Chapter III

THE next week we spent playing tennis at each other's houses, and drinking tea, and having little women's picnics—all the men but Clive being about their various businesses.

We amused ourselves quite well, however. Miss Ariell was a constant contradiction.

By this time I knew all that was to be known of her life, down to the minutest particular. I had heard the tragedy from the first scene to the last. It was a small domestic one, founded on a wicked captain, and built up of a wonderful assortment of shattered hopes and blighted hearts and rapid consumption,—the pretty variety with pink spots and preternatural brilliancy of eye, which the young woman and Clive stood by with heroic tenderness until the end.

It was quite a pleasure to think of the round, soft creature, with those dimples, and a becoming shade of sadness in those baby eyes, floating round in a

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white apron,—she made quite a telling point of this in her narration,—and with a porcelain basin of broth in her hand to nourish the dying sister, who by the way appeared to have had a huge capacity for the liquid,—one was forced to wonder if so much can have been very good for her;—but then, as we all know, consumptive patients do have morbid appetites.

We learnt to know Captain Panton quite intimately in those days. The mention of this gentleman, however, seemed rather to upset Clive.

Two or three times, about this time, I noticed the two Carews coming back with flushed cheeks from conversation with Miss Ariell, and somehow it struck me as strange; why, I couldn't have said, for they were given to getting red—those two.

Miss Ariell certainly made good times for herself, and got a deal more than her fair share of attention, especially from the old colonel; indeed, she converted that fine old man into a species of domestic slave, and I saw it with an inward snort. She would send him on odd errands in an artless, deprecating way—for her slippers, or her handkerchief, or any of the dainty trifles she never moved without; and she always made him put on her spurs, or alter them whether they needed alteration or not, when she rode.

One day I went into the dining-room softly and suddenly, meaning no espionage, but my shoes were light, and I always do move noiselessly,—thanks to my heredity, I couldn't clatter if I tried,—and I found Miss

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Ariell with her little arched foot poised on a stool, and Colonel Carew lacing her varnished boot.

Now this may have been infantine on the young person's part, but on the old man's it was undignified. The woman in me rose in protest against the situation.

I sat down placidly by the table and looked out of the window.

Nothing is so effective as quiet, silent, unobtrusive virtue, with plenty of staying power in it. I had not sat for more than three minutes, gazing out absently at the fading cherry blooms, before the guilty wicked red of the aged sinner had risen to the colonel's brow, and the twinkles had died in his kindly eyes. He doggedly finished up the lacing to the top, not skipping a hole, and winding the lace twice round the little ankle, and he chatted gaily all the time; and if he hadn't, I should have despised him to my dying day.

But when his task was done he slipped out like a shot, and went over to the garden to his wife, who was superintending the potting out of some rare plants, and he pottered about after her all the rest of that day.

As for Miss Ariell, she nodded her pretty laughing head at me with the merriest air of insouciance, and hated me a good deal more than before.

That very evening, after I went to my room, I heard a rustling in the passage, then a whispering, followed by a quick, soft knock on my door. I opened it, and

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found the two girls waiting in pretty soft white silk wrappers, and with their fair hair loose on their shoulders, the wonderful gold tips of it gleaming and sparkling in the soft light as if jewels had got entangled in the gold.

The girls snuggled down into two low basket-chairs, with big leaf-green cushions, the loveliest background to those golden veils of theirs, and seemed inclined to sleep.

The night was chilly, and a small bright fire burned on my big hearth, and we all drew ourselves close to it.

I put away my book, and watched the girls and the fire alternately.

There was something very attractive in their quaint wise old ways in conjunction with those fair young faces, and their sudden flashes of dignity, and the queenly airs they could assume on occasions, contrasting with their innocent girlish vanity and perennial pleasure in dress. Then the amazing untidiness of their ways and their reckless boyish habit of slang. Every turn and twist of them, however, was natural and unpremeditated.

I wondered when the silence would be broken by something definite.

We just mentioned the beauty of the night in a vague way, and with a passing remark on the croaking of the frogs and the chirping of the crickets; but as these sounds were always with them as soon as night fell, they were scarcely of sufficient import

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to bring those girls into my room at that time of night.

‘Mrs. Vallings,’ said Nancy at last, in her soft banana-fed voice, with the soupçon of twang, ‘what do you think of Miss Ariell?’

‘Yes, that's just what we want to know!’ put in Mab, sitting up among her cushions, and twirling the golden tip of a great length of hair.

‘I think she's a very charming person, and one I never dreamed of meeting in this part of the world.’

‘I wish she had kept out of it—at least out of our corner of it,’ said Nancy.

‘So do I,’ echoed the other.

I took a rapid glance at them.


‘Why?—why?—I don't know exactly. Because she's not like other girls, that's why, partly. It isn't that she's more original,’ said Nancy, in a quick way. ‘She's not; but she's different.’

I looked at the girls. Nancy was sitting bent forward, watching the flames. Mab had straightened herself, and her sunny head, turned to red-gold in the fire-shine, was thrown back, and on both their faces there was a look of haughty, hurt maidenhood.

‘It's the stories,’ they both broke out together,—‘they somehow make us feel uncomfortable.’

I am not in the very least a mawkish woman, but I went over then and there and kissed those girls, one after the other, on their white, pure foreheads.

‘The wretch!’ I said, in a voice of smothered rage.

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‘Did you tell your mother, Nancy?’

‘I told her one, the other day, and she said she could see no harm in it. She said she would ask father; and that she considered Miss Ariell a sincerely religious girl, and incapable of any evil thought. She feared Ouida had been corrupting my mind. I read Two Little Wooden Shoes while I was staying at Aunt Grace's, and mother was vexed. I didn't know, or I shouldn't.’

‘Miss Ariell has got our mother and father too,’ said Mab. ‘Haven't you noticed her little worshipful ways, and how she gazes up in my mother's face as if she was a Madonna or something, and runs to get her things. And she hides things in her eyes from mother that she shows us, I can tell you,’ said the girl, nodding wisely; ‘and then she discourses by the hour of us—the most idiotic things you ever imagined, she says. Oh, I heard her one day. Any one would have sworn we were a brace of angels. Mother swallowed every word of it, though, and Miss Ariell cried the whole time—she can cry like anything when she likes.’

‘And religion,’ cried Nancy,—‘she's wonderful on that; and mother is so true and straight herself, she believes every mortal thing. We don't, I can tell you. Oh, we know too much. As for my father, he's bewitched; and the worst is, we don't quite know how she manages him. She does, though, like anything. He fetches and carries for her as if he was a boy; and yet one can't see how she gets

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him to do it. Catch him flying round like that for us! I believe it's a little in the way she drops her eyes and softens her voice whenever he's in her neighbourhood. He told mother that she's a charming creature, and a “most desirable person for us to form our manners on.” ’

‘Ugh!’ threw in Mab.

‘The other day, when we abused her a little, mother said quite severely, “Your father, my dears, knows the world, and he approves her.” Now—he may. But do you know, Mrs. Vallings, that Mab and I think the world father knows was dead and buried long ago, and that quite a new world has grown up since, and that he'd flounder about rather if he happened to plunge into it now. I don't think father is the man to fathom Miss Ariell,’ she concluded solemnly.

‘There's another thing I don't like about her,’ began Mab breathlessly, before I had time to put in a word, ‘she can talk religion to mother like a book, but she can be terribly blasphemous to us directly mother's out of sight. Now, I don't like religion thrust down one's throat, and I'm not fond of too much church, neither is Nancy—it doesn't seem to agree with us in quantities; but I do think a little light religion helps a girl,’ she explained quaintly, crossing her bare feet. ‘It makes good seem better and evil uglier, and helps her to keep her feet down on the earth, and walk along it squarely and fairly the path she has to go, instead of kicking over the

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traces and landing you in a hole,’ she concluded, with conviction.

‘No, we don't like blasphemy,’ chimed in Nancy. ‘It's bad form in a man, and—well—its downright disgusting in a woman.’

‘I don't think,’ I said, after a pause, ‘that Miss Ariell will tell you any more of these stories, or again blaspheme in your presence. I'll go and have a talk with her’—I spoke cheerily and lightly; feeling the evil would slip off from these clean souls, and leave no trace, it seemed better to make no comment.

Both the girls suddenly blushed from their chins to where the soft gold line touched the white of their brows.

‘We thought that too,—we tried to stop her,—but she is so persistent. We talk slang, you know—frightfully,’ stammered Nancy, ‘and — and we do queer things at times, and—and she said she was certain we weren't half as simple as we posed for, and that we knew—oh, lots of things.’

‘Yes, that's what she said,’ murmured Mab.

A sudden conviction came to me. ‘I believe she thought it too, the fool!’ I muttered half-aloud. It is possible to misinterpret some Australian girls—it has been done by wiser than Miss Ariell, and will be again, till the land and the people in it mellow; but these girls—a heart must be very foul or very false before it would do them this wrong.

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‘Look,’ I said, ‘both of you, don't worry about Miss Ariell. She is probably neither worse nor better than many other women. She is only very silly, and lets herself think foolishness and speak it. She hears things, and knows things, and instead of sifting out the evil and sticking to the good, which is sure to be there too, mind you—riddling the contents of her mind, as it were, from time to time. (See what wonderfully good fires we get from riddled ashes. An allusion an Australian girl can understand with good housewifery in her blood. That's where you have the pull over English girls, my dears.) Now, Miss Ariell stores up all this rubbish, and her fires get clogged with the dust and the dirt of it till they can no longer send up a pure, clear flame to heaven, and the smoke of them smirches herself and others; but it makes her own throat smart worst of all, for she can't get away from it. Children, you don't know how easily that happens to women, or the infinite pity of it.’

Nancy caught my hand and held it against her smooth, shell-pink cheek. ‘I believe you know a million times more things than she does, Mrs. Vallings. Your eyes look so deep and so full of things, often, and your mouth—it looks strong, as if you had learnt a great deal, and—as if it hurt you—hurt you—frightfully.’

‘Yes, you do look like that sometimes, Nancy and I think,’ said Mab, in a soft, breathless sort of fright.

‘My little girls, whenever it is the lot of a woman

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to “know things,” as you say, it—well—it hurts—it does hurt frightfully.’

Nancy's eyes filled with tears; but I didn't concern myself with them, I was thinking of myself. I seemed to stand at the bar there, before these two fresh young creatures, to whom the taste of the tree of life was still a sweet mystery. I felt ashamed before these girls. I—I forsooth—proud of my experience for all it hurt—proud of it—oh, the petty pride—and of the cut of my gowns. I, who knew, and had seen. I—careless in my speech, too—picking up as I went little silly flippant phrases and terms of expression—nothing of harm in them, but light—unfitting.

If you want to punish a woman of the world,—not an evil or a befouled one, but just a woman bent on the vanities and trifles and follies of a worldly life,—put her, just for a little half-hour in the evening, when the heart is soft and the trappings stripped from her soul, under the straight gaze of two sweet, pure, proud young maidens, and you may be quite sure your punishment will follow.

Whether they understand the woman or whether they don't, that doesn't matter a rap: she understands herself for the minute, that's quite sufficient.

‘You must go to bed, children,’ I said. I fancy I spoke a little faintly, from the girls’ faces.

‘Sit down,’ said Nancy, ‘you're so white.’

‘We've tired you,’ cried Mab; ‘and, do you know, I can't feel a bit sorry. I came in—Nancy did too—feeling—ugh!—dirty.

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Now I feel quite white-minded again.’

‘Your knowing things is such a comfortable sort of help,’ added Nancy. ‘Good-night—O dear, I am sleepy! Mab, come on!’

Little fools! I wonder if they will ever know the intensity of ‘comfortable help.’ their last words brought me; how they helped me to gather up the shreds of my self-respect and to huddle my nakedness up in them. They may some day, and be grateful they spoke them, when they are as old as I am, and ‘know’ and have ‘been hurt’—frightfully.