The Fate of Fenella/Chapter 1


THE FATE OF FENELLA.




CHAPTER I.

BY HELEN MATHERS.

"FENELLA."

And dinna ye mind, love Gregory,
 As we twa sate at dine,
How we changed the rings frae our fingers,
 And I can show thee thine?

Her hair, gloves, and shoes were tan-color, and closely allied to tan, too, was the tawny, true tiger tint of her hazel eyes. For the rest, she was entirely white save for her dark lashes and brows, the faint tint of rose in her small cheeks, and a deeper red in her lips that were parted just then in a spasm of silent, delighted mirth. She stood on the top steps of the Prospect Hotel, Harrogate, waiting for the coach to come round, and looking across the hotel gardens to the picturesque Stray beyond, upon which a unique game of cricket was just then going forward, to the intense diversion of all beholders. Two little boys had evidently started it on their own hook, and a variety of casuals had dropped in to bear a hand, the most distinguished of these being a nigger minstrel, who, in full war-paint, and with deep lace ruffles falling over his sooty hands, was showing all his white teeth, and batting with a prowess that kept the whole field in action.

"I hope Ronny won't get his pate cracked," said the girl, half aloud, as the four grays drew up with a flourish, and the usual bustle on the steps began. "Good-morning, George!" and she nodded brightly to the good-looking driver, who beamed all over, and touched his hat, for the girl had clambered to many a pleasant drive beside him during the past fortnight.

"Box-seat again!" snapped a spiteful female voice behind her. "I wonder she is allowed to monopolize the best seat as she does, day after day!"

The girl laughed, as, giving a brief glimpse of a soft mass of whiteness above silken hose, she swung lightly up to the perch that was indeed wide enough to accommodate three persons, though the privilege of occupying the third lay entirely within George's jurisdiction, and was never, save to an old favorite, accorded.

"Where are we going to-day?" she said, as she settled herself comfortably, and unfurled a big tan-color sunshade. "Not to any of those tiresome show-places, I hope? I'm so tired of them!"

"No, miss," said George, who refused, even in the teeth of Ronny, to recognize her as anything but a slip of a girl, "we're going for a drive of my own; just dawdling about a bit like, and nowhere in particular."

"Jolly!" she said, sniffing up the pure air as if she loved it, and with that delightful quality of enjoyment in her voice which acts like an elixir on surrounding company. "Do you know, I mean to come up here every year to drink the waters, for I've got to love the place!"

George looked delighted as he glanced round to see if all his cargo was aboard, but as usual everyone was waiting for the inevitable person who is always late, and who will probably be late for his own funeral if he can possibly manage it.

"Most people who come here once, come again, miss," said George, twisting the lash of his whip into a knot. "There's one gentleman who never misses a season, and I was going to ask you, as a favor, if you'd mind his coming on the box-seat this morning? He 'most always had it last year. I told him I must ask a lady's consent, so we're to pick him up outside the Pump-room if you're quite agreeable."

"Is he fat?" said the girl dubiously, and feeling that her drive would be quite spoiled.

"He's as slight as a poplar," said George, his face lightening up, "and he's a gentleman, miss, and you can't say more than that. There's so few of 'em about nowadays!"

The cargo was now complete. The miscellaneous crowd that daily assembled to witness the departure of the coach fell back, the horses stretched out into a gallop, and skirting the hotel garden, with its lounging seats, and cheerful awnings, rounded the corner with a flourish, emerging on the Stray with a musical horn-blowing that made Ronny, in the distance, hold up his little flushed face to his mother, and wave the bat he was so very seldom allowed to use.

The girl waved and kissed her hand lovingly to the boy, and the nigger appropriating the compliment to himself, and promptly returning the same, while he also tried to combine business and pleasure by hitting a ball, lost his balance, and sat down in a large puddle. Quaint and varied were the aspects of life afforded by the Stray, that curious piece of ground secured to the townspeople forever, that in some parts almost resembles a fair; while in others, ancient trees shut in stately houses that have all the dignity and peace of a cathedral close.

In the open a band was playing, nigger minstrels were performing, children played, old maids cackled, pigeons flocked, fortune-tellers plied their craft, and old couples sat side by side like puffins, warming themselves in the sun. Even in this inevitable groaning Salvation Army lasses and lads were there, combining piety and wealth with that astuteness which is so distinguishinga feature of their peculiar religion.

And the thoroughly English scene, so full of human life, and steeped through and through with such a glory of September air and sunshine as even summer had not dared to promise, or even tried to fulfill, gave extraordinary pleasure to the heart, making one feel, with Lucretius, that "he who has grown weary of remaining at home often goes forth, and suddenly returns, inasmuch as he perceived he is nothing better for being abroad."

Down the steep incline in George's smartest style, past the Crown Hotel, that should surely be at the top of the hill, not the bottom, and so to the Pump-room, where with a clash and a clatter he draws up, scanning the crowd of people, who, having drunk their nauseous doses inside, are dawdling and gossiping in true Harrogate fashion before they disperse.

The girl does not take the trouble to look at any of them, not even when George touches his hat, and says, "Here, my lord." Then there is the sensation as of a person ascending the coach, on her side, she indignantly notes, so that she hastily whispers:

"Couldn't he go on your other side, George?"

"Very sorry, miss, but couldn't drive that way," and then she draws her skirts close to her with head turned aside, as her unwelcome coach-fellow swings himself into the seat beside her.

She is so slight, so small, that after all there is ample room and to spare, especially as he answers to the graceful description of him furnished by the driver.

"Do you call this a new drive?" she says to George, as they rattle past the lovely Bogs Valley Gardens, and up the steep ascent to the Spa. "Why—"

"Fenella!" breathlessly exclaimed a voice beside her.

"Frank."

Two aghast, petrified young faces looked into each other; then the girl, recovering herself first, said:

"Pray, how do you come here?"

"And what brings you?" he retorted.

"Gout. What are you laughing at?" she said airily; "haven't I got ancestors? Didn't they drink October ale by the hogshead, and old port by the gallon? And I've got to pay the piper, for I never heard of the liquor hurting them. But talking of ancestors, I've got such a lovely story to tell you. There is a frightfully fat, vulgar woman at our hotel, and you know there are only two things in this sinful world that give me real fits—humbug and vulgarity. Well, this woman never for one single meal lets anybody forget her progenitors, and bawls out at the top of her dreadful voice, 'All my people are cavalry people!" And what do you think? Her uncle keeps a pork shop not far from here, so after all she's perfectly right in her boast, only the cavalry are—Pigs!"

Frank laughed.

"You are as bad as ever, I see," he said, and then glanced at the driver, who had averted his head as much as possible.

"George," said Fenella, putting a coaxing little face round his shoulder, "could you—would you mind putting a bit of cotton wool in your ear on this side, because I want to talk to—to Lord Francis? I've got a bit in my pocket somewhere, I know."

George's face flickered, as he expressed himself quite agreeable, but was rather surprised, as blue-blooded people usually talk before their inferiors as if they had no more hearing and understanding faculties than tables or chairs. When the wool was produced out of a smart little pocket, he proceeded to plug his ear gravely, and even rammed it down hard to show that his intentions were strictly honorable. This business over, Fenella turned round and showed a little laughing face that seemed to have caught all the sunshine of the day, aye, and held it fast.

"I always carry a bit in my pocket for Ronny," she said, "as he gets a touch of earache sometimes. What's that? They can hear us behind? Oh? no, the trot of the horses' feet swallows up our voices. Let them talk. They will say I picked you up!"

"So you did. Do you know any of them?"

"Heaven forbid! A woman, my dear, who never sits in the drawing room with the other ladies," said Fenella, adroitly mimicking a sour female voice, "there must be something wrong about her. And so there is," she added, below her breath, and for a moment the little face grew hard.

"How is Ronny?" said Frank.

"He is very well," she said nonchalantly. "Poor wee man, isn't it a good job he isn't a girl? And he hasn't begun to grow ugly and horrid and masculine yet—he is all mine, mine!"

The mother's love in her rang out triumphantly, and her face grew very tender.

"We have such good times together, he and I," she went on happily; " he is not with me to-day, because he is playing cricket at the present moment. We go down to the Stray with the bat and stumps, and forage round for a scratch team. I took a hand myself the other day, and actually bowled out a butcher's boy!"

Frank laughed, then shook his head. "You are quite as mad as ever," he said. "Where is your companion?"

"I hope," said Fenella calmly, "that she is dead. I didn't try to polish off any of the other ones, because they meant well in spite of their aggravatingness, but she was downright wicked. So I led her a life," she concluded, looking as triumphantly happy as a child who plays truant on a glorious day with a pocketful of pennies and burnt almonds.

Frank shook his head sadly.

"Why won't you be good, Fenella?" he said. "You could be so easily."

"I always am," said Fenella promptly, and nodded her curly head close to his nose." I take sulphur baths, and regularly sneeze sulphur. I get up every morning at half-past seven. Just think of that! It's a fearful scramble, because Ronny never will wake up. He sleeps just like you, for ever and ever." She stopped, and colored vividly, then dashed on again breathlessly, "And of course it takes some time to dress him."

"You have no nurse, no maid!" he exclaimed, in amazement.

"No," she replied with great sangfroid, "I like a free hand, and no woman can have that, with a female detective tripping up her heels, and wearing her silk stockings. And I love to wait on Ronny—to wash and dress him, and make him look sweet. Of course," she added anxiously, "he isn't always clean—the dirtier a boy is, the nicer he is—but he is perfectly happy! You should see us run down the hill to the Pump-room, though everyone has done long before we get there! And then we eat such a breakfast. We've got a dear little fat waiter who simply devotes himself to us, and steals for us all the newest eggs! But he had an awful accident yesterday," said Fenella, turning tragic eyes on Frank, "what do you think it was?"

"He fell in love with you?"

Fenella began to laugh in that low gurgle which was so like the sound of a cheerful, overfull brook.

"Do you remember you said that about my hairdresser? And how I said I thought it would really have come cheaper in the end if I had married him? I always thought that rather neat myself. But I never told you what the accident was. He broke four hundred plates yesterday!"

"Very greedy of him if he did it all at once."

"It was all at once. The strap of the lift broke as he was hauling them up!"

"Poor devil!" said Frank absently.

They were quite away from the houses now, and the brisk, pure air, the pleasant scents from the hedgerows, and the swift movement to the music of the horses' feet, and perhaps some other sources of satisfaction within, brought a light to Fenella's eyes, and a rose-soft color to her cheek that made her altogether enchanting and sweet.

"And pray," said Frank, looking at her eagerly, unwillingly, as at forbidden fruit that sorely tempted him, "do you talk to any of the fellows at the hotel?"

"No," she said airily," they talk to me. You see, they are all so fond of Ronny."

"No doubt," said Frank, curtly and significantly.

"But I pretend not to hear. Stay—there is one man whom I talk to—"

"Who is he?" said Frank grimly, and looking straight between the horses' ears.

"Oh, nobody in particular," said Fenella, rather faintly, "but you see he has a small nephew here, and it seems he and Ronny met at the Grandisons' in the country, and are quite old friends. So the barrister and I have got quite pally."

Frank sat mute as a fish.

"He is of the type I rather admire," she said, with a suspicious note in her voice. "You know, Frank," she lifted a naïvely impudent, grave little face to his, "I always did like a dark, clean-shaven man!"

Frank himself was as dark and clean-shaven as it was possible to be, and the corners of his mouth trembled at her audacity, as he turned away.

"He told me such a delicious story yesterday," she went on, her face breaking up into dimples. "It was about a little girl upon whose mother a horrid old woman was calling. When the old woman got up to depart, she said to the child, 'You'll come and see me, my dear, won't you?' 'Oh, yes!' said the child, 'But you don't know where I live?' 'Yes, I do,' said the child, nodding. 'I know who is your next-door neighbor.' 'Who is that?' says the old woman. "Why, mother says you are next door to a fool!'"

But Frank did not smile. It is curious that a man's sense of humor is usually entirely in abeyance when matters of stern import engross him, while a woman's is usually at its keenest when tragedy is in the air.

"What do people think at the hotel?" he burst out in the undertone both had maintained throughout the conversation.

"That I am a widow," she said coolly; "that is to say, if they turn up the hotel list of visitors."

"What name have you inscribed?" he said coldly.

"Fenella Ffrench. I suppose I have a right to my own name?"

"And the child's?"

"Ronny Onslow."

"What are your trustees about?" he broke out, with subdued passion.

Fenella shrugged her slender shoulders, and laughed. "I was twenty-four years old yesterday," she said, with apparent irrelevance; "did you remember?"

"I remembered," he said curtly.

"Talking of trustees," she said, "will you ever forget the talk, and fuss, and documents that day at Carlton House Terrace? I couldn't help thinking of Lady Caroline Lamb, and how, when she and her husband were required to sign the deed of separation, the pair of them could nowhere be found! When discovered at last, Lady Caroline was on her husband's knee, feeding him with bread and butter! But, though they parted, he loved her all the time," went on Fenella, the little mocking voice grown suddenly wistful; "and it was on his faithful breast that she pillowed her dying head at last, and his kind voice that sped her on her way!"

"Yes," said Frank, in a strained voice; "her faults were more of head than heart. But some women have not even hearts for faults to be bred in. Why did you do it? "he said suddenly, with a mist before his own eyes that hindered him from seeing the tears in hers.

"Hi! Onslow! I say, Onslow!" shouted a voice that seemed to come from beneath the horses' feet, and both the young people peeped over to see a fat little man in white linen clothes, standing on tiptoe on the road, and blowing out his cheeks like a cherub's.

"Why, Castleton!" cried Frank, "what are you doing there?"

"Walking down my fat, dear boy. I was looking heavenward, and saw you coming. Where do you hang out? Beastly water, rotten eggs, rusty iron, and a dash of old Nick. Oh, I say!" (catching sight of Fenella, not quite hidden by her sunshade) "is that really—well, you know, really—I am astonished—and delighted, too! I always said——"

"Drive on!" roared Frank, and on they went upon the instant, .and Frank turned to look at Fenella. She was very pale, and very angry, with all the summer gladness gone out of her eyes and lips.

"Frank," she said, "never, never will I submit to be made ridiculous. By to-morrow this time, the story will be all over the London clubs. Drive back to Harrogate with you I will not, and either you get down, or I will."

Frank never moved.

"George!"

"Yes, my lady."

She stamped her little foot.

"How dare you call me that?" she said, in a furious underbreath. "Put me down!"

George never budged an inch. The trot-trot of the horses' feet maddened her, and she sprang up.

"Fenella," said Frank, winding his arm round her waist, "if you don't sit tight, I'll put you on my knee, and keep you there, and then I'll kiss you."