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noticed that when he thought no one was observing, his eyes
would often rest on Isabel's queenly figure with an involuntary glance of deep interest. In outward manner he was cold, and almost abrupt towards her; and Isabel seemed to feel it keenly, and to shrink under it with a timidity which was very unlike her usual calm composure. As for Lilias and Kit, the fourth couple, it was a pleasure to see how they were enjoying themselves, the zest with which they prosecuted the grand occupation of the evening, dancing for dancing's sake alone, and thoroughly entering into the spirit of the ball. When the quadrille was over, Sir George came up to Helen with a young officer, who "requested the honour of dancing the reel, which was about to begin, with Miss Carrock.” That at an end, our heroine sat down to rest for a few minutes, and found herself side by side with an old friend, Miss Dodds, who had come, as she said, “ to look at the ploy."
“Well, my dear," began the worthy lady, “this is indeed a fine sight. I couldn't resist the temptation of coming when Lady Carlaverock was so kind as to ask me, though a ball-room is rather a strange place for an old woman like me to be in, who has no daughters to chaperone. However, though I can't dance myself, I like to watch those who do; and there's not a couple in the room that I've enjoyed looking at more than you and Captain Carlaverock. Oh, but you'd make a bonnie pair, you two! He's a gallant lad that, he is. Ab, my dear, I feel inclined to be quite jealous of you! Mr. Kit's been putting me up to the state of affairs, and I must say I think you're very fortunate.”
The hot blood rushed to Helen's face at these words, and she turned her head proudly away from her companion, saying, "Really, Miss Dodds, I don't know in the least what you mean; I'm extremely obliged to you and Master Erskine for the interest you take in my affairs, but I warn you not to believe everything he says; he's not very famous for speaking the truth.”
Provoking Miss Dodds only laughed merrily at Helen's attempt at stateliness. “Ah, well, my dear,” she said, “I understand. Some young ladies think the subject a most delightful one to discuss, and some don't; there's no accounting for tastes. However, we'll not talk any more about it if you'd rather not. As well not, I dare say. A love affair's like jelly, and we all know it doesn't do to stir that when it's boiling, or it won't turn out clear."
In vain Helen, almost driven wild by the effect of Kit's mischievous words, vehemently assured Miss Dodds that she was under a complete mistake. The good lady, delighted at having, as she supposed, been put in possession of such a piquant secret, remained obstinately immovable in her conviction, and all Helen could get from her, in answer to her explanations, was a little good-humoured smile of disbelief, accompanied by a wise shake of the head, which said as plainly as words could do, " Ah, you may talk till Doomsday, but I know what I know, and you'll not take me in so easily.”
Tears of vexation and annoyance came into Helen's eyes as she saw how useless it was to try and undeceive the gossip-loving old lady; and when Alec came up to ask her to dance the Lancers with him, she murmured some incoherent excuse about being tired, flushing painfully as she did so.
“Ah !” exclaimed Miss Dodds, repentantly, as Alec moved away with a look of disappointment, "what have I gone and done? Fie upon me for an old meddling chatterer, who must have a finger in everything. But never mind, my dear, never mind; I'll try and keep my tongue to myself next time. Oh, dear! had any one ever such an unruly member as mine is; it's always getting me into mischief! But there-we'll talk of something else, where may be I'll be on safer ground.”
Miss Dodds hemmed once or twice, by way of hyphen and full stop, and started a new subject, in a completely different key.
"Ah, my dear, how very sad it is about Miss Jean Carlaverock; Dr. Hodgson tells me there is no hope for her. So very melancholy it is for one so young. Sam went to read prayers with her the other day, and he said it was shocking to see how wasted the poor thing was. And, my dear, he made a most dreadfully awkward mistake. Did you hear? He imputed it to having his head full of the sermon he was composing, but I set it down to the fact that Captain Carlaverock was in the room. (I beg your pardon, my dear, I forgot.) Well, (nay, my dear, don't laugh, for really it was a shocking thing for a clergyman to do,) he actually began to read the Solemnization of Matrimony instead of the Visitation of the Sick! However, luckily he hadn't got beyond the first few words, when he found out his mistake; so it is to be hoped that no one noticed. Still, wasn't it awful, my dear? But poor Sam's so very absent; all those people are, I believe. It quite unfits him for being a parish priest; he'd much better have remained a Don at Oxford, as I often tell him— I thank your ladyship, I'm
very well,” said the worthy maiden, breaking off suddenly, to acknowledge Lady Carlaverock's condescending salutation, as she swept by, in violet moiré and white lace shawl, looking as little the invalid as could possibly be. “Ah, her ladyship's looking uncommonly well to-night,” resumed Miss Dodds, turning again to Helen. “Not much the matter with her, I should say. I begin to agree with Dr. Hodgson on that point.”
Helen had by this time become so tired of the old lady's chatter, that when the band struck up a waltz, and Alec came up again to beg that, if she were quite rested, she would be his partner, she was glad to accept his offer, as a means of getting away from Miss Dodds' seemingly irresistible flow of small talk. And, though her heart did beat a little faster and her cheeks flush as she saw the smile of intelligence with which her late companion watched them move away, and remembered the offensive remarks with which she had been regaling her, yet she soon forgot everything disagreeable in keen enjoyment of the rapid, inspiriting movement, as they glided round the large room, in the wake of a dozen other couples, to the graceful swimming measure of Lanner's waltz music. However, as the secret of perpetual motion has not yet been discovered, even the enjoyment of waltzing, exhilarating as it is, cannot go on for ever. Exhausted nature must perforce give way, and Helen, not being accustomed to dancing, soon grew giddy, and was obliged to cry her partner's mercy long before a fashionable young lady would have considered that she had got into the full swing. And when they did stop, and managed to disengage themselves from the charmed circle of whirling white muslin and flying coat tails, it seemed to Helen as though the floor were slipping from under her, and, flushed and panting, she clung to her partner's arm, to prevent herself from falling.
Alec looked at her anxiously. "I'm afraid waltzing doesn't agree with you,” he said ; "you should not have tried it."
"Oh, it's nothing," returned Helen, beginning to recover her breath; “but you know, I have never been at a ball before, and the only practice I have had in dancing has been a few lessons which Miss Alloway was kind enough to give me before she went away for her Christmas holidays."
“Well, you'd better come out of this hot room for a few minutes," replied Alec; and giving her his arm, they threaded their way out among the dancers, crossed the dining-room and hall, which were not much cooler than the ball-room, and were filled with couples strolling about, eating ices, or laughing and chatting gaily. Standing rather apart from the rest, Helen noticed Rosamund and young Lord Winyard, her partner in the first quadrille, with whom she was carrying on a vigorous flirtation.
“Let us go in here a moment,” said Alec, throwing open the door of the library; "it will be cool and quiet, and I think that is all you want to get rid of the giddiness that unfortunate waltzing has given
Quiet indeed the old library was, after the gay stir of the ball
A silver reading lamp stood on the centre table, but it had been placed there rather according to custom than from any idea that it would be wanted that night, when no one could be supposed to be studiously inclined. Outside, the calm light of the moon shone on the stainless snow, and shed a slanting white on the dark oak mullions of the uncurtained windows, though, as she had not long risen, her rays did not fall full on that side of the house. Helen sat down on one of the window-seats, while Alec took up his station opposite to her, and leaning his back against the shutter, stood looking thoughtfully out into the moonlight. For some minutes neither spoke; but at length it crossed Helen's mind that she had never thanked Alec for the geraniums.
“Don't think me very ungrateful for these beautiful flowers,” she began, looking up suddenly; but encountering the young soldier's eyes bent upon her, she stopped abruptly. Something there was in the expression of those steadfast eyes which brought the colour to her face, and made her heart beat very fast, and the frankly-begun sentence finished in a very unintelligible murmur about “ trouble,” &c.
“Trouble?" repeated Alec. “No, Helen, it is my greatest pleasure to do anything for you. Helen," he continued, bending forward, and speaking in a voice of deep concentrated feeling ; "next to serving God, it is my dearest wish to devote my life to making you happy. I did not intend to say this to-night; I wished to be quite sure of your love before I showed you mine; but I cannot keep it back longer. Even when I was a boy I had an idea of what my wife should be. I thought of her, I dreamed of her, but till I met you I never saw any one who realised my dream. Helen, you are all that I ever fancied, and a thousand times more. You are my ideal; will you be my reality ?"
When Alec began to speak, Helen's heart had bounded with a throb of strange undefined joy, but it was smothered almost immediately by
an overwhelming flood of recollections, which surged up tumultuously in her mind, carrying all before it. What was this ? She had never so much as dreamt of things taking such a turn. Even when feeling uncomfortable and vexed at Miss Dodds' words, she had only resented them as disagreeable gossip, no thought of the real state of affairs ever having crossed her mind. And now it had all come upon her so suddenly that she had no time to think. She could remember nothing but those old prejudices, brooded over from childhood, and nourished and partially kept alive by Ronald's words. Her promise to him in the old chapel, long, long ago, flashed upon her now with almost painful vividness. Yes, it should be kept, cost what it might! Cost? what was she thinking of? It would require no sacrifice, for she did not love him,—no, she was quite sure of that. Like him she did, thoroughly, but she had never thought of anything else. And now, what was she to say ? Put an end to it she must, and at once. Yet her mind was in such a whirl that it was with difficulty she could steady her voice sufficiently to speak.
“Oh, please don't ask me,” she faltered out; "indeed, indeed it cannot be !!!
Alec had been waiting patiently for her answer, for, whatever were the state of his own feelings, he was far too unselfish to wish to hurry her, but he had evidently not expected this answer, and he took up her words in an eager and pleading tone.
“But why cannot it be, Helen ? Is it that you cannot love me? or have I been too hasty ?-I will not press you now, take what time you like to consider,--but oh, Helen, remember that you have my happiness in your hands."
She did not answer immediately, and when the words did come, she almost started at the hard, unnatural tone of her own voice.
“No, it can never be,-you are a Carlaverock, and what good has ever come of connexions between the two houses ?”
Alec started, these were hard words to be spoken by a young girl, and he felt that deeply rooted and bitter must be the feeling in which they originated. And yet she looked so girlishly fair as she sat there with downcast eyes, shrinking and blushing before him, that he found it almost impossible to believe she could harbour such feelings of rancour as her words seemed to imply. For some moments he did not speak, but Helen could see that the band which rested on the window-sill trembled excessively.