« ՆախորդըՇարունակել »
table with his bow, clear his throat, adjust his white tie, straighten himself, and, with a hideous grin he doubtless deemed captivating, he would address us inclusively
"Young ladies, it is my intention to bring you a little confectionery next Tuesday; and now, if you please, attention! and answer. What does practice do?"
In vain we shouted our customary response with more than our customary conviction; the confectionery was always for next Tuesday, and never, alas! for to-day. With longing eyes we watched the slightest movement of the master towards his pocket. He never produced anything but his handkerchief, and when he doubled in two to wish us "O reevoyer," he never omitted to say—
"To-day I did not pass by the confectioner's shop; but it will certainly be for next Tuesday."
For a long time he took us in, as other so-called magicians have taken in simpletons as great as we. We believed he had a secret understanding with the devil, for only to the power of evil could we attribute a quickness of apprehension such as he boasted. He would stand with his back to us, playing away at his violin, while we chasséed and croiséd and heaven knows what else
Sure enough he always pounced on the bungler, and never failed to switch round his bow violently and hit her toes. How was it done? Simply enough, one of us discovered quite by accident. There was a big mahogany press, as finely polished as a mirror, and in front of this the master planted himself. The rows of dancers, from crown to heel, were as clear to him as in a glass. By such simple means may a terrible reputation be acquired. For months had Mr Parker shabbily usurped the fame of a magician.
In his quality of master he could permit himself a brutality of candour not usually shown by his sex to us without the strictest limits of intimacy. There was a big girl of sixteen, very stout, very tall, squarely built, with poultry yard writ in broad letters over her whole dull and earthy form. An excellent creature, I have no doubt, though I knew nothing whatever about her, being half her age, which in school constitutes a difference of something approaching half-a-century. Her name was Margaret Twycross, and she came from Shakespeare's town. As befits a master of the graceful art, Mr Parker's preference was given to the slim and lovely nymph, and such a square emblem of the soil as Margaret Twycross would naturally provoke his impatient contempt. Possibly she merited all the vicious rage he showered on her poor big feet, pathetically evident, emerging from skirts that just reached her ankles.
But with my larger experience and knowledge of his sex, I am inclined to doubt it, and attribute his vindictiveness to a mere masculine hatred of ugliness in woman rather than to the teacher's legitimate wrath. Hardly a Tuesday went by but he sent the inoffensive, great, meek creature into floods of tears; and while she wept and sobbed, looking less lovely than ever in her sorrow, he would snarl and snicker at her, imitate her jeeringly, and cast obloquy on her unshapely feet.
"A ploughboy would be disgraced by such feet as Miss Twycross's," he would hiss across at her, and then rap them wickedly with his bow.
The art of dancing, Mr Parker proved to us, is insufficient to make a gentleman of its adept. Once his unsleeping fury against the unhappy girl carried him to singular lengths. He bade us all be seated, and then, with his customary inflated and foolish air, began to address us upon the power of art. With art you can achieve anything, you can even lend grace to the ungraceful.
"I will now choose from your ranks the most awkward, the most pitiable and clumsy of her
den, but with an unmistakable look of anguish in her poor harassed eyes, of a blue as dull and troubled as her complexion; and a certain twitching of her thin tight lips was eloquent enough of her unprovoked hurt.
Mr Parker, with his simpering disgusted air of ill-natured little dandy, flourished a perfumed handkerchief about his face, to sustain his affronted nerves, no doubt, placed an arm gingerly about the flat square waist, clasped her outer hand in evident revulsion, and began to scamper and drag her round the room in the steps of a wild schotische. Most of us tittered -could we be expected to measure the misery of the girl, while nature made us excruciatingly alive to the absurdity of her tormentor?
As a girl myself I have often laughed in recalling the incident; but I own that the brute should have been kicked out of the establishment for such an object-lesson in the art of communicating grace. As for his boasted achievement, even we babies could perfectly understand that there was not much to choose between his jerky waxwork steps and the heavy stamp of his partner. She at least was true to nature and moved as she looked, an honest cow-like creature, whom you were at liberty not to admire, but who offered you no reason to despise her. While he, her vindictive enemy, mean unnatural little body, sheathing a base, affected, silly little soul, fiddling and scraping away his days which were neither digni
fied nor manly, he offered himself to the unlimited contempt of even such microscopic humanity as ours. We felt he was not a man with the large capacity of manhood, but a disgraced and laughable thing, a puppet moving upon springs and speaking artificially, manufactured as dolls are, for the delectation of little folk.
We enjoyed Mr Parker, but we never regarded him as more human than the clown or the
harlequin of the pantomime. We imitated him together; we played at him, as we played at soldiers or fairies or social entertainment. Had we learnt that he was dead or ill, or driven to the poorhouse, it would have been just as if we had heard such news of harlequin, or heard that Peeping Tom had fallen from his window and smashed his head. Mr Parker was not a person at the Ivies; he was a capital joke.
CHAPTER XIX.-EPISCOPAL PROTECTION.
The succeeding years in Lysterby are blurred. Here and there I recall a vivid episode, an abiding impression. Papa came over with one of my elder sisters. They arrived at night, and I, half asleep, was dressed hurriedly and taken down to the parlour. A big warm wave of delight overwhelmed me as my stepfather caught me in his arms and whisked me up above his fair head. It was heaven to meet his affectionate blue eyes dancing so blithely to the joy of my own. Seated upon his shoulder, I touched a mole on his broad forehead, and cried, as if I had made a discovery
"You've got the same little ball on your forehead, papa, that you had when you used to come down to Kildare."
Bidding me good-night, he promised to come for me early next day, and told me I should sleep in the Craven Arms, and spend two whole days driving about the country with him. How comforting the well-filled
VOL. CLXV.-NO. DCCCCXCIX.
table, the cold ham, the bacon and eggs at breakfast, the bread and marmalade, all served on a spotless table-cloth, and outside the smell of the roses and honeysuckle, and the exciting rumble of flies up and down the narrow street! I was so happy that I quite forgot my woes, and did not remember to complain of my enemies. There was so much to eat, to see, to think of, to feel, to say! I not only wanted to know all about everybody at home, but I wanted to see and understand all about me.
In the Abbey we saw Vandyke's melancholy Charles, and it was a rare satisfaction for me to be able to tell how he had been beheaded. At the great Castle we saw Queen Elizabeth's bed with the jewelwrought quilt, and my romantic elder sister, fresh from reading 'The Last of the Barons,' passionately kissed the Kingmaker's armour. She told us the thrilling tale as we sat in the famous cedar avenue, when the earl's daughter, all sum
mery in white muslin and Leghorn hat, passed us with her governess, and although she was a fresh slip of a girl just like my sister, because of her name we felt that a living breath of history had brushed us. She was not for us an insignificant girl of our own century, but something belonging to the King-maker, a breathing memory of the Wars of the Roses, the sort of creature the dreadful Richard might have wooed in his hideous youth.
And then at night, in the old inn, we discovered two big illustrated volumes about Josephine and Napoleon. I had not got so far in history as Napoleon, and here was an unexplored world, whose fairy was my voluble and imaginative sister. With a touch of her wand she unrolled before my enthralled vision scenes of the French Revolution and the passionate loves of Bonaparte and the young Viscountess de Beauharnais. I wish every child I know two such nights as I passed, listening to this evocative creature revive so vividly one of the intensest and most dramatic hours of history. Thanks to her eloquence, to her genius, Napoleon, vile monster, became one of my gods. I think the thrilling tale she read me was by Miss Mulock. Impossible now to recall the incidents that sufficed to turn succeeding weeks into an exquisite dream. Who, for instance, was the beauteous creature in amber and purple velvet, with glittering diamonds, that usurped such a fantastic place in the vague aspirations of those days? And the lovely
Polish countess Napoleon loved? And those letters from Egypt to Josephine, and Josephine's shawls and flowers, and the ghost-stories of Malmaison, and the last adieu the night before the divorce. Hard would it be to say whom I most loved and deeply pitied, the unadmirable Josephine or the admirable queen of Prussia. My sister read aloud, as we sat up in bed together, I holding the candle, and gazing in awe and delight, wet-eyed, at the coarse engravings.
Other sisters came in quick succession, but they remained strangers to me. They fawned on Sister Esmeralda, whom I hated: they were older and wiser than I; they aspired to the ribbon of the Children of Mary, and walked submissively with the authorities of Church and State. They played "Il Baccio" on the piano, and a mysterious duet called the "Duet in D." The only sister I remember of those days as an individual was Pauline, who had opened to me a world of treasures. At school, she naturally forsook me for girls of her own age; but on play-days, when we were free to do as we liked all day, she sometimes condescended to recall my existence, and told me with an extraordinary vivacity of recital the stories of 'East Lynne,' 'The Black Dwarf,' 'Rob Roy,' and 'Kenilworth.'
But for the rest she was a great and glorious creature who dwelt aloft, and possessed the golden key of the chambers of fiction. My immediate friend was Polly Evans, whose mamma once took me to tea in an
old farmhouse along the Kenil- ceremony, each with a white worth road.
There were strawberries and cream on the table; and delicious little balls of butter in blue-and-white dishes, and radishes, which I had never before eaten; and the air was dense with the smell of the flowers on table, sideboard, mantel - piece, and brackets. Polly and I, with her brother Leonard, played all the long afternoon in the hayfield, drunk with the odour, the sunny stillness, the hum of the bees-drunk, above all, with this transient bliss of freedom and high living.
Another time Mrs Evans took me with Polly and Leonard to Kenilworth Castle, where we dined among the ruins on ham, cold chicken, fruit, and lemonade. Yet she herself is no remembered personality: I cannot recall a single feature of hers, and even Polly herself is less clear in memory than Mary Jane of Kildare, than the abominable Frank.
Years after, in womanhood, Polly and her brother visited Ireland as tourists, and having all that time treasured my parents' address, called to see me. But I was abroad, a hopeless wanderer. Leonard, I learnt, was quite a fine young fellow, with a romantic attachment to me. Polly was sprightly and pretty, it seems, engaged too. But I never saw them again.
An eminent bishop came to confirm us, and we were taken down to town church, where, to our infinite amusement, we occupied several rows of benches opposite a boys' school, also brought hither for the same
rosette in his button-hole. None of us took the rite very seriously. We found it droll to be tapped on the cheek by a white episcopal hand and told that we were soldiers, and we watched the boys to see if their bearing were more martial than ours. They seemed equally preoccupied with us, and looked as if they felt themselves fools, awkward and shamefaced. They stared hard at our noble youth, Frank, in his eternal skirts-his curls had recently been clipped and nudged and giggled. Much of a soldier looked Frank! Heaven help the religion of Christ or the Constitution if either reposed faith in his prowess!
Whither has he drifted, and what has life made of the meanest little rascal I ever knew? Has he learnt to tell the truth at least? Has some public school licked him into shape, and kicked the cowardice and spitefulness out of him? When I became acquainted with Barnes Newcome afterwards, I always thought of that boy Frank. "Sister So-and-so, that nasty Angela is teasing me.' "Mother This, I can't eat my bread-and-milk; that horrid Angela has put salt into it." And then, when no one was looking, and a child weaker than himself was at hand, what sly pinches, and kicks, and vicious tugs at her hair. Noble youth, future pillar of the British empire, I picture you an admirable hypocrite and bully!
I wonder why the bishop singled me out of all that small crowd for a stupendous honour. He had asked my name, and