Two Strangers - Margaret Oliphant - ebook

Two StrangersByMargaret Oliphant

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Two Strangers


Margaret Oliphant

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“And who is this young widow of yours whom I hear so much about? I understand Lucy’s rapture over any stranger; but you, too, mother—”

“I too—well, there is no particular witchcraft about it; a nice young woman has as much chance with me as with any one, Ralph—”

“Oh, if it’s only a nice young woman—”

“It’s a great deal more,” said Lucy. “Why, Miss Jones at the school is a nice young woman—don’t you be taken in by mother’s old-fashioned stilts. She is a darling—she is as nice as nice can be. She’s pretty, and she’s good, and she’s clever. She has read a lot, and seen a lot, and been everywhere, and knows heaps and heaps of people, and yet just as simple and as nice as if she had never been married, never had a baby, and was just a girl like the rest of us—Mother! There is nothing wrong in what I said?” Lucy suddenly cried, stopping short and blushing all over with the innocent alarm of a youthfulness which had not been trained to modern modes of speech.

“Nothing wrong, certainly,” said the mother, with a half smile; “but—there is no need for entering into all these details.”

“They would have found out immediately, though,” said Lucy, with a lowered voice, “that there was—Tiny, you know.”

The scene was a drawing-room in a country house looking out upon what was at this time of year the rather damp and depressing prospect of a park, with some fine trees and a great breadth of very green, very mossy, very wet grass. It was only October, though the end of the month; and in the middle of the day, in the sunshine, the trees, in all their varied colors, were a fine sight, cheerful and almost exhilarating, beguiling the eye; but now the sun was gone, the leaves were falling in little showers whenever the faintest breath of air arose, and where the green turf was not veiled by their many colored remnants, it was green with that emerald hue which means only wet; one knew as one gazed across it that one’s foot would sink in the spongy surface, and wet, wet would be the boot, the skirt which touched it; the men in their knickerbockers, or those carefully turned up trousers—which we hear are the fashion in the dryest streets of Paris and New York—suffered comparatively little. The brushwood was all wet, with blobs of moisture on the long brambles and drooping leaves. The park was considered a beautiful park, though not a very large one, but it was melancholy itself to look out for hours together upon that green expanse in such an evening. It was not a bad evening either. There was no rain; the clouds hung low, but as yet had given forth no shower. The air was damp but yet brisk. There was a faint yellow glimmer of what might have been sunset in the sky.

The windows in the Wradisley drawing-rooms were large; one of them, a vast, shallow bow, which seemed to admit the outside into the interior, rather than to enlighten the interior with the view of what was outside. Mrs. Wradisley sat within reach of, but not too near, a large, very red fire—a fire which was like the turf outside, the growth of generations, or at least had not at all the air of having been lighted to-day or any recent day. It did not flame, but glowed steadily, adding something to the color of the room, but not much to the light. Later in the season, when larger parties assembled, there was tea in the hall for the sportsmen and the ladies who waited for them; but Mrs. Wradisley thought the hall draughty, and much preferred the drawing-room, which was over-furnished after the present mode of drawing-rooms, but at least warm, and free from draughts. She was working—knitting with white pins, or else making mysterious chains and bridges in white wool with a crochet-hook, her eyes being supposed to be not very strong, and this kind of industry the best adapted for them. As to what Lucy was doing, that defies description. She was doing everything and nothing. She had something of a modern young lady’s contempt for every kind of needlework, and, then, along with that, a great admiration for it as something still more superior than the superiority of idleness. A needle is one of the things that has this double effect. It is the scorn of a great number of highly advanced, very cultured and superior feminine people; but yet here and there will arise one, still more advanced and cultured, who loves the old-fashioned weapon, and speaks of it as a sacred implement of life. Lucy followed first one opinion and then another. She had half a dozen pieces of work about, begun under the influence of one class of her friends, abandoned under that of another. She had a little studio, too, where she painted and carved, and executed various of the humbler decorative arts, which, perhaps, to tell the truth, she enjoyed more than art proper; but these details of the young lady’s life may be left to show themselves where there is no need of such vanities. Lucy was, at all events, whatever her other qualities might be, a most enthusiastic friend.

“Well, I suppose we shall see her, and find out, as Lucy says, for ourselves—not that it is of much importance,” the brother said, who had begun this conversation.

“Oh! But it is of a great deal of importance,” cried Lucy. “Mrs. Nugent is my chief friend. She is mother’s prime favorite. She is the nicest person in the neighborhood. She is here constantly, or I am there. If you mean not to like her, you might as well, without making any fuss about it, go away.”

“Lucy!” cried Mrs. Wradisley, moved to indignation, and dropping all the white fabric of wool on her knees, “your brother—and just come home after all these years!”

“What nonsense! Of course I don’t mean that in the least,” Lucy cried. “Ralph knows—of course, I would rather have him than—all the friends in the world.”

There was a faltering note, however, in this profession. Why should she like Ralph better than all the friends in the world? He was her brother, that was true; but he knew very little of Lucy, and Lucy knew next to nothing of him; he had been gone since she was almost a child—he came back now with a big beard and a loud voice and a step which rang through the house. It was evident he thought her, if not a child, yet the most unimportant feminine person who did not count; and why should she prefer him to her own nice friends, who were soft of voice and soft of step, and made much of her, and thought as she did? It is acknowledged universally that in certain circumstances, when the man is her lover, a girl prefers that man to all the rest of the creation; but why, when it is only your brother Raaf, and it may really be said that you don’t know him—why should you prefer him to your own beloved friends? Lucy did not ask herself this question—she said what she knew it was the right thing to say, though with a faltering in her voice. And Ralph, who fortunately did not care in the least, took no notice of what Lucy said. He liked the little girl, his little sister, well enough; but it did not upset the equilibrium of the world in the very least whether she preferred him or not—if he had thought on the subject he would probably have said, “More shame to her, the little insensible thing!” but he did not take the trouble to give it a passing thought.

“I’ve got to show Bertram the neighborhood,” he said; “let him see we’re not all muffs or clowns in the country. He has a kind of notion that is about what the English aborigines are—and I daresay it’s true, more or less.”

“Oh, Raaf!” cried Lucy, raising her little smooth head.

“Well, it’s natural enough. One doesn’t meet the cream of the cream in foreign parts; unless you’re nothing but a sportsman, or a great swell doing it as the right thing, the most of the fellows you meet out there are loafers or blackguards, more or less.”

“It is a pity to form an estimate from blackguards,” said Mrs. Wradisley, with a smile; “but that, I suppose, I may take as an exaggeration too. We don’t see much of that kind here. Mr. Bertram is much mistaken if he thinks—”

“Oh, don’t be too hasty, mother,” said Ralph. “We know the breed; our respectable family has paid toll to the devil like other folks since it began life, which is rather a long time ago. After a few hundred years you get rather proud of your black sheep. I’m something of the kind myself,” he added, in his big voice.

Mrs. Wradisley once more let the knitting drop in her lap. “You do yourself very poor justice, Raaf—no justice at all, in fact. You are not spotless, perhaps, but I hope that black—”

“Whitey-brown,” said her son. “I don’t care for the distinction; but one white flower is perhaps enough in a family that never went in for exaggerated virtue—eh? Ah, yes—I know.”

These somewhat incoherent syllables attended the visible direction of Mrs. Wradisley’s eyes toward the door, with the faintest lifting of her eyelids. The door had opened and some one had come in. And yet it is quite inadequate to express the entrance of the master of the house by such an expression. His foot made very little sound, but this was from some quality of delicacy and refinement in his tread, not from any want of dignity or even impressiveness in the man. He was dressed just like the other men so far as appeared—in a grey morning suit, about which there was nothing remarkable. Indeed, it would have been against the perfection of the man had there been anything remarkable in his dress—but it was a faultless costume, whereas theirs were but common coats and waistcoats from the tailor’s, lined and creased by wear and with marks in them of personal habit, such, for instance, as that minute burnt spot on Raaf’s coat-pocket, which subtly announced, though it was a mere speck, the thrusting in of a pipe not entirely extinguished, to that receptacle. Mr. Wradisley, I need not say, did not smoke; he did not do anything to disturb the perfect outline of an accomplished gentleman, refined and fastidious, which was his natural aspect. To smell of tobacco, or indeed of anything, would have put all the fine machinery of his nature out of gear. He hated emotion as he hated—what shall I say?—musk or any such villainous smell; he was always point devise, body and soul. It is scarcely necessary to say that he was Mr. Wradisley and the head of the house. He had indeed a Christian name, by which he was called by his mother, brother, and sister, but not conceivably by any one else. Mr. Wradisley was as if you had said Lord, when used to him—nay, it was a little more, for lord is tant soit peu vulgar and common as a symbol of rank employed by many other people, whereas Mr., when thus elevated, is unique; the commonest of addresses, when thus sublimated and etherealized, is always the grandest of all. He was followed into the room by a very different person, a person of whom the Wradisley household did not quite know what to make—a friend of Ralph’s who had come home with him from the deserts and forests whence that big sportsman and virtuous prodigal had come. This stranger’s name was Bertram. He had not the air of the wilds about him as Ralph Wradisley had. He was said to be a bigger sportsman even than Ralph, and a more prodigious traveler; but this was only Ralph’s report, who was always favorable to his friends; and Mr. Bertram looked more like a man about town than an African traveler, except that he was burnt very brown by exposure, which made his complexion, once fair, produce a sort of false effect in contrast with his light hair, which the sun had rather diminished than increased in color. Almost any man would have looked noisy and rough who had the disadvantage to come into a room after Mr. Wradisley; but Bertram bore the comparison better than most. Ralph Wradisley had something of the aspect of a gamekeeper beside both of them, though I think the honest fellow would have been the first to whom a child or injured person would have turned. The ladies made involuntary mental comments upon them as the three stood together.

“Oh, if Raaf were only a little less rough!” his mother breathed in her heart. Lucy, I think, was most critical of Bertram, finding in him, on the whole, something which neither of her brothers possessed, though he must have been forty at the very least, and therefore capable of exciting but little interest in a girl’s heart.

“I have been showing your friend my treasures,” said Mr. Wradisley, with a slight turn of his head toward his brother, “and I am delighted to find we have a great many tastes in common. There is a charm in sympathy, especially when it is so rare, on these subjects.”

“You could not expect Raaf to know about your casts and things, Reginald,” said Mrs. Wradisley, precipitately. “He has been living among such very different scenes.”

“Raaf!” said Mr. Wradisley, slightly elevating his eyebrows. “My dear mother, could you imagine I was referring in any way to Raaf?”

“Never mind, Reg, I don’t take it amiss,” said the big sportsman, with a laugh out of his beard.

There was, however, a faint color on his browned cheeks. It is well that a woman’s perceptions should be quick, no doubt, but if Mrs. Wradisley had not been jealous for her younger son this very small household jar need not have occurred. Mr. Wradisley put it right with his natural blandness.

“We all have our pet subjects,” he said; “you too, mother, as much as the worst of us. Is the time of tea over, or may I have some?”

“Mr. Wradisley’s casts are magnificent,” cried the stranger. “I should have known nothing about them but for a wild year or two I spent in Greece and the islands. A traveler gets a sniff of everything. Don’t you recollect, Wradisley, the Arabs and their images at—”

The name was not to be spelt by mere British faculties, and I refrain.

“Funny lot of notions,” said Raaf, “I remember; pretty little thing or two, however, I should like to have brought for Lucy—just the things a girl would like—but Bertram there snapped them all up before I had a chance—confounded knowing fellow, always got before me. You come down on him, Lucy; it’s his fault if I have so few pretty things for you.”

“I am very well contented, Raaf,” said Lucy, prettily. As a matter of fact the curiosities Ralph had brought home had been chiefly hideous ivory carvings of truly African type, which Lucy, shuddering, had put away in a drawer, thanking him effusively, but with averted eyes.

“There were two or three very pretty little Tanagra figurine among the notions,” said Bertram. “I am sorry Miss Wradisley had not her share of them—they’re buried in my collections in some warehouse or other, and probably will never see the light.”