, Mrs. Germain. But Mr. Soames——”

“No doubt. But I don’t wish Mr. Soames to say Grace.” This was explained to Mrs. Bingham. “Mr. Soames is a most worthy young man—we are fortunate in him. But he knows only two forms of Grace—Benedictus benedicat, which is of course, absurd, and For these and all Thy mercies.”

“Oh,” said Lady Cantacute, “and won’t that do?”

Mrs. James looked to the tree-tops. “We think that village children should be taught to expect other things besides mercies. James always says For what we are about to receive, which of course might be anything.”

“I suppose it might, poor things,” said Lady Cantacute, comfortably; and Mrs. Bingham whispered, “So sensible!” to her eldest daughter.

“Besides, the Rector is the proper person on such a day. See to it, if you please, Mary.”

“Very well, Mrs. Germain.” She lowered her eyes again directly she had spoken, as she was apt to do before her notables.

“My dear,” said Lady Cantacute suddenly, “you look very hot.” She now looked hotter, but she laughed as she admitted the fact. Laughing became her. Mr. Germain admired her teeth—small, white, and, so far as he could see, perfect. He formed a higher opinion of Lady Cantacute’s character—an old friend. To make a young girl smile and show her teeth is to use both tact and benevolence—natural benevolence.

“It is a very hot afternoon,” he said, as if delivering a considered judgment, and as he blinked upon her she flashed him one of her hasty looks.

“Yes, it is, Mr. Germain.”

“And I think you must be a most unselfish young lady.”

“Oh, no, Mr. Germain, indeed.” She was quite pleased, and looked very pretty when pleased.

“But I must maintain that you are. You put us luxurious people to shame. Now, Miss Cecily and I will undertake to help you after tea. Is that a bargain, Miss Cecily?” Cecily looked dogged, and said, “If he liked.”

“All well at home, dear child?” Mrs. Bingham asked here, and made Cecily snort. I am afraid, too, that she nudged her sister Agatha.

“Quite well, thank you, Mrs. ——.” She stopped, her voice tailing off into breath, as if she guessed that she had been using too many names just now, and yet knew that, from her sort, the full title was expected. Conversation not being resumed, Mrs. James said shortly, “That will do, Mary, I think. See about the tea, will you?”

Miss Middleham promised, and retired with veiled eyes and an inclination of the head; but Cecily asked, “May I go with her, mother?” and went without the answer.

Their backs turned, the rail safely over, there was a different Miss Middleham to be found, the sparkling, audacious, merry Miss Middleham of Oranges and Lemons who, to Cecily Bingham’s “I say, I can run,” replied, “And so can I, you know,” and egged Cecily on to propose “Let’s race to that clump of grass.” Miss Middleham flew, and Cecily tumbled on to her at the winning post. They resumed their way close together.

Her arm within Mary Middleham’s, Cecily talked in jerks, between breaths. “I say—old Germain talked a lot about you.” The colour flew over Mary’s face, was reflected in her eyes.

“No! Did he really?”

“I swear he did. He called you Atalanta. He said—I say—wasn’t it rot of Mother, asking after your people? She hadn’t the faintest idea whether you had any, and didn’t—I suppose you have, though?”

“I have indeed—lots. I’ve got four sisters.”

“Oh, sisters! No brothers?” She shook her head.

“I’ve got one,” said Cecily, “and he’s at Eton all the summer. Jolly for him.”

“Very jolly, I should think. Now I am to tell Mr. Soames about the tea. Don’t run away.”

“Rather not. I’ll wait here for you. I hate curates. Father’s got two—one tame one and one wild one. We call them Romulus and Remus, after some puppies we had once.” They separated with eye-signals.

Mr. Soames—the Rev. Seymour Soames, B.A.—was explicitly a curate, flaming-haired, crimson, spectacled, and boyish. He was very enthusiastic, and when enthusiastic could not always rely upon his voice. Being now told his affair, he said “I see” very often, and concluded, “Very well, Miss Mary, I’ll do as I’m told—as you tell me, you know. You’re the queen of this beanfeast. I’m not above taking orders from the head of affairs, you see.” It was indeed to be seen that he was not. “Thank you, Mr. Soames,” said the Mary of laughing eyes, and as she went he sighed, collected himself and plunged into hectoring the urn-bearers. Miss Middleham and her young friend strolled off arm-in-arm, and the last thing to be heard spoken between them was, “What did Mr. Germain really say?” The rest was whispers.

Fictie en literatuur
26 juli
Rectory Print

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