“My dear Jeremy,” she said afterwards, “what can be the matter with you? you had only one helping of beef and no pudding!”
“Nothing at all,” he replied sulkily; and the subject dropped.
“Doll,” said Jeremy presently, “do you know Miss Eva Ceswick?”
“Yes, I have seen her twice.”
“What do you think of her, Doll?”
“What do you think of her?” replied that cautious young person.
“I think she is beautiful as—as an angel.”
“Quite poetical, I declare! What next! Have you seen her?”
“Of course, else how should I know she was beautiful?”
“Ah, no wonder you had only once of beef!”
“I am going to call there this afternoon: would you like to come?” went on his sister.
“Yes, I’ll come.”
“Better and better: it will be the first call I ever remember your having paid.”
“You don’t think she will mind, Doll?”
“Why should she mind? Most people don’t mind being called on, even if they have a pretty face.”
“Pretty face! She is pretty all over.”
“Well, then, a pretty all over. I start at three; don’t be late.”
Thereupon Jeremy went off to beautify himself for the occasion, and his sister gazed at his departing form with the puzzled expression that had distinguished her as a child.
“He’s going to fall in love with her,” she said to herself, “and no wonder; any man would; she is ‘pretty all over,’ as he said, and what more does a man look at? I wish that she would fall in love with him before Ernest comes home;” and she sighed.
At a quarter to three Jeremy reappeared, looking particularly huge in a black coat and his Sunday trousers. When they reached the cottage where Miss Ceswick lived with her nieces, they were destined to meet with a disappointment, for neither of the young ladies was at home. Miss Ceswick, however, was there, and received them very cordially.
“I suppose that you have come to see my newly imported niece,” she said; “in fact, I am sure that you have, Mr. Jeremy, because you never came to call upon me in your life. Ah, it is wonderful how young men will change their habits to please a pair of bright eyes!”
Jeremy blushed painfully at this sally, but Dorothy came to his rescue.
“Has Miss Eva come to live with you for good?” she asked.
“Yes, I think so. You see, my dear, between you and me, her aunt in London, with whom she was living, has got a family of daughters, who have recently come out. Eva has been kept back as long as possible, but now that she is twenty it was impossible to keep her back any more. But then, on the other hand, it was felt—at least I think that it was felt—that to continue to bring Eva out with her cousins would be quite to ruin their chance of settling in life, because when she was in the room, no man could be got to look at them. So, you see, Eva has been sent down here as a penalty for being so handsome.”
“Most of us would be glad to undergo heavier penalties than that if we could only be guilty of the crime,” said Dorothy, a little sadly.
“Ah, my dear, I daresay you think so,” answered the old lady. “Every young woman longs to be beautiful and get the admiration of men, but are they any the happier for it? I doubt it. Very often that admiration brings endless troubles in its train, and perhaps in the end wrecks the happiness of the woman herself and of others who are mixed up with her. I was once a beautiful woman, my dear—I am old enough to say it now—and I can tell you that I believe that Providence cannot do a more unkind thing to a woman than to give her striking beauty, unless it gives with it great strength of mind. A weak-minded beauty is the most unfortunate of her sex. Her very attractions, which are sure to draw the secret enmity of other women on to her, are a source of difficulty to herself, because they bring her lovers with whom she cannot deal. Sometimes the end of such a woman is sad enough. I have seen it happen several times, my dear.”
Often in after-life, and in circumstances that had not then arisen, did Dorothy think of old Miss Ceswick’s words, and acknowledge their truth; but at this time they did not convince her.
“I would give anything to be like your niece,” she said bluntly, “and so would any other girl. Ask Florence, for instance.”
“Ah, my dear, you think so now. Wait till another twenty years have passed over your heads, and then if you are both alive see which of you is the happier. As for Florence, of course she would wish to be like Eva; of course it is painful for her to have to go about with a girl beside whom she looks like a little dowdy. I daresay that she would have been as glad if Eva stopped in London as her cousins were that she left it. Dear, dear! I hope they won’t quarrel. Florence’s temper is dreadful when she quarrels.”
This was a remark that Dorothy could not gainsay. She knew very well what Florence’s temper was like.
“But, Mr. Jeremy,” went on the old lady, “all this must be stupid talk for you to listen to: tell me, have you been rowing any more races lately?”
“No,” said Jeremy; “I strained a muscle in my arm in the ’Varsity Race, and it is not quite well yet.”
“And where is my dear Ernest?” Like most women, of whatever age they might be, Miss Ceswick adored Ernest.
“He is coming back on Monday week.”
“O, then he will be in time for the Smythes’ lawn tennis party. I hear that they are going to give a dance after it. Do you dance, Mr. Jeremy?”
Jeremy had to confess that he did not; indeed, as a matter of fact, no earthly power had ever been able to drag him inside a ballroom in his life.
“That is a pity; there are so few young men in these parts. Florence counted them up the other day, and the proportion is one unmarried man, between the ages of twenty and forty-five, to every nine women between eighteen and thirty.”
“Then only one girl in every nine can get married,” put in Dorothy, whose mind had a trick of following things to their conclusion.
“And what becomes of the other eight?” asked Jeremy.
“I suppose that they all grow into old maids like myself,” answered Miss Ceswick.
Dorothy, again following the matter to its conclusion, reflected that in fifteen years or so there would, at the present rate of progression, be at least twenty-five old maids within a radius of three miles from Kesterwick. Much oppressed by this thought, she rose to take her leave.
“I know who won’t be left without a husband, unless men are greater stupids than I take them for—eh, Jeremy?” said the kindly old lady, giving Dorothy a kiss.
“If you mean me,” answered Dorothy, bluntly, with a slightly heightened colour, “I am not so vain as to think that anybody would care for an undersized creature whose only accomplishment is housekeeping; and I am sure it is not for anybody that I should care either.”
“Ah, my dear, there are still a few men of sense in the world, who would rather get a good woman as companion than a pretty face. Good-bye, my dear.”
Though Jeremy was on this occasion disappointed of seeing Eva, on the following morning he was so fortunate as to meet her and her sister walking on the beach. But when he got into her gracious presence he found somehow that he had very little to say; and the walk would, to tell the truth, have been rather dull, if it had not occasionally been enlivened by dashes of Florence’s caustic wit.
On the next day, however, he returned to the charge with several hundredweight of the roots of a certain flower which Eva had expressed a desire to possess. And so it went on till at last his shyness wore off a little, and they grew very good friends.
Of course all this did not escape Florence’s sharp eyes, and one day, just after Jeremy had paid her sister a lumbering compliment and departed, she summarised her observations thus:
“That moon-calf is falling in love with you, Eva.”
“Nonsense, Florence! and why should you call him a moon-calf? It is not nice to talk of people so.”
“Well, if you can find a better description, I am willing to adopt it.”
“I think that he is an honest gentleman-like boy; and even if he were falling in love with me, I do not think there would be anything to be ashamed of—there!”
“Dear me, what a fuss we are in. Do you know, I shall soon begin to think that you are falling in love with the ‘honest gentleman-like boy’—yes, that is a better title than moon-calf, though not so nervous.”
Here Eva marched off in a huff.
“Well, Jeremy, and how are you getting on with the beautiful Eva?” asked Dorothy that same day.
“I say Doll,” replied Jeremy, whose general appearance was that of a man plunged into the depths of misery, “don’t laugh at a fellow; if you only knew what I feel—inside, you know—you wouldn’t——“
“What! are you not well? have some brandy?” suggested his sister, in genuine alarm.
“Don’t be an idiot, Doll; it isn’t my stomach, it’s here”; and he knocked his right lung, under the impression that he was indicating the position of his heart.
“And what do you feel, Jeremy?”
“Feel!” he answered with a groan; “what don’t I feel? When I am away from her I feel a sort of sinking, just like one does when one has to go without one’s dinner, only it’s always there. When she looks at me I go hot and cold all over, and when she smiles it’s just as though one had killed a couple of woodcocks right and left.”
“Good gracious, Jeremy!” interposed his sister, who was beginning to think he had gone off his head; “and what happens if she doesn’t smile?”
“Ah, then,” he replied, sadly, “it’s as though one had missed them both.”
Though his similes were peculiar, it was clear to his sister that the feeling he meant to convey was genuine enough.
“Are you really fond of this girl, Jeremy dear?” she said gently.
“Well, Doll, you know, I suppose I am.”
“Then why don’t you ask her to marry you?”
“To marry me! Why, I am not fit to clean her shoes.”
“An honest gentleman is fit for any woman, Jeremy.”
“And I haven’t got anything to support her on even if she said yes, which she wouldn’t.”
“You may get that in time. Remember, Jeremy, she is a very lovely woman, and soon she is sure to find other lovers.”
“But if once you had secured her affection, and she is a good woman, as I think she is, that would not matter, though you might not be able to marry for some years.”
“Then what am I to do?”
“I should tell her that you loved her, and ask her, if she would care for you—to wait for you awhile.”
Jeremy whistled meditatively.
“I’ll ask Ernest about it when he comes back on Monday.’
“If I were you I should act for myself in that matter,” she said quickly.
“No good being in a hurry; I haven’t known her for a fortnight—I’ll ask Ernest.”
“Then you will regret it,” Dorothy answered, almost passionately, and rising, left the room.
“Now, what did she mean by that?” reflected her brother aloud; “she always was so deuced queer where Ernest is concerned.” But his inner consciousness returned no satisfactory answer, so with a sigh the love-lorn Jeremy took up his hat and walked.
On Sunday, that was the day following his talk with Dorothy, he saw Eva again in church, where she looked, he thought, more like an angel than ever, and was quite as inaccessible. In the churchyard he did, it is true, manage to get a word or two with her, but nothing more, for the sermon had been long, and Florence was hungry, and hurried her sister home to lunch.
And then, at last, came Monday, the long-expected day of Ernest’s arrival.