Page:010 Once a week Volume X Dec 1863 to Jun 64.pdf/68

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[Jan. 9, 1864.
ONCE A WEEK.

seen anything so sombre yet so lustrous as the eyes. Some brilliant drapery was folded round her head like a turban, giving an oriental effect. I do not know what the charade was; I never thought of asking. The idea must have been something about a slave; a slave loaded with splendour, and yet chafing under a sense of degradation and captivity. At least so she, in her acting, seemed to render it. She went through a strange pantomime, wrenching at the gilded chains that shackled her wrists, flinging her jewels passionately on the ground, and speaking forth shame and despair from her dumb face with terrible reality. I felt it unaccountably strange to see her thus for the first time, acting with such a piteous mimicry of truth in this gay crowd, dressed with such magnificence, and expressing so vividly her hatred of herself, her beauty, and her adornments. I said, how can this girl act so unless she feels it? What troubles her? Why is she so wretched? And then I smiled at myself for a foolish old man of the mountains, who was behind the age, and knew nothing of the cunning of such clever displays. But, my beautiful Miss Grace, I said, how will these fantastic accomplishments thrive at Bracken Hollow?

I saw her next at a distance in the ballroom, after the performance had ended. She was the centre of a group of evident admirers, and was laughing and sparkling all over with merriment. Her dress was a robe of something white, which flashed about her as she moved; and I remember that her hair was I bound with something blood-red, like coral. I saw our hostess move towards her, for the purpose, I knew, of acquainting her with the: fact of my arrival. Her cheeks had been flushing, her lips smiling, but all at once flush and smile vanished, leaving her pale and still. She turned abruptly away from the disappointed group, and slowly followed the lady messenger from the room. A minute afterwards I was introduced to her in a dim anteroom, where the softly-shed light was yet sufficient to show me the shrinking step, the pained lip, the white cheek, and the one rapid terrified glance from eyes that were instantly averted and obstinately refused to meet mine again.

What was it! Conscience winced. It was true that I had indulged an unwarrantable prejudice against this girl; and could it be also true that there may arise, without the communication of a word, with scarce that of a look, some swift subtle instinct, passing from one spirit to another, warning of the existence of dislike or distrust, even as such an instinct is said in other instances to herald the approach of faith or of love?

Our greeting was short and embarrassed. I had long since forgotten the more polished forms of address between ladies and gentlemen of the world. I could have spoken a kind word to this frightened child had I met her at home among the mountains, but here in these courtly chambers the mere spontaneous good-will of nature seemed out of place. I saw her glide back to the ball-room with a blanched, cowed aspect, but with a something of proud reserve that forbade observation. She seated herself at a distant table and affected to turn over some drawings, but her face was often averted to the shuttered window beside her, as though she studied some record of absorbing interest written on the blank of the painted wood. And so, despite my former determined indifference to everything concerning Miss Grace Avon, I retired that night filled with a troubled perplexity, and strangely interested in the owner of the cold, damp, little hand that had for a moment touched mine, and the sombre eyes that had shunned me with an expression so much like pain and fear scarcely hidden under their lids.

We accomplished our journey in safety, but without effecting much more progress towards friendship than we had made on the evening of our first acquaintance. An impenetrable reserve sheathed the girl. Once or twice I detected her studying my face with a wistful, questioning expression in her eye, as though some burdensome secret hovered on her tongue, and she tried, unseen to sound me, to discover whether or not I might be trustworthy to receive that which she had to tell. This was the idea which impressed me at the time, and from which I could not free my thoughts. It seemed an absurd fancy, for what trouble could she have? And yet the impression would not be shaken off, but clung to me with annoying tenacity.

I assured myself that she was only timid, and shy of appearing among new friends. It will wear away, I said; and I tried to win her confidence and to be as kindly towards her as the thought of Hugh would suffer me to be.

I thought the wondrous vision of our glens will wake her up, for I feel that she has a soul: and who has ever seen our Glenariffe without enthusiasm, with its mists and breakers, its heathery crags and mossy knolls, its vivid rainbows and thundering falls?—even in its winter aspect, when every mountain that searches its sky is white from base to crown, when every pure peak stands like a sinless soul expecting its palm, and when the cry of hunted waters leaps from crag to crag, and is