The slave of the lamp, p.8
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       The Slave of the Lamp, p.8

           Henry Seton Merriman



  They came forward, and suddenly the girl raised her face. She made alittle hesitating movement of non-recognition, and then suddenly herface was transformed by a very pleasant smile. There was somethingpeculiar in Hilda Carew's smile, which came from the fact that hereyelashes were golden, while her eyes were dark blue. The effectsuggested a fascinating kitten. In repose her face was almost severe inits refined beauty, and the set of her lips indicated a certainself-reliance which with years might become more prominent if troubleshould arrive.

  "Christian!" she exclaimed, "I am sorry I did not know you." They shookhands, and Molly hastened to introduce her sister's companion.

  "Mr. Farrar," she said; "Mr. Vellacott."

  The two men shook hands, and Christian was disappointed. The grip ofFarrar's fingers was limp and almost nerveless, in strikingcontradiction to the promise of his honest face and well-set person.

  "Tea is ready," said Molly somewhat hastily; "let us go in."

  Hilda and her companion passed on in front while Molly and Christianfollowed them. The latter purposely lagged behind, and his companionfound herself compelled to wait for him.

  "Look at the effect of the sunlight through the trees upon that water,"said he in a conversational way; "it is quite green, and almosttransparent."

  "Yes," replied Molly, moving away tentatively, "we see most peculiareffects over the moat. The water is so very still and deep."

  He raised his quiet eyes to her face, upon which the ready smile stilllingered. As she met his gaze she raised her hand and pushed back a fewtruant wisps of hair which, curling forward like tendrils, tickled hercheek. It was a movement he soon learned to know.

  "Yes," he said absently. He was wondering in an analytical way whetherthe action was habitual with her, or significant of embarrassment. Atlength he turned to follow her, but Molly had failed in her object; theothers had passed out of earshot.

  "Tell me," said Christian in a lowered voice, "who is he?"

  "He is the squire of St. Mary Eastern, six miles from here," shereplied; "very well off; very good to his mother, and in every waynice."

  Christian tore off a small branch which would have touched his foreheadhad he walked on without stooping. He broke it into small pieces, andcontinued throwing up at intervals into the air a tiny stick, hitting itwith his hand as they walked on.

  "And," he said suggestively, "and--"

  "Yes, Christian," she replied decisively, "they are engaged. Come, letus hurry; I always pour out the tea. I told you before, if you remember,that I was the only person in the house who did any work."

  When Christian opened his eyes the following morning, the soft hum ofinsects fell on his ear instead of the roar of London traffic. Throughthe open window the southern air blew upon his face. Above the sound ofbusy wings the distant sea sang its low dirge. It was a livingperspective of sound. The least rustle near at hand overpowered it, andyet it was always there--an unceasing throb to be felt as much as heard.Some acoustic formation of the land carried the noise, for the sea waseight miles away. It was very peaceful; for utter stillness is notpeace. A room wherein an old clock ticks is infinitely more soothingthan a noiseless chamber.

  Nevertheless the feeling that forced itself into Christian Vellacott'swaking thoughts was not peaceful. It was a sense of discomfort.Town-people expect too much from the country--that is the truth of it.They quite overlook the fact that where human beings are there can be nopeace.

  This sudden sense of restlessness annoyed him. He knew it so well. Ithad hovered over his waking head almost daily during the last two years,and here, in the depths of the country, he had expected to be withoutit. Moreover, he was conscious that he had not brought the cause withhim. He had found it, waiting.

  There were many things--indeed there was almost everything--to make hislife happy and pleasant at St. Mary Western. But in his mind, as he wokeup on this first morning, none of these things found place. He came tohis senses thinking of the one little item which could be described asuntoward--thinking of Hilda, and Hilda engaged to be married to FredFarrar. It was not that he was in love with Hilda Carew himself. He hadscarcely remembered her existence during the last two years. But thisengagement jarred, and Farrar jarred. It was something more than thevery natural shock which comes with the news that a companion of ouryouth is about to be married--shock which seems to shake the memory ofthat youth; to confuse the background of our life. It is by means ofsuch shocks as these that Fate endeavours vainly to make us realise thatthe past is irrevocable--that we are passing on, and that that which hasbeen can never be again. And at the same time we learn something else:namely, that the past is not by any means unchangeable. So potential isTo-day that it not only holds To-morrow in the hollow of its hand, butit can alter Yesterday.

  Christian Vellacott lay upon his bed in unwonted idleness, gazingvaguely at the flying clouds. The window was open, and the song of thedistant sea rose and fell with a rhythm full of peace. But in this man'smind there was no peace. In all probability there never would becomplete peace there, because Ambition had set its hold upon him. Hewanted to do more than there was time for. Like many of us, he began bythinking that Life is longer than it is. Its whole length is in those"long, long thoughts" of Youth. When those are left behind, we settledown to work, and the rest of the story is nothing but labour. Vellacottresented this engagement because he felt that Hilda Carew had steppedout of that picture which formed what was probably destined to be thehappiest time of his life--his Youth. For the unhappiness of Youth ispreferable to the resignation of Age. He felt that she had willinglyresigned something which he would on no account have given up. Aboveall, he felt that it was a mistake. This was, of course, at the bottomof it. He probably felt that it was a pity. We usually feel so onhearing that a pretty and charming girl is engaged to be married. Wethink that she might have done so much better for herself, and we growpensive or possibly sentimental over her lost opportunity whencontemplating him in the mirror as he shaves. Like all so-called happyevents, an engagement is not usually a matter of universal rejoicing.Some one is, in all probability, left to think twice about it. ButChristian Vellacott was not prepared to admit that he was in thatposition.

  He was naturally of an observant habit--his father had beenone of the keenest-sighted men of his day--and he had graduated at thesubtlest school in the world. He unwittingly fell to studying hisfellow-men whenever the opportunity presented itself, and the result ofthis habit was a certain classification of detail. He picked up littlescraps of evidence here and there, and these were methodicallypigeon-holed away, as a lawyer stores up the correspondence of hisclients.

  With regard to Frederick Farrar, Vellacott had only made one note. Thesquire of St. Mary Eastern was apparently very similar to his fellows.He was an ordinary young British squire with a knowledge of horses and ahighly-developed fancy for smart riding-breeches and long boots. He hadprobably received a fair education, but this had ceased when he closedhis last school-book. The seeds of knowledge had been sown, but theylacked moisture and had failed to grow. He was good-natured, plucky in ahard-headed British way, and gentlemanly. In all this there was nothingexceptional--nothing to take note of--and Vellacott only remembered thelimpness of Frederick Farrar's grasp. He thought of this toopersistently and magnified it. And this being the only mental note made,was rather hard on the young squire of St. Mary Eastern.

  Vellacott thought of these things while he dressed, he thought of themintermittently during the unsettled, noisy, country breakfast, and whenhe found himself walking beside the moat with Hilda later on he wasstill thinking of them.

  They had not yet gathered into their hands the threads which had beenbroken years before. At times they hit upon a topic of some slightcommon interest, but something hovered in the air between them. Hildawas gay, as she had always been, in a gentle, almost purring way; but acertain constrained silence made itself felt at times, and they wereboth intensely conscious of i

  Vellacott was fully aware that there was something to be got over, andso instead of skipping round it, as a woman might have done, he wentblundering on to the top of it.

  "Hilda," he said suddenly, "I have never congratulated you."

  She bent her head in a grave little bow which was not quite English; butshe said nothing.

  "I can only wish you all happiness," he continued rather vaguely.

  Again she made that mystic little motion of the head, but did not looktowards him, and never offered the assistance of smile or word.

  "A long life, a happy one, and your own will," he added more lightly,looking down into the green water of the moat.

  "Thank you," she said, standing quite still beside him.

  And then there followed an awkward pause. It was Vellacott who finallybroke the silence in the only way left to him.

  "I like Farrar," he said. "I am sure he will make you happy. He--is alucky fellow."

  At the end of the walk that ran the whole length of that part of themoat which had been allowed to remain intact, she made a little movementas if to turn aside beneath the hazel trees and towards the house. Buthe would not let her go. He turned deliberately upon his heel and waitedfor her. There was nothing else to do but acquiesce. They retraced theirsteps with that slow reflectiveness which comes when one walks backwardsand forwards over the same ground.

  There is something eminently conversational in the practice of walkingto and fro. For that purpose it is better than an arm-chair and a pipe,or a piece of knitting.

  Occasionally Vellacott dropped a pace behind, apparently with a purpose;for when he did so he raised his eyes instantly. He seemed to be slowlydetailing the maiden, and he frowned a little. She was exactly what shehad promised to be. The singularly golden hair which he had last seenflowing freely over her slight young shoulders had acquired adecorousness of curve, although the hue was unchanged. The shoulderswere exactly the same in contour, on a slightly larger scale; and themanner of carrying her head--a manner peculiarly her own, and suggestiveof a certain gentle wilfulness--was unaltered.

  And yet there was a change: that subtle change which seems to come togirls suddenly, in the space of a week--of one night. And this man waswatching her with his analytical eyes, wondering what the change mightbe.

  He was more or less a bookworm, and he possibly thought that thissubject--this pleasant young subject walking beside him in a blue cottondress--was one which might easily be grasped and understood if only onegave one's mind to it. Hence the little frown. It denoted the gift ofhis mind. It was the frown that settled over his eyes when he cut thepages of a deep book and glanced at the point of his pencil.

  He had read many books, and he knew a number of things. But there is onesubject of which very little can be learnt in books--precisely thesubject that walked in a blue cotton dress by Christian Vellacott's sideat the edge of the moat. If any one thinks that book-learning can aidthis study, let him read the ignorance of Gibbon, comparing it with thelearning of that cheery old ignoramus Montaigne. And Vellacott wasnearer to Gibbon in his learning than to Montaigne in his carelessignorance of those things that are written in books.

  He glanced at her; he frowned and brought his whole attention to bearupon her, and he could not even find out whether she was pleased tolisten to his congratulations, or angry, or merely indifferent. It wasrather a humiliating position for a clever man--for a critic who knewhimself to be capable of understanding most things, of catching thedrift of most thoughts, however imperfectly expressed. He was vaguelyconscious of defeat. He felt that he was nonplussed by a pair of softround eyes like the eyes of a kitten, and the dignified repose of a pairof demure red lips. Both eyes and lips, as well as shoulders and goldenhair, were strangely familiar and strangely strange by turns.

  With one finger he twisted the left side of his moustache into hismouth, and, dragging at it with his teeth, distorted his face in anunbecoming if reflective manner, which was habitually indicative of thedeepest attention.

  While reflecting, he forgot to be conversational, and Hilda seemed to becontent with silence. So they walked the length of the moat twicewithout speaking, and might have accomplished it a third time, hadlittle Stanley Carew not appeared upon the scene with the impulsiveenergy of his thirteen years, begging Christian to bowl him some reallyswift overhands.

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