WINNING boat-races was all very fine; but a hundred such victories could not compensate Mr. Kennet's female hearers for one such defeat as he had announced — a defeat that, to their minds, carried disgrace. Their Edward plucked! At first they were benumbed, and sat chilled, with red cheeks, bewildered between present triumph and mortification at hand. Then the colour ebbed out of their faces, and they encouraged each other feebly in whispers, "Might it not be a mistake?"
But unconscious Kennet robbed them of this timid hope. He was now in his element, knew all about it, rushed into details, and sawed away all doubt from their minds. The sum was this. Dodd's general performance was mediocre, but passable; he was plucked for his Logic. Hardie said he was very sorry for it. "What does it matter?" answered Kennet; "he is a boating-man.
"Well, and I am a boating-man. Why, you told me yourself, the other day, poor Dodd was anxious about it on account of his friends. And, by-the-bye, that reminds me they say he has got two pretty sisters here."
Says Kennet briskly, "I'll go and tell him; I know him just to speak to."
"What! doesn't he know?"
"How can he know ?" said Kennet jealously; "the testamumrs were only just out as I came away." And within this line started on his congenial errand.
Hardie took two or three of his long strides, and fairly collared him. "You will do nothing of the kind."
"What, not tell a man when he's ploughed? That is a good joke."
"No. There's time enough. Tell him after chapel to-morrow, or in chapel if you must; but why poison his triumphal cup? And his sisters, too, why spoil their pleasure? Hang it all, not a word about 'ploughing' to any living soul to-day.
To his surprise, Kennet's face expressed no sympathy, nor even bare assent. At this Hardie lost patience, and burst out impetuously, "Take care how you refuse me; take care how you thwart me in this. He is the best-natured fellow in college. It doesn't matter to you, and it does to him; and if you do, then take my name off the list of your acquaintance, for I'll never speak a word to you again in this world; no, not on my death-bed, by Heaven!"
The threat was extravagant; but Youth's glowing cheek and eye, and imperious lip, and simple generosity, made it almost beautiful.
Kennet whined, "Oh, if you talk like that, there is an end to fair argument."
"End it then, and promise me; upon your honour!"
"Why not? What bosh! There, I promise. Now, how do you construe [Greek text]?"
The incongruous dog ("I thank thee, Taff, for teaching me that word") put this query with the severity of an inquisitor bringing back a garrulous prisoner to the point. Hardie replied gaily, "Any way you like, now you are a good fellow again."
"Come, that is evasive. My tutor says it cannot be rendered by any one English word; no more can [Greek text]."
"Why, what on earth can he know about English? [Greek text] is a Cormorant: [Greek text] is a Skinflint; and your tutor is a Duffer. Hush! keep dark now! here he comes." And he went hastily to meet Edward Dodd: and by that means intercepted him on his way to the carriage. "Give me your hand, Dodd," he cried; "you have saved the university. You must be stroke of the eight-oar after me. Let me see more of you than I have, old fellow."
"Within all my heart," replied Edward calmly, but taking the offered hand cordially; though he rather wanted to get away to his mother and sister. "We will pull together, and read together into the bargain," continued Hardie.
"Read together? You and I? What do you mean?"
"Well, you see I am pretty well up in the Imigliner books; what I have got to rub up is my Divinity and my Logic — especially my Logic. Will you grind Logic with me? Say 'Yes,' for I know you will keep your word."
"It is too good an offer to refuse, Hardie; but now I look at you, you are excited: wonderfully excited: within the race, eh? Now, just — you — wait — quietly — till next week, and then, if you are so soft as to ask me in cool blood — — "
"Wait a week?" cried the impetuous youth. "No, not a minute. It is settled. There, we cram Logic together next term."
And he shook Edward's hand again with glistening eyes and an emotion that was quite unintelligible to Edward; but not to the quick, sensitive spirits, who sat but fifteen yards off.
"You really must excuse me just now," said Edward, and ran to the carriage, and put out both hands to the fair occupants. They kissed him eagerly, with little tender sighs; and it cost them no slight effort not to cry publicly over "the beloved," "the victorious," "the ploughed."
Young Hardie stood petrified. What? These ladies Dodd's sisters. Why, one of them had called the other mamma. Good heavens! all his talk in their hearing had been of Dodd; and Kennet and he between them had let out the very thing he wanted to conceal, especially from Dodd's relations. He gazed at them, and turned hot to the very forehead. Then, not knowing what to do or say, and being after all but a clever boy, not a cool, "never unready" man of the world, he slipped away, blushing. Kennet followed, goggling.
Left to herself, Mrs. Dodd would have broken the bad news to Edward at once, and taken the line of consoling him under her own vexation: it would not have been the first time that she had played that card. But young Mr. Hardie had said it would be unkind to poison Edward's day: and it is sweet woman's nature to follow suit; so she and Julia put bright faces on, and Edward passed a right jocund afternoon with them. He was not allowed to surprise one of the looks they interchanged to relieve their secret mortification. But, after dinner, as the time drew near for him to go back to Oxford, Mrs. Dodd became silent, and a little distraite; and at last drew her chair away to a small table, and wrote a letter.
In directing it she turned it purposely, so that Julia could catch the address: "Edward Dodd, Esq., Exeter College, Oxford."
Julia was naturally startled at first, and her eye roved almost comically to and fro the letter and its Destination, seated calm and unconscious of woman's beneficent wiles. But her heart soon divined the mystery: it was to reach him the first thing in the morning, and spare him the pain of writing the news to them; and, doubtless, so worded as not to leave him a day in doubt of their forgiveness and sympathy.
Julia took the missive unobserved by the Destination, and glided out of the room to get it quietly posted.
The servant-girl was waiting on the second-floor lodgers, and told her so, with a significant addition, viz., that the post was in this street, and only a few doors off. Julia was a little surprised at her coolness, but took the hint with perfect good temper, and just put on her shawl and bonnet, and went with it herself. The post-office was not quite so near as represented; but she was soon there, for she was eager till she had posted it. But she came back slowly and thoughtfully; here in the street, lighted only by the moon, and an occasional gaslight, there was no need for self-restraint, and soon her mortification betrayed itself in her speaking countenance. And to think that her mother, on whom she doted, should have to write to her son, there present, and post the letter! This made her eyes fill, and before she reached the door of the lodging, they were brimming over.
As shine put her foot on the step, a timid voice addressed her in a low tone of supplication. "May I venture to speak one word to you, Miss Dodd? — one single word?"
She looked up surprised; and it was young Mr. Hardie.
His tall figure was bending towards her submissively, and his face, as well as his utterance, betrayed considerable agitation.
And what led to so unusual a rencontre between a young gentleman and lady who had never been introduced?
"The Tender Passion," says a reader of many novels.
Why, yes; the tenderest in all our nature:
Naturally proud and sensitive, and inflated by success and flattery, Alfred Hardie had been torturing himself ever since he fled Edward's female relations. He was mortified to the core. He confounded "the fools" (his favourite synonym for his acquaintance) for going and calling Dodd's mother an elder sister, and so not giving him a chance to divine her. And then that he, who prided himself on his discrimination, should take them for ladies of rank, or, at all events, of the highest fashion and, climax of humiliation, that so great a man as he should go and seem to court them by praising Dodd of Exeter, by enlarging upon Dodd of Exeter, by offering to grind Logic with Dodd of Exeter. Who would believe that this was a coincidence, a mere coincidence? They could not be expected to believe it; female vanity would not let them. He tingled, and was not far from hating the whole family; so bitter a thing is that which I have ventured to dub "The Tenderest Passion." He itched to soothe his irritation by explaining to Edward. Dodd was a frank, good-hearted fellow; he would listen to facts, and convince the ladies in turn. Hardie learned where Dodd's party lodged, and waited about the door to catch him alone: Dodd must be in college by twelve, and would leave Henley before ten. He waited till he was tired of waiting. But at last the door opened; he stepped forward, and out tripped Miss Dodd. "Confound it!" muttered Hardie, and drew back. However, he stood and admired her graceful figure and action, her ladylike speed without bustling. Had she come back at the same pace, he would never have ventured to stop her: on such a thread do things hang: but she returned very slowly, hanging her head. Her look at him and his headache recurred to him — a look brimful of goodness. She would do as well as Edward, better perhaps. He yielded to impulse, and addressed her, but with all the trepidation of a youth defying the giant Etiquette for the first time in his life.
Julia was a little surprised and fluttered, but did not betray it; she had been taught self-command by example, if not by precept.
"Certainly, Mr. Hardie," said she, within a modest composure a young coquette might have envied under the circumstances.
Hardie had now only to explain himself; but instead of that, he stood looking at her within silent concern. The fair face she raised to him was wet with tears; so were her eyes, and even the glorious eyelashes were fringed with that tender spray; and it glistened in the moonlight.
This sad and pretty sight drove the vain but generous youth's calamity clean out of his head. "Why, you are crying! Miss Dodd, what is the matter? I hope nothing has happened."
Julia turned her head away a little fretfully, with a "No, no!" But soon her natural candour and simplicity prevailed; a simplicity not without dignity; she turned round to him and looked him in the face. "Why should I deny it to you, sir, who have been good enough to sympathise with us? We are mortified, sadly mortified, at dear Edward's disgrace; and it has cost us a struggle not to disobey you, and poison his triumphal cup within sad looks. And mamma had to write to him, and console him against to-morrow: but I hope he will not feel it so severely as she does: and I have just posted it myself, and, when I thought of our dear mamma being driven to such expedients, I — Oh!" And the pure young heart, having opened itself by words, must flow a little more.
"Oh, pray don't cry," said young Hardie tenderly; "don't take such a trifle to heart so. You crying makes me feel guilty for letting it happen. It shall never occur again. If I had only known, it should never have happened at all."
"Once is enough," sighed Julia.
"Indeed, you take it too much to heart. It is only out of Oxford a plough is thought much of; especially a single one; that is so very common. You see, Miss Dodd, an university examination consists of several items: neglect but one, and Crichton himself would be ploughed; because brilliancy in your other papers is not allowed to count; that is how the most distinguished man of our day got ploughed for Smalls. I had a narrow escape, I know, for one. But, Miss Dodd, if you knew how far your brother's performance on the river outweighs a mere slip in the schools, in all university men's eyes, the dons' and all, you would not make this bright day end sadly to Oxford by crying. Why, I could find you a thousand men who would be ploughed to-morrow with glory and delight to win one such race as your brother has won two."
Julia sighed again. But it sounded now half like a sigh of relief — the final sigh, with which the fair consent to be consoled.
And indeed this improvement in the music did not escape Hardie. He felt he was on the right tack: he enumerated fluently, and by name, many good men, besides Dean Swift, who had been ploughed, yet had cultivated the field of letters in their turn; and, in short, he was so earnest and plausible, that something like a smile hovered about his hearer's lips, and she glanced askant at him with furtive gratitude from under her silky lashes. But it soon recurred to her that this was rather a long interview to accord to "a stranger," and under the moon; so she said a little stiffly, "And was this what you were good enough to wish to say to me, Mr. Hardie?"
"No, Miss Dodd, to be frank, it was not. My motive in addressing you, without the right to take such a freedom, was egotistical. I came here to clear myself; I — I was afraid you must think me a humbug, you know."
"I do not understand you, indeed."
"Well, I feared you and Mrs. Dodd might think I praised Dodd so, and did what little I did for him, knowing who you were, and wishing to curry favour with you by all that; and that is so underhand and paltry a way of going to work, I should despise myself."
"Oh, Mr. Hardie," said the young lady, smiling, "How foolish: why, of course, we knew you had no idea."
"Indeed I had not; but how could you know it?"
"Why, we saw it. Do you think we have no eyes? Ah, and much keener ones than gentlemen have. It is mamma and I who are to blame, if anybody; we ought to have declared ourselves: it would have been more generous, more — manly. But we cannot all be gentlemen, you know. It was so sweet to hear Edward praised by one who did not know us; it was like stolen fruit; and by one whom others praise: so, if you can forgive us our slyness, there is an end of the matter."
"Forgive you? you have taken a thorn out of my soul."
"Then I am so glad you summoned courage to speak to me without ceremony. Mamma would have done better, though; but after all, do not I know her? my mamma is all goodness and intelligence. And be assured, sir, she does you justice; and is quite sensible of your disinterested kindness to dear Edward." With this she was about to retire.
"Ah! But you, Miss Dodd? with whom I have taken this unwarrantable liberty?" said Hardie imploringly.
"Me, Mr. Hardie? You do me the honour to require my opinion of your performances: including of course this self-introduction?"
Hardie hung his head; there was a touch of satire in the lady's voice, he thought.
Her soft eyes rested demurely on him a moment; she saw he was a little abashed.
"My opinion of it all is that you have been very kind to us; in being most kind to our poor Edward. I never saw, nor read of anything more generous, more manly. And then so thoughtful, so considerate, so delicate! So instead of criticising you, as you seem to expect, his sister only blesses you, and thanks you from the very bottom of her heart."
She had begun within a polite composure borrowed from mamma; but, once launched, her ardent nature got the better: her colour rose and rose, and her voice sank and sank, and the last words came almost in a whisper; and such a lovely whisper: a gurgle from the heart; and, as she concluded, her delicate hand came sweeping out with a heaven-taught gesture of large and sovereign cordiality, that made even the honest words and the divine tones more eloquent. It was too much; the young man, ardent as herself, and not, in reality, half so timorous, caught fire; and seeing a white, eloquent hand rather near him, caught it, and pressed his warm lips on it in mute adoration and gratitude.
At this she was scared and offended. "Oh; keep that for the Queen!" cried she, turning scarlet, and tossing her fair head into the air, like a startled stag; and she drew her hand away quickly and decidedly, though not roughly. He stammered a lowly apology — in the very middle of it she said quietly, "Good-bye, Mr. Hardie," and swept, with a gracious little curtsey, through the doorway, leaving him spell-bound.
And so the virginal instinct of self-defence carried her off swiftly and cleverly. But none too soon; for, on entering the house, that external composure her two mothers Mesdames Dodd and Nature had taught her, fell from her like a veil, and she fluttered up the stairs to her own room with hot cheeks, and panted there like some wild thing that has been grasped at and grazed. She felt young Hardie's lips upon the palm of her hand plainly; they seemed to linger there still; it was like light but live velvet This, and the ardent look he had poured into her eyes, set the young creature quivering. Nobody had looked at her so before, and no young gentleman had imprinted living velvet on her hand. She was alarmed, ashamed, and uneasy. What right had he to look at her like that? What shadow of a right to go and kiss her hand? He could not pretend to think she had put it out to be kissed; ladies put forth the back of the hand for that, not the palm. The truth was he was an impudent fellow, and she hated him now, and herself too, for being so simple as to let him talk to her: mamma would not have been so imprudent when she was a girl.
She would not go down, for she felt there must be something of this kind legibly branded on her face: "Oh! oh! just look at this young lady! She has been letting a young gentleman kiss the palm of her hand; and the feel has not gone off yet; you may see that by her cheeks."
But then, poor Edward! she must go down.
So she put a wet towel to her tell-tale cheeks, and dried them by artistic dabs, avoiding friction, and came downstairs like a mouse, and turned the door-handle noiselessly, and glided into the sitting-room looking so transparent, conscious, and all on fire with beauty and animation, that even Edward was startled, and, in a whisper, bade his mother observe what a pretty girl she was: "Beats all the country girls in a canter." Mrs. Dodd did look; and, consequently, as soon as ever Edward was gone to Oxford, she said to Julia, "You are feverish, love; you have been excited with all this. You had better go to bed."
Julia complied willingly; for she wanted to be alone and think. She retired to her own room, and went the whole day over again; and was happy and sorry, exalted and uneasy, by turns; and ended by excusing Mr. Hardie's escapade, and throwing the blame on herself. She ought to have been more distant; gentlemen were not expected, nor indeed much wanted, to be modest. A little assurance did not misbecome them. "Really, I think it sets them off," said she to herself.
Grand total: "What must he think of me?"
Time gallops in reverie: the town clock struck twelve, and with its iron tongue remorse entered her youthful conscience. Was this obeying mamma? Mamma had said, "Go to bed:" not, "Go upstairs and meditate: upon young gentlemen." She gave an expressive shake of her fair shoulders, like a swan flapping the water off its downy wings, and so dismissed the subject from her mind.
Then she said her prayers.
Then she rose from her knees, and in tones of honey said, "Puss! puss! pretty puss!" and awaited a result.
Thieves and ghosts she did not believe in, yet credited cats under beds, and thought them neither "harmless" nor "necessary" there.
After tenderly evoking the dreaded and chimerical quadruped, she proceeded none the less to careful research, especially of cupboards. The door of one resisted, and then yielded with a crack, and blew out the candle. "There now," said she.
It was her only light, except her beauty. They allotted each Hebe but one candle, in that ancient burgh. "Well," she thought, "there is moonlight enough to undress by." She went to draw back one of the curtains; but in the act she started back with a little scream. There was a tall figure over the way watching the house.
The moon shone from her side of the street full on him, and in that instant her quick eye recognised Mr. Hardie.
"Well!" said she aloud, and with an indescribable inflexion; and hid herself swiftly in impenetrable gloom.
But, after a while, Eve's daughter must have a peep. She stole with infinite caution to one side of the curtain, and made an aperture just big enough for one bright eye. Yes, there he was, motionless. "I'll tell mamma," said she to him, malignantly, as if the sound could reach him.
Unconscious of the direful threat, he did not budge.
She was unaffectedly puzzled at this phenomenon; and, not being the least vain, fell to wondering whether he played the nightly sentinel opposite every lady's window who exchanged civilities within him. "Because, if he does, he is a fool," said she, promptly. But on reflection, she felt sure he did nothing of the kind habitually, for he had too high an opinion of himself; she had noted that trait in him at a very early stage. She satisfied herself, by cautious examination, that he did not know her room. He was making a temple of the whole lodging. "How ridiculous of him!" Yet he appeared to be happy over it; there was an exalted look in his moonlit face; she seemed now first to see his soul there. She studied his countenance like an inscription, and deciphered each rapt expression that crossed it; and stored them in her memory.
Twice she heft her ambuscade to go to bed, and twice Curiosity, or Something, drew her back. At last, having looked, peered, and peeped, till her feet were cold, and her face the reverse, she informed herself that the foolish Thing had tired her out.
"Good-night, Mr. Policeman," said she, pretending to bawl to him. "And oh! Do rain! As hard as ever you can. With this benevolent aspiration, a little too violent to he sincere, she laid her cheek on her pillow doughtily.
But her sentinel, when out of sight, had more power to disturb her. She lay and wondered whether he was still there, and what it all meant, and whatever mamma would say; and which of the two, she or he, was the head culprit in this strange performance, to which Earth, she conceived, had seen no parallel; and, above all, what he would do next. Her pulse galloped, and her sleep was broken; and she came down in the morning a little pale. Mrs. Dodd saw it at once, with the quick maternal eye; and moralised: "It is curious; youth is so fond of pleasure; yet pleasure seldom agrees with youth; this little excitement has done your mother good, who is no longer young; but it has been too much for you. I shall he glad to have you back to our quiet home."
Ah! Will that home be as tranquil now?