Текст книги

Duchess
Airy Fairy Lilian

Airy Fairy Lilian
Duchess

Duchess

Airy Fairy Lilian

CHAPTER I

"Home, sweet Home."

– Old English Song.

Down the broad oak staircase – through the silent hall – into the drawing-room runs Lilian, singing as she goes.

The room is deserted; through the half-closed blinds the glad sunshine is rushing, turning to gold all on which its soft touch lingers, and rendering the large, dull, handsome apartment almost comfortable.

Outside everything is bright, and warm, and genial, as should be in the heart of summer; within there is only gloom, – and Lilian clad in her mourning robes. The contrast is dispiriting: there life, here death, or at least the knowledge of it. There joy, here the signs and trappings of woe.

The black gown and funereal trimmings hardly harmonize with the girl's flower-like face and the gay song that trembles on her lips. But, alas! for how short a time does our first keen sorrow last! how swiftly are our dead forgotten! how seldom does grief kill! When eight long months have flown by across her father's grave Lilian finds, sometimes to her dismay, that the hours she grieves for him form but a short part of her day.

Not that her sorrow for him, even at its freshest, was very deep; it was of the subdued and horrified rather than the passionate, despairing kind. And though in truth she mourned and wept for him until her pretty eyes could hold no longer tears, still there was a mildness about her grief more suggestive of tender melancholy than any very poignant anguish.

From her the dead father could scarcely be more separated than had been the living. Naturally of a rather sedentary disposition, Archibald Chesney, on the death of the wife whom he adored, had become that most uninteresting and selfish of all things, a confirmed bookworm. He went in for study, of the abstruse and heavy order, with an ardor worthy of a better cause. His library was virtually his home; he had neither affections nor desires beyond. Devoting himself exclusively to his books, he suffered them to take entire possession of what he chose to call his heart.

At times he absolutely forgot the existence of his little three-year-old daughter; and if ever the remembrance of her did cross his mind it was but to think of her as an incubus, – as another misfortune heaped upon his luckless shoulders, – and to wonder, with a sigh, what he was to do with her in the future.

The child, deprived of a tender mother at so early an age, was flung, therefore, upon the tender mercies of her nurses, who alternately petted and injudiciously reproved her, until at length she bade fair to be as utterly spoilt as a child can be.

She had one companion, a boy-cousin about a year older than herself. He too was lonely and orphaned, so that the two children, making common cause, clung closely to each other, and shared, both in infancy and in early youth, their joys and sorrows. The Park had been the boy's home ever since his parents' death, Mr. Chesney accepting him as his ward, but never afterward troubling himself about his welfare. Indeed, he had no objection whatever to fill the Park with relations, so long as they left him undisturbed to follow his own devices.

Not that the education of these children was neglected. They had all tuition that was necessary; and Lilian, having a talent for music, learned to sing and play the piano very charmingly. She could ride, too, and sit her horse a merveille, and had a passion for reading, – perhaps inherited. But, as novels were her principal literature, and as she had no one to regulate her choice of them, it is a matter of opinion whether she derived much benefit from them. At least she received little harm, as at seventeen she was as fresh-minded and pure-hearted a child as one might care to know.

The County, knowing her to be an heiress, – though not a large one, – called systematically on her every three months. Twice she had been taken to a ball by an enterprising mother with a large family of unpromising sons. But as she reached her eighteenth year her father died, and her old home, the Park, being strictly entailed on heirs male, passed from her into the hands of a distant cousin utterly unknown. This young man, another Archibald Chesney, was abroad at the time of his kinsman's death, – in Egypt, or Hong-Kong, or Jamaica, – no one exactly knew which – until after much search he was finally discovered to be in Halifax.

From thence he had written to the effect that, as he probably should not return to his native land for another six months, he hoped his cousin (if it pleased her) would continue to reside at the Park – where all the old servants were to be kept on – until his return.

It did please his cousin; and in her old home she still reigned as queen, until after eight months she received a letter from her father's lawyer warning her of Archibald Chesney's actual arrival in London.

This letter failed in its object. Lilian either would not or could not bring herself to name the day that should part her forever from all the old haunts and pleasant nooks she loved so well. She was not brave enough to take her "Bradshaw" and look up the earliest train that ought to convey her away from the Park. Indeed, so utterly wanting in decency and decorum did she appear at this particular epoch of her existence that the heart of her only aunt – her father's sister – was stirred to its depths. So much so that, after mature deliberation (for old people as well as great ones move slowly), she finally packed up the venerable hair-trunk that had seen the rise and fall of several monarchs, and marched all the way from Edinburgh to this Midland English shire, to try what firm expostulation could do in the matter of bringing her niece to see the error of her ways.

For a whole week it did very little.

Lilian was independent in more ways than one. She had considerable spirit and five hundred pounds a year in her own right. Not only did she object to leave the Park, but she regarded with horror the prospect of going to reside with the guardians appointed to receive her by her father. Not that this idea need have filled her with dismay. Sir Guy Chetwoode, the actual guardian, was a young man not likely to trouble himself overmuch about any ward; while his mother, Lady Chetwoode, was that most gracious of all things, a beautiful and lovable old lady.

Why Mr. Chesney had chosen so young a man to look after his daughter's interests must forever remain a mystery, – perhaps because he happened to be the eldest son of his oldest friend, long since dead. Sir Guy accepted the charge because he thought it uncivil to refuse, and chiefly because he believed it likely Miss Chesney would marry before her father's death. But events proved the fallacy of human thought. When Archibald Chesney's demise appeared in the Times Sir Guy made a little face and took meekly a good deal of "chaffing" at his brother's hands; while Lady Chetwoode sat down, and, with a faint sinking at her heart, wrote a kindly letter to the orphan, offering her a home at Chetwoode. To this letter Lilian had sent a polite reply, thanking "dear Lady Chetwoode" for her kindness, and telling her she had no intention of quitting the Park just at present. Later on she would be only too happy to accept, etc., etc.

Now, however, standing in her own drawing-room, Lilian feels, with a pang, the game is almost played out; she must leave. Aunt Priscilla's arguments, detestable though they be, are unhappily quite unanswerable. To her own heart she confesses this much, and the little gay French song dies on her lips, and the smile fades from her eyes, and a very dejected and forlorn expression comes and grows upon her pretty face.

It is more than pretty, it is lovely, – the fair, sweet childish face, framed in by its yellow hair; her great velvety eyes, now misty through vain longing, are blue as the skies above her; her nose is pure Greek; her forehead, low, but broad, is partly shrouded by little wandering threads of gold that every now and then break loose from bondage, while her lashes, long and dark, curl upward from her eyes, as though hating to conceal the beauty of the exquisite azure within.

She is not tall, and she is very slender but not lean. She is willful, quick-tempered, and impetuous, but large-hearted and lovable. There is a certain haughtiness about her that contrasts curiously but pleasantly with her youthful expression and laughing kissable mouth. She is straight and lissome as a young ash-tree; her hands and feet are small and well shaped; in a word, she is chic from the crown of her fair head down to her little arched instep.

Just now, perhaps, as she hears the honest sound of her aunt's footstep in the hall, a slight pout takes possession of her lips and a flickering frown adorns her brow. Aunt Priscilla is coming, and Aunt Priscilla brings victory in her train, and it is not every one can accept defeat with grace.

She hastily pulls up one of the blinds; and as old Miss Chesney opens the door and advances up the room, young Miss Chesney rather turns her shoulder to her and stares moodily out of the window. But Aunt Priscilla is not to be daunted.

"Well, Lilian," she says, in a hopeful tone, and with an amount of faith admirable under the circumstances, "I trust you have been thinking it over favorably, and that – "

"Thinking what over?" asks Lilian; which interruption is a mean subterfuge.

" – And that the night has induced you to see your situation in its proper light."

"You speak as though I were the under house-maid," says Lilian with a faint sense of humor. "And yet the word suits me. Surely there never yet was a situation as mine. I wish my horrid cousin had been drowned in – . No, Aunt Priscilla, the night has not reformed me. On the contrary, it has demoralized me, through a dream. I dreamt I went to Chetwoode, and, lo! the very first night I slept beneath its roof the ceiling in my room gave way, and, falling, crushed me to fine powder. After such a ghastly warning do you still advise me to pack up and be off? If you do," says Lilian, solemnly, "my blood be on your head."

"Dreams go by contraries," quotes Miss Priscilla, sententiously. "I don't believe in them. Besides, from all I have heard of the Chetwoodes they are far too well regulated a family to have anything amiss with their ceilings."

"Oh, how you do add fuel to the fire that is consuming me!" exclaims Lilian, with a groan. "A well-regulated family! – what can be more awful? Ever since I have been old enough to reason I have looked with righteous horror upon a well-regulated family. Aunt Priscilla, if you don't change your tune I vow and protest I shall decide upon remaining here until my cousin takes me by the shoulders and places me upon the gravel outside."

"I thought, Lilian," says her aunt, severely, "you promised me yesterday to think seriously of what I have now been saying to you for a whole week without cessation."

"Well, so I am thinking," with a sigh. "It is the amount of thinking I have been doing for a whole week without cessation that is gradually turning my hair gray."

"It would be all very well," says Miss Priscilla, impatiently, "if I could remain with you; but I cannot. I must return to my duties." These duties consisted of persecuting poor little children every Sunday by compelling them to attend her Scriptural class (so she called it) and answer such questions from the Old Testament as would have driven any experienced divinity student out of his mind; and on week-days of causing much sorrow (and more bad language) to be disseminated among the women of the district by reason of her lectures on their dirt. "And your cousin is in London, and naturally will wish to take possession in person."

"How I wish poor papa had left the Park to me!" says Lilian, discontentedly, and somewhat irrelevantly.

"My dear child, I have explained to you at least a dozen times that such a gift was not in his power. It goes – that is, the Park, – to a male heir, and – "

"Yes, I know," petulantly. "Well, then I wish it had been in his power to leave it to me."

"And how about writing to Lady Chetwoode?" says Aunt Priscilla, giving up the argument in despair. (She is a wise woman.) "The sooner you do so the better."

"I hate strangers," says Lilian, mournfully. "They make me unhappy. Why can't I remain where I am? George or Archibald, or whatever his name is, might just as well let me have a room here. I'm sure the place is large enough. He need not grudge me one or two apartments. The left wing, for instance."

"Lilian," says Miss Chesney, rising from her chair, "how old are you? Is it possible that at eighteen you have yet to learn the meaning of the word 'propriety'? You – a young girl– to remain here alone with a young man!"

"He need never see me," says Lilian, quite unmoved by this burst of eloquence. "I should take very good care of that, as I know I shall detest him."

"I decline to listen to you," says Miss Priscilla, raising her hands to her ears. "You must be lost to all sense of decorum even to imagine such a thing. You and he in one house, how should you avoid meeting?"

"Well, even if we did meet," says Lilian, with a small rippling laugh impossible to quell, "I dare say he wouldn't bite me."

"No," – sternly, – "he would probably do worse. He would make love to you. Some instinct warns me," says Miss Priscilla, with the liveliest horror, gazing upon the exquisite, glowing face before her, "that within five days he would be making violent love to you."

"You strengthen my desire to stay," says Lilian, somewhat frivolously, "I should so like to say 'No' to him!"

"Lilian, you make me shudder," says Miss Priscilla, earnestly. "When I was your age, even younger, I had a full sense of the horror of allowing any man to mention my name lightly. I kept all men at arm's length, I suffered no jesting or foolish talking from them. And mark the result," says Miss Chesney, with pride: "I defy any one to say a word of me but what is admirable and replete with modesty."

"Did any one ever propose to you, auntie?" asks Miss Lilian with a naughty laugh.