― 412 ―


Reading The News.


Mr. Herbert proved a refractory patient, and the amiable doctor had to consent to many freaks previously unheard of in the treatment after a fall and with a broken bone. He excused his forced compliance on the ground ‘that opposition only did more harm where the will was strong. There was risk of injuring, certainly, but—&c.!’ So Mr. Herbert had his own way, and wrapped in a Turkish pattern dressing-robe, and looking quite ‘interesting and invalidish’ as Mrs. Scott said, he took possession of the couch, on the third evening after the accident. Isabel not hearing of his intention, and not dreaming of his leaving his own room, was taken completely by surprise on entering the drawing-room. She was immediately retreating, supposing that the room was given up to his use.

‘Come in!’ said Mrs. Scott. And trying to shake off her shyness, she came up to where that lady was standing, surrounded by her children, who stared at Mr. Herbert's dress and his slung arm.

‘Good evening!’ Isabel said, trying hard to be cool and indifferent. But he held out his sound hand, without speaking, and she was constrained to give him hers. Touched by the warmth of his grasp, she felt excited; then, not daring to trust herself to be silent, she rattled on, even rallying him, and declaring she heard his screams from the road, and that it was that which made her faint. ‘He only pretends, Fanny,’ she went on, not daring to pause, and catching hold of the astonished child. ‘He likes to be made much of, and fancies that Turkish robe is

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very imposing and becoming!’ A quiet and amused smile on Mrs. Scott's face at last made her suddenly stop short.

‘You are rather sharp on our invalid, Miss Lang,’ said Mr. Scott, coming in. ‘Yet you showed sympathy and compassion enough by swooning in that tragic way.’

‘Supposing it had nothing whatever to do with the accident, after all?’ she said. ‘It sounds so romantic and like a novel, it is a pity to contradict it, isn't it? But facts are stubborn, and this is the fact—that I managed to turn giddy and fall when I was upstairs, at least some ten minutes after the news was brought, having, moreover, been rather queer and ‘all-overish’ all the day.’

‘You are very anxious to prove you were not frightened, I observe,’ said Mr. Scott.

‘Not anxious at all,’ Isabel said; ‘but so it was.’

‘Well, Miss Lang is not usually one to lose her presence of mind by foolish fright and alarm, I will say,’ put in Mrs. Scott.

‘No, Fanny; no play here. There are too many in the room, my dear,’ said Mr. Scott to his wife.

‘Yes; the children must go,’ she said. Then in a whisper to Isabel, she added, ‘I will take them away, if you will be so very good as to stay here and . . .’

‘No,’ returned Isabel, very decidedly,—'no, indeed, I can't do that, Mrs. Scott. There is our history class to come off, and—and . . . .’

‘The doctor does not wish him to read to himself,’ Mrs. Scott still whispered. ‘He is wishing for the newspaper, and my throat is sore. In fact, Miss Lang, it would be a real favour,’ she pursued. ‘Will you? Is it very disagreeable? Mr. Scott will remain, if you wish it. But you read aloud so nicely—just the news.’

‘Hallo! what is all that whispering about?’ cried Mr. Scott.

And Isabel, afraid lest Mr. Herbert should overhear, or guess at her reluctance, hastily, and not over graciously, said, ‘I must, of course, if you want me to do it.’ And taking up the newspaper, she sat down like a victim, or a school-girl set on a hated task. She did not ask what she should read, but plunged into the leading article at once, hesitating, in her nervousness, and then suddenly conscious of her rapid, hurried style, not very easy to hear, she checked herself, and forced her words to come out in sober and proper sequence. Presently Mr. Scott became fidgety, and said he was sure that Herbert ought to have an air cushion for the broken arm, and he knew where to find one which was put away in his study. Isabel saw him go, but read on steadily, though without the smallest notion of the meaning of the words. This went on, till she

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found the paper was slipping out of her hands, and looking up, saw, with a start, that Mr. Herbert was stretching out his well arm, and at some risk to the lame one, as she was scarcely within his reach, he was trying to pull away the paper from before her face.

‘I beg your pardon,’ he said, falling back on his cushions again, and somewhat alarmed at the sudden change of colour in her face.

‘Shall I go on? or is there any particular part you want to hear?’ she said, stooping to pick it up, and willing to hide her countenance from his keen eyes if she could.

‘No, no—though it is very nice. Just what I have often so dreamt of.’

‘What! your lying there with a broken arm?’ she said. ‘Very unpleasant dreams.’

And she laughed a little, nervously, and again seemed to search the paper for a subject.

‘No; but having you to read to me,’ Mr. Herbert said.

‘It is not by any means the first time, I believe,’ she went on, in a careless tone. ‘Wasn't there Sinbad, and a long, dull poem by one Goldsmith, which . . .’

‘Yes; you read it seated on my knee. Fancy that! O, Isabel—’

And then he stopped. After a little pause he went on quietly, almost as if speaking to himself.

‘There is—there must be some fate in it. Here I am again, having made up my mind to leave——And then’—here his voice took a tone of peculiar tenderness—‘you did care—you may deny it, if you like, and I dare say you will; but you were sorry at the idea of my danger, Isabel.’

And he looked at her reproachfully.

‘I don't wish to deny it at all. Why, surely you would expect it! Wouldn't you feel the same for me—or for any one.’

He did not answer this. His eyes were bent on her. She felt their meaning to the quick, though she dared not meet them.

‘Is there no hope, then?’ he said, as if to himself. Then, louder, ‘Isabel, tell me just one thing. Is it that you can't forget or forgive—is it resentment? or is it . . . . Could it never, under any circumstances, have been possible for you to—to—like me—in the way—I like—love you? Was it even then impossible for the friend to be something even dearer and nearer? Had I only come back on that next day, would you have said ‘yes’? Answer me—would you?’

‘Said ‘yes’ to what?’ she answered, fighting it off to the last, though much moved by his earnestness.

‘To my question. If I had asked you to be my wife?’

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He could not see her face. It was hidden; and she did not speak. The pause of absolute silence seemed to be long. At last, with a sigh, he broke it.

‘You know me well, all my faults,’ he said. ‘You know that I love you. Can you ever, if not now, in time, return it? Do speak!—I shall never ask again. Perhaps . . . have you known me too long as a friend to look on me as a lover, a husband?—or—or—is it possible that your old regard is gone? Do you even dislike me?—Isabel!’

His words came the faster and more vehemently, that she still remained silent. Again he tried to put out his hand to touch her. But he winced visibly at the pain caused by the exertion of stretching out his arm, and shut his eyes for a moment, looking very white.

‘Pray don't do so,’ she murmured.

He seemed not to hear her. An expression of sadness and suffering seemed to stiffen each feature.

‘Not a word? At least say ‘No,’ and end suspense,’ he said, faintly. Then, controlling the impatience of his tone—'Isabel, I shall never tease you again; but I entreat you to speak now. Tell me—is it anger—or is it indifference? Ah! anger might yet leave a little hope.’ And he threw up his hand and pressed his head. ‘But, I see! I see! It is indifference—cool, disdainful indifference!—dislike, I believe. There! she is going, and without one word, after all my entreaty—my . . . .’

She had risen from her seat as he spoke. He covered his eyes with his hand.

‘Yes,—well—go!—go, if you like it. If you go now, I shall understand it—I shall know that . . .’

But he was stopped by feeling something close over him, and the hand which he was now impatiently drawing through his hair (a trick he had when much vexed) came suddenly in contact with something soft, while a kiss, light as dew, fell on his fingers.

Almost springing off his couch, he managed to seize and secure her hand, and drew it over his face.

‘Isabel! God bless you—God love you! You shall never, never repent this. My darling!’ he went on, ‘it is not in your nature to be disdainful or unkind. Yet—what may I think or hope? No—don't go, Isabel; you must come here now.’

And he drew her round to his side. She did not resist, but sank on her knees, burying her face behind his cushions. After a moment, he anxiously tried to raise her head, stroking her hair with his left hand fondly.

‘Don't cry—don't! Is it, then, only for me—because you fear to

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injure, to hurt me now? Isabel, unhappy?’


‘But you are—I see you are! How have I hurt or distressed you? Isabel, what is it?’

Seeing him really distressed, she forced the tears back and looked up.

‘It is nothing. You brought it all on yourself—all. But it is a great mistake.’

‘What is a mistake, Isabel?’

‘All—all this!’

‘These tears, but not . . . .’

‘I tell you it is all wrong,’ she said, with her old petulance. ‘You are acting under an impulse, as Mrs. Scott would say,’ and she laughed hysterically.

‘Mrs. Scott! Nonsense! Isabel, do you love me?’

‘If I do, I ought not to . . . .’

‘Don't—don't say that! Indeed, indeed, I will value and cherish it always.’

‘I shall tease you into bad health—to death, perhaps,—who knows? There, I thought I was changed; but seeing you has brought back all my old self.’

‘Has it? I am glad. Isabel, you are sure you like me?’

‘No, indeed!’

‘No! you love me, then,—do you?’

‘You ask too many questions. It is tiresome, Mr. Herbert.’

‘Well—only once, just once tell me so! Do you forgive me quite? If you wont speak, give me your hand—do, Isabel!’

She looked at him for a moment earnestly, and then with a quick movement she put her hand in his. He drew her close—very close. ‘Let me go, please,—they are coming!’ He let her go, and she went back to her chair.

‘That is so far away. Closer—come nearer!’

‘Because you are ill, I suppose I must humour you,’ she said, in a troubled voice, and drawing her chair a little nearer to him. ‘And pray do you consider this a discreet step of yours, Mr. Herbert?’ she asked soon, demurely enough, though it was evident she kept a strong check on herself, and was still deeply excited.

‘About what?’ he asked.

‘Why,’ she said, hesitating, ‘what will they say? I mean your sister and grand English friends. Will they like a governess—a girl without beauty or fortune for . . . .’

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‘For what? Explain yourself. This girl without ‘beauty or fortune,’ what about her, Isabel? Come, tell me, how is my discretion at fault? But come yet nearer,’ he said; ‘sit on this low seat; I want to see you. No, no; they wont come. Why, they have left us on purpose.’

‘On purpose! What do you mean?’

‘Only that they guess something, and are obliging,’ he said.

‘No! Guess—guess what, Mr. Herbert? Did you tell them, then?’

‘What had I to tell?’ he said, much amused at her alarm. ‘Certainly Scott took it into his head to be joking me this morning, and cross-questioning me too; and I owned, I believe,—that is, I said I had an interest—a regard; but never mind about them. Come here!’ And she did come. ‘That's right. Now I can see your face; a thinner face than it was!’ he added, gently stroking aside a little of her stray hair. ‘Did you blame me very much?’ he said, after a little silence. ‘Were you very angry, Issy, at my not coming to you directly after that last visit? You must have thought it strange, indeed!’

‘I fought your battles while I could;’ her voice was not very clear, and her eyes glistened with unshed tears.

‘Did you?’

‘Yes, and then—I tried to forget you.’

‘And succeeded?’

She glanced at him, and then struggled to say something saucy, but it ended in her hiding her face with her hands, while a few tears trickled down, and a short strong sob burst all restraint. It did not last long. ‘I did not sit down and fret,’ she said, as soon as she could command a steady voice. ‘I had much to do. I was very happy and content. Yes, and leading a better and a busier life than you ever knew me to do.’

He smiled. ‘This is so pleasant, as it ought to be. Don't you find it quite ‘natural,’ Issy?’

‘Yet, only a few days ago, and you treated me as the veriest stranger,’ she answered. ‘And that was all natural, I suppose?’

‘Don't talk of it! But although I did so, the very instant I found myself in your presence my heart throbbed to suffocation, and all my pre-conceived ideas seemed to vanish. I felt all the time that you were mine. I could scarcely refrain from drawing you to me, and claiming you as my own, in spite of all and everything.’

‘Whether I liked it or not?—you took that for granted, I suspect, very coolly.’

‘No; sometimes just the reverse. Don't alarm yourself—you have not been won unwooed. Be content; you have perplexed and troubled me quite enough, and I tortured myself often with the notion that you could

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never love me. At other moments I certainly seemed to rest on it as a fact pre-ordained. You were mine—mine—without reasoning or accounting for it, that was the feeling.’

Here Isabel jumped up from her low stool and was only just seated in proper dignity, demurely sheltered by the newspaper, when Mr. and Mrs. Scott came in.