Advice From Miss Valentine
Something had certainly gotten into those children, reflected Miss Maude Valentine, and it was not a spirit of good.
"Edmund!" she snapped. "You must not strike your sister in that way. Heavens!" Miss Valentine grasped the offending small arm firmly and marched its protesting owner over to a chair in the corner. "You have been a very naughty boy -- sit there until I give you leave to get up."
"Aunt Maaauude," whined two small voices in unison from behind her.
"Ellie took my doll's bonnet!"
"Well, she won't let me take a turn with the horses!"
"You didn't want them!"
"I hate you!"
Miss Valentine sighed. "Bradshaw is going away again," her sister Anne had lamented; and stupidly she, Maude, offered to amuse the children. Anne had not listened to her suggestion that Bradshaw was untrustworthy as a governess, but that was not really the children's fault. Of course Anne had been relieved. "Oh, Maude dear, what a blessing you are. The children will be so happy; they love having you draw for them."
Maude dear could feel the beginnings of a sharp headache above the eyes. She could keep order, all right, but she was not exactly in the mood to draw on command. And she hated having to speak so sharply all the time.
"Aunt Maude, can we go down to dinner tonight?" wheedled Tilda, going all at once sweetly ingratiating.
"Oh yes," said Ellie, suddenly harmonious. "We've been good, haven't we, Aunt Maude?"
Brazen little creatures! thought Miss Valentine, half amused and half disgusted. "You most certainly have not. You have been quarrelsome and unkind all afternoon, as you know very well."
"Oh, forgive us," they both begged, clasping their hands dramatically. How did they make their eyes go so big? One suspected they did it on purpose.
"Pleeeease forgive us," echoed Edmund, angelically.
"I told you to stay in your chair, Edmund," said Miss Valentine. "And of course I will forgive you, but you still cannot come down to dinner. That is a very special treat for special days. And besides, your uncle George has invited a university friend of his."
Too late, Miss Valentine realized her mistake. George's mysterious friend was an irresistible attraction to three bored children, and they at once pleaded to go down to meet him. Bradshaw certainly gave in too easily to the children, or they would not have learned to be such inveterate wheedlers, at their age. It was a pity to be reduced to tyranny as her only method of managing.
"I absolutely forbid you to ask me again about dinner, or to mention George's friend, any of you. Or I will send you to bed this minute." She meant it, too; but she did not put it past any of the three to test her mettle, so she cunningly followed up her offensive with a surprise attack of drawing, which succeeded in distracting the children for a whole forty minutes.
By dinnertime, Miss Valentine was ready for nothing so much as a hot bath and her own comfortable bed. To her dismay, she had not only to dress and prepare herself for a long company dinner, but (as she found when she descended to the drawing room) actually to sit next to the man at table. What had possessed her sister Anne to arrange the company thus? And she was not the only unhappy one -- she was at once the recipient of scorchingly envious glances thrown across the table at intervals by her eldest niece Kate. Oh, Kate, if only you knew how willingly Aunt Maude would have traded places with you! In fact, that was probably the point, Miss Valentine decided, shooting a baleful glance of her own at the unsuspecting Lady Burnham. No doubt Anne considered it a little too dangerous to seat a meltingly handsome man of twenty-two or twenty-three next to her precociously flirtatious daughter of barely seventeen -- but fortunately Miss Valentine was a safe dinner partner in that respect.
If she were not so very safe she might have sympathized with Kate; young Mr. Carris really had the most amazing looks: broad shoulders, trim figure, and classical features, with dark blue eyes under heavy black brows. Miss Valentine so admired dark features with blue eyes -- at least, used to admire when she was still young enough to think of a man's looks.
His appearance was awful enough, she thought, without adding the fact that Mr. Carris also appeared to possess flawless manners. Miss Valentine wished he were silent and disagreeable -- in that case she might have ignored him. Making small talk was so dreadfully irksome.
"I believe I heard Mr. George say that you have an estate in the west counties, Mr. Carris?" she said, with an immense effort at charm. Mr. Carris's astounding perfection as a male specimen really deserved some exertion on her part, after all.
"Yes, Miss Valentine, that is true," he said, turning toward her, "-- but actually it might surprise you to know that I was educated in the Law. I have only recently inherited the lands and house of my great-uncle. He had been ill for some time, so his death was a sorrow, not a surprise; but I had no expectations for myself beyond perhaps a small legacy. When I heard the will read and found myself the heir of a fortune and an estate -- well, I was rendered completely speechless for several minutes together, and with me that is something. I would have thought myself lucky to be left a hundred pounds."
"What a pleasant surprise for you! Not of course," she amended hastily, "your uncle's death; I meant the inheritance."
"Oh yes. In fact, I think it is a perfect situation," confided Mr. Carris. "I have been very happy making plans for the excellent government of all my affairs, and imagining grand visions of the paradise which I shall provide to my tenants, and their gratitude toward me as a model landlord -- which very likely will never come to pass. But I do intend in all seriousness to take very good care of my estate. If every future landowner grew up expecting to earn a living, with no idea of living in wealthy leisure someday, estates would be taken better care of."
"Yes, I suppose that is quite true."
"Not, that is, to hold myself up as a paragon -- I do not mean that at all. But most of the gentlemen my own age who have no profession take very little interest in farming! It shocks me, really, how most landlords trust all their decisions to a steward -- of course that is well and good if one's steward is a man of uncommon intelligence and honesty; but even so, to be a truly responsible land owner one ought to have quite an extensive knowledge of modern farming --" he broke off, laughing a little. "I foresee that I shall become tedious to all my acquaintance with my lectures on the proper drainage of grazing meadows and the way to pen one's pigs! In fact, I am sure I am boring you already, Miss Valentine."
"Oh, no, not at all," she replied, wishing she did not sound so stiff. He would be instantly convinced that she was dissembling politely, when actually she liked his talking. He had a pleasant voice, and his good-humored ramblings saved her the trouble of thinking of something to say.
"You are very kind to bear with me, then," he said, smiling.
There was a pause while Miss Valentine wracked her brains for something else to ask him.
"And where exactly -- " she began, but Mr. Carris had already raised his voice and turned towards her sister.
"These pies are delicious, Lady Burnham! I know many people affect to dislike mincemeat pies, but I have a sort of obsessive fondness for them. I was secretly wishing for some just this morning, and I am ever so grateful to you for fulfilling my desperate longing."
She had almost breathed a sigh of relief at being let off so easily; so it was excruciatingly embarrassing when he turned back to her solicitously and begged to know what she had been saying when he so rudely interrupted her.
"Oh no, it was nothing."
"Really, Miss Valentine, I apologize for interrupting."
"It is not worth a thought, sir."
"But I am sure you had some question you were going to ask of me."
She perceived that he was determined to outlast her in politeness
"Well, since you are so kind as to press me for it, I merely wished to inquire where exactly your estate is located."
"It is tucked amongst the hills, almost on the border of Wales. It is a lovely spot. Before my accession to the estate, I had visited only a few times as a boy, but I had fond memories of roaming the glades and getting soaked in the brook."
"I have never been that far west."
"You must travel there if the opportunity ever offers -- it's the most beautiful place on earth. Of course," he laughed, "I am prejudiced in its favor, but you must not hold that against the place."
"I would certainly not ignore the advice of such an expert, Mr. Carris -- your defense of it is very compelling."
"You are humoring me, and it is encouraging me to talk far too much!" he said, shaking his head. "It is your turn now: you must go on as long as you like about the places you admire, and I engage to listen raptly no matter what you say."
"Oh, I have not traveled much," she evaded, but he persisted.
"No, no, that will not do at all. Where did you live before coming here?"
Miss Valentine trembled at this sudden attack. She hated talking about herself. But Mr. Carris was determined to be very civil and inquiring, and sweetly demanded to know all the counties and towns she had visited and read about, and whether she liked domestic landscapes or picturesque ones better. She tried to give him more opportunities to lecture about his own travels and ideas, but to no avail. One might have thought he was really interested in knowing what she thought -- dreadful man.
She was reduced to sending pleading looks toward her sister by the time Lady Burnham rose to withdraw. Mr. Carris's character was decided as the most impossibly and annoyingly nice man she had ever met. With any luck, he and his charming manners might prolong the enjoyment of cigars and port -- over which Sir Gerald ordinarily was not prone to linger, to the continual dismay of the fashionable George. She only hoped Mr. Carris was not one of those terrible persons who hate to leave the ladies bereft for too long.
As they entered the drawing room, Lady Burnham went straight to the piano; for though she loved to play, she seldom had the chance on ordinary nights, with her children demanding attention. That left Kate at leisure to pump her aunt for information.
"So, Auntie Vals, what did you think? You must tell me all your impressions. Mama wouldn't let me sit by him, but it is most unfair, for he's extremely handsome! Much handsomer than anyone we know. I really think I almost fainted when he caught my eye over dessert -- you must have seen me blush. You didn't? I thought the whole table must have been staring at me. I do hate blushing: it gives one away so. But I am comforted, for perhaps if you did not see me he might not have seen it either. I was amazingly in awe of you, Auntie. The way you talked on quite as if you were just talking to Mrs. John Fredericks, or anyone! What were you talking about?"
I'm surprised you didn't catch our every word, thought Miss Valentine cattily. Aloud she said, "Nothing very interesting or dramatic, I'm afraid."
"Please, Aunt Vals. You must tell me. I think I'm love. You can't torture me, can you, Auntie? Please?"
Just imagine how bad Tilda and Ellie would be at her age! Miss Valentine thought, trying not to be sour. A sour old maid was so unpleasant. "Oh... very well. But it really was nothing. I just asked him about his home. I'm not witty or quick, you know."
"Nonsense! You're the dearest Aunt Valsie that ever was! What did he say about his estate?"
"He said it's very beautiful and that he has fond memories of visiting there as a boy. Oh, and that he had no idea he was to inherit. He seems very fond of it; you should try asking him about it."
"Auntie! You're invaluable. I am in your debt forever."
"No indeed, Kate dear."
"Oh I wish they wouldn't take so long. What do you think they talk about when we're not there?"
"I am the last person to know that, Kate."
Bradshaw, the governess, had sent word that her mother was sick again and could she please have another week's leave to care for her? Lady Burnham was disgusted, Sir Gerald was skeptical, and Miss Valentine was resigned; but one could hardly refuse, said Lady Burnham. Miss Valentine opined that one could refuse very well, and that Bradshaw ought to be turned off. But Lady Burnham was either too soft-hearted or too lazy to listen.
"I do not know what to say, Maude! That Bradshaw is becoming very troublesome. And she had such brilliant recommendations! My only comfort is that you are here, sister -- you are so patient with the children. Such a comfort."
"You know I am always here," replied Miss Valentine. Fortunately her sister had never understood sarcasm.
After a long day upstairs drawing endless rabbits and hedgehogs for Edmund, and attempting to prevent Tilda and Ellie from quarrelling over the new doll, it was really provoking to find Mr. Carris lounging about in the library when she had hoped for a solitary escape.
"Oh!" said Miss Valentine, stupidly.
"Don't be alarmed, Miss Valentine," said the imperturbable Mr. Carris. "I will not be an inconvenience to you. Is there anything I can get you? Or would you rather I leave you?"
"Oh!" she said again, a trifle crossly this time. "No, certainly not -- I wouldn't think of driving you away. I just came for a book."
"What are you reading?" he inquired.
"Reading? Er ... Anything. Anything at all, actually!" Miss Valentine snatched wildly at the nearest book from the shelf. Alas, the nearest shelf appeared to be the one where Sir Gerald kept all his political treatises.
"My dear madam, are you quite well? Can I get you a glass of wine? You look quite unsettled."
How embarrassing! she thought, even more put out. Blast his politeness! Miss Valentine could be very unladylike in thought. "Really, I am well, just fatigued," she said coldly.
"I suppose," he said, "you are wishing I would fall over dead. But you mistake me. I do have some common sense, though I seldom show it. I can see quite well that you have reached that state of crossness in which everything makes you crosser, even people trying to be nice. No, especially people trying to be nice. But now that I have guessed your complaint, perhaps I can persuade you to try the relief of telling me all about it."
Mr. Carris smiled so ingratiatingly that she hardly knew whether to smack him or fall on his neck in gratitude. Fortunately, the opposing impulses caused her instead to collapse gracefully in the armchair by the fire, which was a much less mortifying option. What a narrow escape, she thought. She supposed it must be the tiredness, combined with the fact that this sort of thing -- encountering handsome men unexpectedly in libraries, and having them pour her glasses of wine -- had never in her life occurred before.
"Well," she began, as he pulled up a chair beside her, and handed her a shining red glass with a delicious spicy smell to it. "It's just that I've been with the children all day, and I haven't spoken to a soul over the age of nine since eight o'clock this morning, and I've played dolls, and read stories, and drawn at least forty-three thousand rabbits and seventeen hundred horses -- they are dear children, you must know," she added hastily, realizing that her speech was sounding awfully like a complaint. "I love my nieces and nephews, but they are very precocious children: at the moment they all have very strong and rather wearing personalities." Here Miss Valentine took a gulp of the wine, feeling that she had already said quite enough.
"Good heavens!" said Mr. Carris, topping off her glass for her. "I cannot blame you a whit! I like children myself, but I've never quite understood how governesses and nurses manage to survive without going quite insane."
Miss Valentine felt wonderfully vindicated. "Do you have nieces and nephews yourself, Mr. Carris?"
"No, for I am the oldest child of my family and none of us are married yet. But I have several young cousins, so I do speak from experience. Don't the children have a governess? Surely you are not -- "
He broke off, looking embarrassed, so Miss Valentine felt obliged to explain. "Oh yes, they do have a governess, but she is away taking care of her sick mother, or so she says. Anne thinks Bradshaw begged off last year to go to her mother's funeral, but she can't quite remember."
"You must be very fond of the children, to spend the whole day looking after them. Surely some of the servants -- ?"
Miss Valentine could see that he was trying to determine her exact place in the household, without being so rude as to ask obvious questions. She might have known. But it happened so often that guests did not know how to treat her, that she now felt more wearied than offended. At least Mr. Carris had been kind to her, instead of ignoring her altogether as most people did. Mostly she preferred being ignored, but she had to admit that his kindness seemed like sincerity rather than condescension; and she was inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt on that account.
"Anne does not allow the servants to care for the children," she explained patiently, "not for long periods of time, since she caught the upstairs maid giving Edmund a smack last year. She says she cannot trust them. And I am conveniently handy."
He looked sideways at her. "So you offered to help?"
She was beginning to feel cross again. One confidence over a glass of wine did not entitle anyone to ask probing, pitying questions!
"I did not offer to help, Mr. Carris," she snapped.
"Then they should not expect you to play the part of the governess!" said Mr. Carris, frowning.
So much for handsome men with tempting glasses of wine. He was inclined to feel sorry for her. Very well then! She could be direct too.
"Since you have so much common sense," she said haughtily, "it will not surprise you to hear that I have no choice in the matter. I am poor, my dear sir: I have no fortune of my own, and besides I am a spinster with no prospects. I live here on charity, yes, but after all I am a close relation; I am by no means mistreated or deserving of your pity. Thank you for your kindness in listening to me, but I have no wish to discuss my situation any further with you."
Miss Valentine stalked out of the library. She sent word at dinnertime that she had a headache and felt too ill to come down, but she regretted her hastiness when she realized that she had not, after all, brought a book from the library, and had nothing to read. It occurred to her that she ought instead to have swept downstairs to dinner in magnificent unconcern. Mr. Carris with his odious common sense would probably realize that she was angry with him, and that was ridiculous. She made up her mind to descend regally at teatime. It was too boring sitting in her room all evening.
The queenly entrance fell rather flat, however, as she entered the drawing room to find Edmund entertaining the room with adorable five-year-old sayings while Tilda and Ellie played a duet on the pianoforte. It ended just as Miss Valentine paused in the doorway, so her pose of dignified grace went unnoticed as everyone applauded with great enthusiasm. The twins were gratified, she could see, but Edmund resented the momentary loss of attention to himself and began to cry. In the ensuing chaos, Miss Valentine found herself slipping, rather than sweeping, to a seat near the table. Just as well -- she doubted whether she were made for regal entrances.
"Ah Maude!" said Lady Burnham, spying her just as she reached for a teacup. "When did you come in? I'm very glad you're feeling better, for I shall need your help putting the children to bed. They are a bit excited."
They certainly were. It was difficult enough to coerce them upstairs, let alone put them to bed, even with her sister's help. After nearly an hour of fussing and coaxing, Miss Valentine was developing a headache in earnest.
"I want another story!" bawled Edmund.
"Now, dear," cooed Lady Burnham, "Mama wants you to go quietly to sleep, there's a good---"
"Very well, very well, do stop crying, there's a boy. Of course widdle Edmund shall have a story, wee widdle fuzzums."
"Not you," said Edmund rudely, wiping his nose with the back of his hand. "Aunt Maude. Your stories are stupid, Mama."
"Edmund!" cried Miss Valentine, scandalized; but dear Mama was already making a place for her to sit by the bed.
"If Mama's boy wants Aunt Maude to tell a story, of course he shall have one. Just do not yell quite so loud, Edmund dear. Mama doesn't like yelling."
Miss Valentine sat down, and as her sister went to tuck in the girls, she took the opportunity to hiss, "Don't you ever speak to your mother like that again, Edmund Burnham. If I ever hear you say anything so rude, I will surely smack you, whether your mother likes it or no. I mean it---and so the little boy named Edmund decided to find out what made the noise in the forest," she added gaily, as Lady Burnham returned to her seat.
"Was it an enchanted forest?" asked Tilda, from across the room.
"Of course, an enchanted forest," agreed Miss Valentine soothingly. "And stop sniffling, at once," she added in a menacing whisper to Edmund while Lady Burnham's attention was distracted.
By the time the story was finished and the third round of last kisses had been bestowed, she was wishing she had stayed in bed after all. Only the idea of Mr. Carris's oh-so-understanding eyes impelled Miss Valentine to return to the drawing room for tea. She wouldn't be banished from company, like a servant, as no doubt he would think! No, she would drink tea and talk about the weather if it killed her.
Downstairs an edgy peace prevailed. Sir Gerald was interrogating a rather shifty George about the horse he had just bought. Kate and Mr. Carris were ensconced on the sofa, with Kate hanging limpid-eyed on his every word, by the looks of it. As she passed them toward the tea-table, Miss Valentine heard Kate say "-- how lovely! What a dear place! Nothing like our eastern counties. You must be homesick, Mr. Carris!"
He laughed, and she couldn't quite hear his reply, but it sounded like "But I enjoy seeing new places, and there are many beauties here."
Young people in love are so sweet, thought Miss Valentine.
It rained for three days straight. At last, on Thursday, damp as it was, Miss Valentine decided to take the children for a walk so they could run without crashing into walls or each other. Bradshaw was still away and it had been an excruciating week for Miss Valentine. No, only four days in all, she reminded herself; it hadn't really been a week. Perhaps she really was going insane, as Mr. Carris said. Was losing track of time one of the symptoms? Was it yesterday or the day before that she'd had the conversation with Kate?
She had been undressing for bed when Kate burst into the room and fell dramatically across the bed.
"Oh Aunt Vals!"
"Good evening, Kate."
"Er ... is anything the matter, dear?"
"Yes!" despaired Kate. "It is only that Mr. Carris is the most impossibly perfect gentleman I have ever met!"
"He is very kind, indeed."
"Kind!" Kate seemed to go into a paroxysm of agony. "He's magnificent! I can't breathe when he passes me in the hall, and my vision goes blank when he speaks."
Miss Valentine had never been the confidante sort of person. She had no idea, really, what to say, other than a vague sense that she ought to squeal with delight or moan in sympathetic misery -- neither of which she had any intention of doing.
"That is terrible, indeed," she ventured.
Kate sat up. "Wonderfully terrible! Oh, I knew you would understand, Auntie. I can't tell mother, of course."
Miss Valentine made agreeing murmurs, although she didn't really see why an old maid was such a superior choice with whom to discuss love troubles.
"And -- " Kate lowered her voice "-- he thinks of me as a mere girl! He'll never fall in love with me before he must leave us! I only have two more weeks to convince him that I am a grown-up woman, and even if he notices me, I'll run out of time to make him marry me! Oh, Aunt Vals, what should I do?"
Leaning forward, with eyes wide and cheeks flushed, Kate could not have been more beautiful. Miss Valentine's opinion of Mr. Carris's judgment improved -- if he could resist this, perhaps he had more sense than she had thought. On the other hand, maybe Kate was right and he just hadn't noticed. It was said that men were blind -- she did not know from personal experience, of course.
"Well..." said Miss Valentine at last. "I really am not the proper person to ask, Kate. I am not married myself, or ever likely to be."
"Auntie! You have a great deal more common sense than any one else in this house! I heard father say so."
Really! Sir Gerald ought to be careful what things he let slip before his children! Though it was very gratifying, to be sure. "In that case," she said briskly. "Don't make those eyes at him, whatever you do. You mustn't throw yourself at him. You should discuss books with him; talk to him like an ordinary person. Mr. Carris is a man of common sense, who likes discussions."
"What kind of books?" asked Kate. "Political things, and histories, like father reads?"
"Heavens, no! You mustn't speak of things you know nothing about, or you will just appear silly. Talk about the books you like reading."
"Auntie, now you're teasing me. Men don't read novels."
"If he doesn't read them, he may be induced to try them."
"You can't be serious."
"He will notice you only if you seem different from any other sixteen-year-old girls of his acquaintance." Miss Valentine had been a little shocked at Kate's thoughtlessness. It seemed obvious to her, at least, that simpering and fluttering was not the way to attract a sensible, intelligent gentleman.
"Do you really think so?" Kate had said no more, but she seemed at last to have considered this advice and put it to the test---and with success, for Miss Valentine noticed in her brief appearances at dinner and teatime that Kate and Mr. Carris were constantly together. It would do Kate good to have someone to talk sense to her, and he could only be considered incredibly fortunate in the admiration of such a beautiful girl: the whole affair could be nothing but pleasing to everyone concerned, as Miss Valentine had said to herself more than once since then.
At last they were outside in the garden. Miss Valentine was breathing hard before they passed the gate: it had been rather a struggle to force Ellie, who was lazy and didn't wish to go out, into her boots. And Edmund, who longed for a walk, had untied his boots six times out of sheer enthusiasm. It was a great relief to be able to sink down on a bench and let the three of them run wild. She hoped they didn't pull apart too many plants, but she felt quite unequal to preventing them, if they chose to do so. At any rate, John the gardener would have their little skins if they caused too much damage; in fact she rather hoped he would thoroughly frighten them at least. Miss Valentine was not so lost in adoration of her young relations as to exclude the possibility that their characters might be improved by a little discipline.
So she was thinking, as she heard a distant shriek from the general direction of the fish-pond. It was an ornamental feature, not deep, and she had seen Gardener off in that direction anyway. Of course, if Edmund got soaked she would have the irksome task of forcing him to bathe later on, but for the moment she did not care. Besides, it was much more likely that the scream resulted from him throwing some fishy water at fastidious Ellie.
"Are you fiddling while Rome burns, Miss Valentine?" said a voice behind her.
She repressed an awkward jump. "No, Mr. Carris, I am merely enjoying the quiet while the children take in the fresh air. It is good for them to er... absorb nature and um... learn to love the gentle daisies and things."
Why did she always say the most ridiculous things to him? Gentle daisies! Fortunately, and much to her surprise, Mr. Carris found this as amusing as she did herself, and he laughed immoderately for several minutes.
"I do beg your pardon. Honestly, Miss Valentine, I meant to ask your forgiveness much more seriously. I realize that I offended you the last time we talked. I am very thoughtless and I can only hope for your forbearance."
"Well..." Miss Valentine prevaricated, but she knew it was no use, and so did he.
"Thank you. I have been very uneasy at the thought of offending so gentle a lady."
Miss Valentine grew pink. "Don't be silly," she retorted. "Save your gallantry for beautiful young ladies."
He grinned at her. "As you are the only beautiful lady present, you will have to put up with my impertinence until I find someone else to lavish with compliments."
"Er..." said Miss Valentine, flustered. "Are you out for a walk by yourself, then?"
"As you see. Though he is my friend, I cannot help but observe that George has a regrettable tendency to sleep all the morning. I have always been an early riser."
"I must admit that sometimes I sympathize with Mr. George myself. An early morning can be refreshing, but not when one must spend it cooped up in such a -- that is, inside."
"You are right, of course, Miss Valentine -- I prefer to be out of doors myself, whenever possible. So it is a good thing the rain has stopped," he observed.
"You may say so!" said Miss Valentine emphatically. "It is so delightful to enjoy some sunshine at last, that I do not even care if Edmund soils his trousers in the mud, or tears his jacket, or pulls all his sisters' ruffles off."
"That, I imagine, is saying a great deal."
"It is. I shall not move, even if they all three fall in the fish pond."
"That would be absorbing nature with a vengeance, certainly. Hark! Wasn't that a splash?" he said mischievously.
"It most certainly was not! No, the only thing I heard was a scream some time ago, but if one of them had drowned I would have known by now; so I am positive that the children are in no harm, but merely dirty and cross. I have no objection to their being so, and thus I am quite unmoved by your cruel suggestions."
"Dirty and cross? That's a pity: I do think children ought to be dirty and happy."
"I shall at least agree that they ought to be happy."
"Why aren't they, then?"
Miss Valentine paused. She had never thought of it before, but it was true that the Burnhams were not a particularly happy family. "I don't know," she said. "I don't suppose they are particularly unhappy; but no one pays any attention to them unless they are showing off before company."
"No one but you."
She did not know what to say to that. It was true, so she could not disclaim, but neither had she considered herself a heroic protector of innocent children.
"Miss Kate adores you too, I am sure," he added. She could not detect any change in his voice, but it might be significant enough that he had mentioned Kate's name. "She speaks of you in the highest of terms."
"Kate is a very generous girl," said Miss Valentine. She rather hoped he would continue with some closer confidence, but he did not. She knew quite well that Kate's supposed two weeks were slipping away little by little, and she was very anxious to discern any symptoms of love in the gentleman. Instead, to her surprise he offered to escort her and the children inside in time for the early luncheon they ate in the nursery. He gave Miss Valentine his arm with (she thought again) unnecessary gallantry, and they set off to hunt the small creatures in question.
This took some time. Ellie was easily discovered sitting on the stone steps and scowling.
"Edmund splashed me! Look at my dress," she complained, two tears hovering on the edge of her eyelids.
"I don't see any stain, dear, and if there is one, Jones does wonders with steam," said Miss Valentine.
"Certainly," agreed Mr. Carris. "In fact you are looking very well, Miss Ellie. The breeze has brought out such a sparkle in your eyes---and that is all anyone will be able to notice."
"Really?" asked Ellie disingenuously, flushing agreeably.
"Do you know where Tilda and Edmund are?" broke in Miss Valentine. It wouldn't do to have that sly Mr. Carris turning the heads of every female in the house.
"They were going to the orchard to climb trees. I said that Tilda would tear her frock, and she said no she wouldn't, and I said I was going to stay anyway," said Ellie primly.
The orchard lay behind the house and across the kitchen gardens, but Miss Valentine did not find the walk nearly so long as she had expected. A splash of sunlight fell through the heavy clouds, and Mr. Carris distracted Ellie so thoroughly with questions about the gardens, and which were her favorite kinds of fruit, and had she ever been berrying -- that Ellie forgot to complain.
The adventurous Edmund and Tilda, when found, were filthy and beginning to quarrel; but Miss Valentine, remembering Mr. Carris's idea, hoped that they had been temporarily happy, at least. Ellie's prediction about the tearing of frocks had come true in a magnificent way, but that was the least of the problems. When they arrived on the scene they found Tilda on the ground shouting up at Edmund, who was weeping from the top of a maple that had long guarded the edge of the row of pears.
"I told you so!" yelled Tilda, dancing madly in place.
"I can't, Tilda, I can't!" sobbed Edmund.
After some hurried questioning, it appeared that Edmund had wanted to climb the tallest tree, and Tilda had said he shouldn't, and Edmund had said Tilda couldn't stop him; which as it happened, she couldn't. Now Edmund was stuck, and Tilda was torn between triumph and terror.
"Edmund," said Miss Valentine as gently and calmly as possible, "what is the matter? Can't you reach the next branch?"
"I'm stuck!" wailed Edmund.
"But what do you mean, you are stuck? Can't you reach down?"
"My foot's stuck!"
Mr. Carris had walked around the tree to see a little better. "It looks as if his shoe has got wedged," he called.
"That's what I said," Edmund shrieked.
"Run and get John Gardener and have him bring a ladder," Miss Valentine instructed Tilda. But that young lady had begun to cry hysterically, as a reaction.
"Oh, I'll go," said Ellie, and off she went. She was not a fast runner, but she was at the moment the calmest of the children, thought Miss Valentine, turning back to the tree and the barely-visible Edmund.
"Don't worry dear," she said to him. "We shall have a ladder in no time."
"Aunt Maude!" he bleated.
"I am right here, Edmund. Just be sensible and hold on. You are perfectly safe."
"But I'm slipping!"
"No, you're not!" she said, beginning to feel anxious. He was only five, after all.
Thank goodness that Mr. Carris behaved in a rational manner in a crisis! He had been examining the tree and now returned to confer with her.
"It does look a bit precarious. He is not so very high that I could not try to catch him if he fell, but who knows if I should be successful in preventing an injury; and what if the gardener should be hard to find, or take some time coming?"
"Mr. Carris, I do not see what we can do beyond trying to keep Edmund calm, and making the attempt to catch him if he falls," she snapped. Apprehension mingled with guilt: it was her fault, after all, that she had let the children run off while she lounged in the garden.
"Well," he said slowly, "One might climb up and try to free the boy's shoe. It doesn't look very difficult."
"Oh, would you?"
"That is just the thing: I think I may be too heavy for those upper branches." He looked hard at her; but she did not see what point he had in suggesting an impossible course, and said so. "I was thinking that you might do it, Miss Valentine. You are small and light -- but of course I do not know if you can climb."
"Oh!" she said.
"Forgive my suggesting it; I know it is ungentlemanly of me; but you seem the kind of person who might know how to climb a tree."
"I did, when I was very small," she admitted, "but it has been many years."
"Never mind, then. We can only try to encourage Edmund, as you said."
"And these boots," continued she, "have no gripping ability -- but perhaps if I took them off."
At that moment Edmund gave a terrified shriek, and that decided the matter. Miss Valentine thanked her good angel that she had worn stout stockings against the damp, as she untied her boots.
"Hold on for one more minute, Edmund," she shouted, "I am coming up to get you."
"Are you sure?" asked Mr. Carris.
"You suggested it," she reminded him tartly. "Now, if you could, er..."
Without needing to be instructed, he picked her up by the waist and gave her a strong boost towards the first branch. So much for ladylike modesty, she thought, hoisting her skirt up, and reaching for the next bough. It really was not difficult to reach Edmund, and it seemed that climbing trees was one of those skills one never forgets. In not more than a minute or so she was just below Edmund, praying with all her might that Mr. Carris was right about the weight bearing capacity of her current perch, as it swayed slightly beneath her. She hooked her left arm around the trunk, and reached for Edmund.
"Are you safe?" called Mr. Carris from below.
"Perfectly so," she replied, hoping that Mr. Carris's view of her was blocked by some of the foliage. Her skirt had twisted up around her during the climb to such a degree that she rather hoped Ellie would not be able to find Gardener and his ladder just yet. It was bad enough to have the guests looking at her legs, without exposing herself to the servants in such a compromising position.
Meanwhile, she had made a first attempt at freeing Edmund, but his shoe was really very tightly wedged in a fork of two branches, and as she tugged Edmund screamed that she was making him fall.
"Now Edmund, don't be silly. Aunt Maude is right here. Put your hand over here and hold on where I am." Precariously, she jerked him into a more upright position, nearly losing her own grip as she did so. Breathing hard, she made a second attempt at the stuck shoe.
"I said it was stuck," said Edmund with unnecessary satisfaction, now that he did not feel quite so much in danger of falling.
"I see that. Then we must take off your shoe," she said reasonably, beginning to untie it. "Slip your foot out and you will be free."
"I can't climb with one shoe," he wailed.
"For pity's sake!" exclaimed Miss Valentine with understandable impatience. "Take off your other shoe, then, and drop it to the ground. Oh heavens! Are you there, Mr. Carris?"
"Near miss, that!" he replied from just below them.
"You must warn people if you are going to drop something from above, Edmund," she scolded.
The descent was nowhere near as easy as it had been going up. She had to go backwards in front of Edmund, making sure he stepped down in safe places, and as it was difficult to attend to Edmund and herself at the same time, her skirt kept getting caught.
"It's a wonder you got up so far in the first place, Edmund!" she exclaimed. "If you are going to climb trees, you must learn to do it properly. Always test where you are going to put your foot, and hold on with both hands while you do so. Yes, that's better."
She heard Mr. Carris laugh. "That's right, Edmund," he shouted. "Listen to your aunt -- why, she's a champion climber!"
At this, Miss Valentine hastily tugged at her skirt with a free hand, and succeeded in making it untwist a little; and not too soon, either. She could see by looking down that they were nearly on the last branch. One more step for her, and several more for Edmund. And Mr. Carris was just behind her! Heavens! There was no graceful way to dismount, but before she could decide which was the least embarrassing way to do it, she felt his hands grasp her and swing her to earth. Thank goodness he had the sense to turn his back while she adjusted her skirt and petticoats and put her feet back into her boots.
And just as she straightened up, John Gardener appeared with a ladder, followed by a breathless Ellie -- who appeared a little disappointed to find her brother safe on the ground. Miss Valentine hoped they hadn't seen anything as they came up -- but neither seemed to notice anything amiss: if anything they were surprised to find everything so unexcitingly normal.
There was a suspicion of injury in John's voice too. "Ah, so Master Edmund was not so stuck as ye thought. Ye won't be needing me, then."
"Thank you very much for coming so quickly, Gardener," interposed Miss Valentine. "We really were anxious; and I thought it would be safest to wait for your ladder, but that Edmund felt he was going to fall."
"Of course it's a good thing the youngster's not hurt," mumbled John, mollified.
"I hesitate to ask you, but Edmund's shoe is still stuck in the topmost bough, just at that fork, you see. Do you think you could retrieve it? It is very high, so I wouldn't ask, but I am sure if anyone could do it you would be the person -- " Miss Valentine cleverly poured on the flattery.
"Ah, won't take me but a moment, Miss Valentine," said John, eager to put the ladder to use after all. He climbed up with expert ease. "Y'see, I've me shears just here and I think I can hook the wee shoe with the long handle just so -- "
"Here it comes," shouted Tilda, having recovered from her hysterics in the interest of watching this delicate operation. And just so, down tumbled the shoe, and down stepped John to much applause.
"All's well that ends well," said Miss Valentine, when John had retired from the field with his ladder. "Edmund, put on your shoes. We are now extremely late for your dinner."
"Can't you carry me? I think I feel tired," said sly Edmund, nevertheless sitting down to put on the shoes.
"If you are a big enough boy to climb trees, you can certainly walk to the house by yourself," retorted she.
"Mr. Carris? Will you give me a horsey-back ride?" next suggested the little strategist.
"I -- " began that gentleman, but Miss Valentine interrupted hastily.
"Nonsense! I'm ashamed of you, Edmund! Ellie is no doubt a great deal more tired than you are, running half over the country to fetch ladders for you; and I haven't heard her begging for rides."
Ellie brightened up and put her nose in the air, to Tilda's dismay; and Edmund had no recourse but to tie his shoes and trudge off with the others.
"And what about you?" inquired Mr. Carris, offering his arm to Miss Valentine as they walked behind the children. "The intrepid heroine! But I daresay you are unabashed by adventure and undaunted by danger."
"Oh, stop, Mr. Carris!" she cried. "I feel quite embarrassed."
"No need for that. I assure you most solemnly, Miss Valentine, I am all admiration for your resourcefulness and courage! If anyone should feel ashamed, it is I, for letting a lady do all the work and take all the danger."
"There was very little danger involved," she protested.
"Nevertheless, I feel rather silly and rather useless."
It was her turn to offer reassurance. "None of that, Mr. Carris: I was very glad to have your sensible support and advice. Who knows what might have happened had you not suggested the idea of climbing to rescue Edmund?"
"Well, I cannot agree -- I think you would have been just as courageous without me. Why, I shall never forget the sight of you fearlessly scaling that tree like a -- "
"Oh please, stop!" cried Miss Valentine, blushing again. She had no desire to know what she resembled when scaling a tree. "I beg you, do not mention it again." Then, realizing she had sounded perhaps too abrupt, she added: "The less Edmund's mother hears about it, the better. I hope you will say as little about it -- "
"My dear Miss Valentine!" he interrupted. "You do not think I am one to tell tales! I will certainly say no more about it, if you wish, but I must persist in thinking you the bravest lady of my acquaintance."
"Thank you, Mr. Carris," she said with dignity. "And thank you for all your help."
"Enough said: let us agree each to think as highly as possible of the other, but in silence."
She could not help laughing at this; he smiled down at her in a way that certainly would have made Kate swoon, if she had seen it. They had nearly reached the house, so he said no more, but bowed and left them.
"What a stupid week it has been!" exclaimed George after tea the next evening.
To Miss Valentine's relief, when they entered the house Lady Burnham had rushed to tell them that Bradshaw should return by tomorrow's coach. Miss Valentine had reason to be doubly thankful, for in the importance of the news the afternoon's adventure was passed over with a brief mention, and their lateness to dinner hardly even noticed. And the children were all worn out by unaccustomed exercise and went to bed with hardly a murmur, leaving Miss Valentine free to enjoy a quiet evening of -- doing nothing, it seemed. For some reason she did not feel quite as happy about Bradshaw resuming her duties as she had expected to. Changing one's habits is always difficult, she reflected. Surely there was no other reason for her malaise.
At least she was not the only one afflicted by boredom. George had been yawning for the last hour at least.
"I say, Carris," he said. "Everyone is exceedingly stupid. Let us do something -- we must make a scheme of some sort; tour a castle or drive to the Roman ruins, anything but sit around dozing at home."
"You have been doing as much dozing as anyone, Burnham," laughed Mr. Carris. "It's a fine thing to complain of stupidity when your entire family has been entertaining me while you sleep."
"I should love to see a Roman ruin, Uncle George," said Kate, not so much to save him from teasing as to show her real enthusiasm for the idea. They lived in a quiet neighborhood and she did not go out much.
"See, Carris," said George, with satisfaction. "Let us go tomorrow."
"It looks as if it will rain tomorrow," objected Mr. Carris. "And we must make our plans so we can have a day of it, with a picnic and all. It must be Saturday."
"Ooh, yes! A picnic!" said agreeable Kate.
"Kate, dear," interposed her mother.
"What are you thinking, Kate?" demanded Sir Gerald. "Stupid girl! You cannot go gallivanting around the countryside alone with two young men, even if one of them is your uncle!"
"What would people think?" wondered Lady Burnham, looking faint at the very idea.
"They'd think she's a madcap girl with no respectable parents, is what they would think," said Sir Gerald.
Kate looked crushed. Tears started to her pretty eyes, whether of disappointment or of humiliation at being set down by her father in company, or both combined, Miss Valentine could not tell.
"Why as to that," said Mr. Carris, "Miss Valentine shall go too, of course. My carriage holds four very comfortably."
"Of course, let us make it a large party," said George a trifle testily. "Let us have the whole family, children and all. We shall have dozens of them crawling underfoot, but if a few of the smaller ones fall out along the way, I daresay it'll be of no matter."
"Come, Burnham, do not be such a mollycoddle. I cannot believe you would complain about escorting two ladies to enjoy a picnic in the country."
"Yes, and to see the ruins! How lovely! Is it a long drive, Uncle George?" asked Kate, recovering her spirits with great elasticity.
Under cover of the general conversation about the best roads to take, Mr. Carris approached Miss Valentine where she sat working at some embroidery by the table.
"I hope you will like to go, Miss Valentine," he said, hesitantly.
"Oh, do not worry about me," she said. "I am sure it will be very nice."
"But I ought to have asked you first, perhaps."
Well! Very courteous to concern himself about the feelings of an old-maid chaperone, she thought. Aloud she replied politely, "Oh no, sir, I am very content to go. I could not disappoint Kate -- she is so excited about the expedition."
"She is indeed," he said warmly, turning his head to gaze across the room. "I own I was a little shocked at her father -- surely it was unnecessary to speak so harshly! I myself could never bear to make her sad, to darken those bright eyes. She is an irresistible little creature, is she not, Miss Valentine?"
Miss Valentine agreed dryly that Kate was completely irresistible. Never argue with a man in love.
The day of the excursion dawned as beautiful as any of the adventurers could have wished it, sparkling with the last remnants of yesterday's rain.
"Oh, Auntie Vals!" cried Kate as they stepped toward the waiting carriage. "Look -- look at that spider web just there by the gate, all covered in dewdrops. How glorious it is! Everything is covered in fairy dust!"
"It will be pleasant today, at least. This breeze will keep the heat off," replied Miss Valentine, feeling extremely unromantic at the moment. It was all she could do to keep from scowling at Kate, who was throwing her arms open toward the cool air with very charming abandon. She had thought herself resigned to spinsterhood as inevitable, but this was the first time she had ever been asked to chaperone Kate; and the contrast between their ages and positions was a little too disconcerting. Despite Mr. Carris's polite gallantries, she could not pretend that they were just two young ladies setting off to be admired by everyone on a beautiful summer's day. If that were true, she would not have been asked to go particularly to guard Kate's reputation. It was unutterably depressing.
The drive to the ruins was a long one, but not irksome, not with the blue sky overhead and a good road beneath -- not, at least to Kate, who chattered eagerly nearly the whole way. She wanted to know if Mr. Carris had ever seen any ruins before, and were there any near his estate, because she had heard that there were a great many old castles and fortifications in Wales, and whether he thought them very romantic. And did ruined castles not remind him of The Mysteries of Udolpho -- she did not look at Miss Valentine as she asked this, but she pressed her foot slyly under the cover of their skirts. And Mr. Carris talked too, very easily: he laughed when she asked about the novel and said that although he had enjoyed Udolpho very much, these ruins were most unlike the ones in the book.
"I hope you are not disappointed, Miss Burnham," he said. "You must not expect anything too striking, too forbidding. These Roman roads and city walls were constructed not to frighten or inspire awe but to provide for a flourishing society."
"I suppose that is true," said Kate, matching his half-serious tone, "But they are so very old, and so unlike anything that has been built since -- is there not something romantic in their very age and history?"
"That is a very good way of putting it, Miss Burnham," he returned. "They are worth seeing, even if they are not inhabited by dark and sinister rogues or shadowed by violent deeds. George, you've been there before, haven't you? Am I right?"
"Never been in my life," said George shortly. "I hope Fredericks packed us a good luncheon."
"What's the matter with you, Burnham?"
"He got up too early," said Kate, with a peal of laughter.
"Well, do buck up, my dear fellow," said Mr. Carris. "Why, we are almost there already."
This was true enough, and for all their varying moods, they were all four equally glad to get out of the cramped carriage and stretch their legs. To Miss Valentine's astonishment, as they began to climb the small grassy hill that led up to the ruin, Mr. Carris offered his arm -- to her, not to Kate. Very kind, she thought. He hates to have anyone left out; look at how he tried to bring George into the conversation on the way. Whatever else he is, he is certainly kind-hearted. Kate is very fortunate.
Not only that, but he was soliciting her opinion with enthusiasm. "You were very silent on the way, Miss Valentine. Have you seen any of the ancient ruins before?"
"No, I never have," she said. "I think they will be very interesting." Goodness, how dull and dry she sounded. But she could hardly rave about the romance of the place, like Kate. For one thing, it would not be becoming -- middle-aged spinsters should not rave, or risk appearing very silly -- and for another thing Kate already had that particular tactic pretty well covered.
"Do you like history?" he asked.
"Yes, some of it. But it is only when you stop to think about it, to imagine it, that history is really interesting." She made an effort to be communicative, and found herself speaking with more emphasis than she had intended. "To think that this whole part of the country was once filled with Romans in their villas -- I hope that the ruins will help me imagine it."
"They do that, for me. There -- just there is the beginning of the wall."
Kate had caught up to them just behind and she cried at once: "Oh do let us go right up to it and touch it!"
"We shall indeed, Miss Burnham. You shall feel the romance of the stones beneath your very fingers."
Kate clapped her hands.
They had to climb a stile and cross a farmer's field to come right up to the ruins. It will be very romantic indeed if Kate manages to step in a cowpat, thought Miss Valentine.
As if he could hear her thoughts, Mr. Carris leaned closer to her to murmur, "I hope the presence of so many ordinary British cows do not dampen Miss Kate's impression of glorious history!" But he did not sound worried; he was actually laughing.
Miss Valentine wondered if a true lover could laugh at his lady; but when they came to the walls Mr. Carris did seem very solicitous, helping Kate over the broken stones fallen down from the wall until she stood just under the massive bulwark itself. She leaned against it, tilting her head back to look up.
"Oh, Mr. Carris, I never imagined it could be so imposing! Look how large the stones are, and how massively it is built. I think you spoke wrongly; it is awe-inspiring."
"I am very glad you are not disappointed," he replied, sounding really pleased. "This was the city wall, you know; and perhaps you are right -- Britain was a wild country at that time and no doubt these great walls provided a strong sense of comfort and safety to the inhabitants."
"It's a pity we can't see it as it was then."
"Yes; a great many of the stones were pulled down, I believe, to construct later buildings. But you must not regret that too much, for some of our oldest churches and castles owe their grand edifices to the stones of these Roman ruins."
"It is a pity, all the same," said Kate stubbornly.
"Let us go a little further," he suggested. "According to the guidebook, there should be something not a mile from here, that you perhaps will like even better." He turned to Miss Valentine as he said this, with one of those conspiratorial smiles of his.
"I have a better idea: let us have our lunch," muttered George; but Kate had already set off, walking along the wall with her hand trailing across the edges of the cut stones, and climbing energetically over the hillocks and pieces of broken stone beneath.
They walked for some time in silence, Kate tossing her head to the breeze and lifting her face to the sun that gilded the yellow stone. Mr. Carris had given Miss Valentine his arm again, for some reason she could not fathom. Probably he thought her on the edge of decrepitude and feeble with old age.
At length, consulting the guidebook he had brought with him, Mr. Carris called them to a halt, just as they came to an open area. The wall on their left seemed to have fallen down completely, except for a round fortification of some kind, but across the line of the stones ran a wide, paved lane. "Here we are," he said. "Now," to Miss Valentine, "you can imagine it."
"What is it meant to be?" asked Kate, disappointed. "There is nothing to see; the wall is all fallen down."
"Not exactly," he said. "Miss Valentine? Are you imagining?"
"It is the road!" Miss Valentine could not help feeling gratified despite his rather smug smile. "This is the Roman road, Kate. See how the stones are fitted together beneath our feet? Still tightly, after so many, many years. And that means that this -- " she gestured toward the empty space with the round shape to the left.
"-- was once a fortified gate," filled in Mr. Carris triumphantly.
Miss Valentine hated to admit it, but he was exactly right. To stand in this spot, where bustling Roman crowds had once entered the city, did thrill her. She half-closed her eyes, and thought she could almost feel the stones beneath her feet tremble with the massive tread of a Roman legion.
Kate was evidently not impressed with an equal sense of delight. "It is a great pity it is all torn down," she said again.
"Shall we have our lunch?" put in George, taking his opportunity.
They sat in the shade of a beech tree on a smooth rise of ground within view of the ruined gate. Miss Valentine could not help thinking once again of the vanished people who might once have stopped there in the same shade: children playing ball, perhaps, or farmers resting on their way to market. But she must not abandon herself to her dreamy mood; she could see that Kate was drooping. Either the heat was too much for her after all, which Miss Valentine doubted, or she was feeling the neglect of Mr. Carris's attention. He, on the other hand, seemed to be enjoying himself thoroughly: he was telling George about the engineering of Roman roads, while George devoted himself to his cold turkey.
In fact, as George's replies came shorter and shorter, Miss Valentine found herself putting in vague answering noises, if only to fill the silences; and Mr. Carris, either in gratitude or desperation, turned toward her with relief.
"I don't really know anything about the subject," she protested, abashed.
"You speak as if you do," said he. "You did notice the stone work in the road."
"That is only because I like to observe detail. But didn't it take a very long time to lay down a road so carefully?" she asked, to turn attention away from herself.
"That is the marvelous part," replied Mr. Carris, joyfully. "Such a level of precision, combined with efficiency and speed, still sets an example that our modern engineering has yet to attain. I cannot help being amazed -- although," he added repentantly, "I am no doubt boring everyone."
"Have you always had such a passion for history?" asked Kate, with an almost menacing emphasis. It was clear that she had no relish for the conversation: the romance of history was one thing, but tiresome details destroyed all the poetry for her.
"Oh it is not really the history, Miss Burnham, although as your aunt said, the daily life of times past does fire my imagination. No, I have an abiding interest in mechanics and engineering, ever since my boyhood when I loved to construct dams in the creek."
"Is that how you came to be soaked in the stream when you visited your uncle's house?" asked Miss Valentine, a little mischievously, as the idea occurred to her.
"You have found me out, and very cleverly. I cannot think how you see through me so well, Miss Valentine," he said, grinning at her. "Yes, there is still a wide spot in the brook at home, formed by the ruins of one of my creations still partially obstructing the flow. I believe I caused all sorts of trouble and inconvenience to the groundskeeper -- at one time I nearly flooded the lower end of the garden."
"It is interesting how one's childhood pursuits never quite disappear," she observed.
"Such as with persons who like to climb trees, for instance."
"Oh! -- Yes, that is a good example." Miss Valentine tried not to look conscious.
It was now Kate's turn to look dark and suggest that they go home at once, and for the moment she and her uncle ranged on the same side. Mr. Carris protested that they had not seen very much yet, and suggested searching for artifacts, but Kate and George would not be moved. Miss Valentine thought it safer to say nothing at all. Kate was not looking very friendly.
They had so far been sightseeing in comparative solitude; one might see a farmer at a distance, but there had been no fellow-travelers to disturb the impressive peace of the ruin. But as they trailed slowly toward the carriage, a genteel middle-aged man appeared walking toward them with his hands clasped behind his back. He was dressed well but simply, and now in the distance they could see a small vehicle drawn up not far from their own.
Miss Valentine heard Kate say just behind her: "Why that looks like Sir James Meade."
"Can't be. He is still abroad," replied George.
"No, I think it is he," persisted Kate. "He is a great historian. If it is Sir James, we must introduce him to Mr. Carris. No doubt they should get on famously." Kate's tone was not without a suspicion of sarcasm, Miss Valentine thought.
As they drew closer, the gentleman raised his head, proving to be without a doubt the very same Sir James; and he seemed as surprised to meet them as they him. "Why Burnham, is that you? And can this be Miss Burnham?"
Kate curtsied prettily. "Sir James, we all thought you were still abroad. What a pleasant surprise to meet you here!"
"In fact, I returned only just last week. And the pleasure is all mine, by far. You will excuse an old family friend saying how very lovely you look, Miss Burnham. I have been away too long when I come back to find girls grown up into young ladies."
"Sir, you are too kind," said she, tilting her head to look up at him (he was a very tall man) and dropping her eyelashes with a girlish blush. Miss Valentine couldn't tell if she was doing it on purpose or not, but it was not beyond Kate to coquette outrageously if she thought it advantageous. Miss Valentine reflected that she ought to have a talk with Kate.
"I do not believe I am acquainted with your companions," suggested Sir James.
"Friend of mine from Oxford," put in George. "Paul Carris. And you know Miss Valentine."
"Indeed, I do not have that honor."
"She came to live with us after Sir James had already gone to India, do not you remember, Uncle George? This is my mother's sister, Miss Maude Valentine."
Sir James looked mildly surprised, but murmured something that sounded vaguely flattering. He probably thought their company a very oddly-assorted one.
Miss Valentine said that she was very happy to meet him and that she had heard a great deal about him and his travels.
"And do you like to travel yourself, Miss Valentine?" he inquired politely.
"Oh no, sir -- that is, I hardly know. I have not had the opportunity; not often, and I have never traveled very far," she said, wondering privately why every man she met of late seemed to ask her about traveling.
"That is a pity," said Sir James. "I find there is nothing like traveling for seeing new things."
There followed a very awkward moment, which Kate gracefully filled by saying that everyone would be overjoyed to have Sir James back in the neighborhood and that her parents would no doubt be happy to see him at Burnham House at his earliest convenience. She punctuated this last with a sidelong glance at him, that seemed to speak very little of her parents' feelings but much of her own desolation in the years of his absence. Miss Valentine thought it disgraceful.
The ride back was as silent as the morning had been animated, and on the whole the excursion did not seem to have been entirely an overwhelming success. Some of the party regretted this more than others, and all were silently blaming the others for their disappointment. Miss Valentine could not help thinking that Kate had been rather childish and petty. Apparently she could not be satisfied with anything less than constant worship at her altar. Well she was young after all; but nothing, her critical aunt thought, could excuse that ridiculous display with Sir James Meade. Miss Valentine had been thoroughly ashamed of her.
The picnic did have one conclusive result, however, in the visit of Sir James not many days later. As it happened, when he called Lady Burnham had withdrawn to bed with a headache, leaving only Kate and Miss Valentine sitting in the morning room to receive him. They had both been reading in silence; Miss Valentine was not sure Kate had yet forgiven her for the failure of the outing, although she was not certain how exactly it was supposed to be her fault. At any rate, Kate seemed utterly absorbed in her novel, and Miss Valentine, impatient with total silence, had fetched a history text from the library and was acquiring a supreme wealth of knowledge of Roman Britain. The ruins had interested her, and she had wished to be able to talk sensibly about them. Mr. Carris knew so much!
The atmosphere was thus not particularly welcoming when Sir James walked in, although it was a little unfair that neither lady was very pleased to see him, poor man. Both of them laid down their books politely, but with reluctance. After everyone's good health had been ascertained and the weather approved, Miss Valentine could see that Kate was not in a flirting mood today. Or perhaps her coquetry had been aimed at someone else. She did not show any sign of wishing to please Sir James, that much was clear.
This made Miss Valentine indignant, and she exerted herself.
"Sir James, are you not going to tell us all about India?" she said, as warmly as she could. "We ladies are so constrained to stay at home, we love to hear about other countries, don't we, Kate?"
"Why yes," said Kate, idly flipping the pages of her book. "I suppose it was very charming, most like a novel, with all the exotic people and funny foods and things."
If she had been close enough, Miss Valentine would have kicked her. "Were you representing the government, sir? I know very little, you see, for I was not here when you departed."
"That is right, Miss Valentine," said he, turning toward her. "I lived very comfortably, but it was not much like living in Europe, for all that. The bungalow always open to the warm air, and the colors and smells -- it is difficult to describe to someone who has never been there."
"And do you speak Hindustani?"
"Yes, although not very well. But I could communicate well enough with the Indians when necessary. Most of those employed by the government speak English much better than I do their language." He spoke a few words with an odd rhythmic sound.
"Oh, that is poetic," said Kate, momentarily caught. She leaned back in her chair. "Say more, Sir James."
He said a longer sentence this time.
"Yes, but we must wonder what it means," put in Miss Valentine. "For all we know, he could be telling us about the sore leg of the neighbor's lost goat."
"Whatever do you mean? Why would anyone talk about goats?" retorted Kate.
"Oh no, it was nothing like that," said Sir James seriously. "What I said was ‘How do you do' and then ‘What a beautiful garden you have here'."
"There, you see, Aunt."
"It sounded very beautiful. Silly of me to think otherwise," agreed Miss Valentine, careful not to smile.
"Do you draw, Sir James?" Kate asked, or rather demanded, but Sir James did not seem offended.
"I have never learnt, alas."
"It's too bad, for I should have liked to see pictures of India," said Kate, apparently having recovered a least a semblance of politeness, and speaking more graciously than before, although her words did not offer much.
"I have tried, Miss Burnham, believe me; but I was so ashamed of my efforts that I destroyed them all. But I do have some engravings."
"Ah, but engravings have not a personal touch." Kate was too quick to show disappointment, but far from blaming her for discourtesy, Sir James seemed to take this as a personal failing of his own.
"Not everyone is blessed with talent," he said regretfully. "And speaking of talent, are you not a great musician? You see I have already heard reports of you since my return."
Kate vouchsafed a modest flutter of her eyelids. "I do love to play, indeed. It is one of my few joys in life."
Here Miss Valentine turned her head aside, as she could not quite prevent herself from rolling her eyes.
"Then you must share this joy with me!" exclaimed Sir James eagerly. "Will you not play something for me?"
"I have just been learning the harp, and if you do not mind some stumbles, I would rather play that than the pianoforte."
"Oh please -- I enjoy harp music above anything."
"I must beg you in advance to forgive my mistakes, Sir James," said Kate, crossing to the harp, which stood in the window. "I should hate to spoil your pleasure in the instrument, for it is beautiful. I love it."
"You could not spoil my pleasure in anything, I believe," said he earnestly.
Miss Valentine wondered if they would ever get to the music, at this rate. But apparently Kate thought the same, for without another word she seated herself at the harp and began to play.
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