It was not often that I had a half-holiday to myself, for Miss Susan Bagshot seemed to take a delight in finding me something to do on these occasions; but whenever I had, I spent it with Milly Darrell, and on these rare afternoons I was perfectly happy. I had grown to love her as I did not think it was in me to love any one who was not of my own flesh and blood; and in so loving her, I only returned the affection which she felt for me.
I am sure it was the fact of my friendlessness, and of my subordinate position in the school, which had drawn this girl’s generous heart towards me; and I should have been hard indeed if I had not felt touched by her regard. She soon grew indescribably dear to me. She was of my own age, able to sympathize with every thought and fancy of mine; the frankest, most open-hearted of creatures; a little proud of her beauty, perhaps, when it was praised by those she loved, but never proud of her wealth, or insolent to those whose gifts were less than hers.
I used to write my home-letters in her room on these rare and happy afternoons, while she painted at an easel near the window. The room was small, but better furnished than the ordinary rooms in the house, and it was brightened by all sorts of pretty things — handsomely-bound books upon hanging shelves, pictures, Dresden cups and saucers, toilet-bottles and boxes, which Miss Darrell had brought from home. Over the mantelpiece there was a large photograph of her father, and by the bedside there hung a more flattering water-coloured portrait, painted by Milly herself. It was a powerful and rather a handsome face, but I thought the expression a little hard and cold, even in Milly’s portrait.
She painted well, and had a real love of art. Her studies at Albury Lodge were of rather a desultory kind, as she was not supposed to belong to any class; but she had lessons from nearly half-a-dozen different masters — German lessons, Italian lessons, drawing lessons, music and singing lessons — and was altogether a very profitable pupil. She had her own way with every one, I found, and I believe Miss Bagshot was really fond of her.
Her father was travelling in Italy at this time, and did not often write to her — a fact that distressed her very much, I know; but she used to shake off her sorrow in a bright hopeful way that was peculiar to her, always making excuses for the dilatory correspondent. She loved him intensely, and keenly felt this separation from him; but the doctors had recommended him rest and change of air and scene, she told me, and she was glad to think he was obeying them.
Upon one of these half-holidays, when midsummer was near at hand, we were interrupted by an unwonted event, in the shape of a visit from a cousin of Milly’s; a young man who occupied an important position in her father’s house of business, and of whom she had sometimes talked to me, but not much. His name was Julian Stormont, and he was the only son of Mr. Darrell’s only sister, long since dead.
It was a sultry afternoon, and we were spending it in a rustic summer-house at the end of a broad gravel that went the whole length of the large garden. Milly had her drawing materials on the table before her, but had not been using them. I was busy with a piece of fancy-work which Miss Susan Bagshot had given me to finish. We were sitting like this, when my old acquaintance Sarah, the housemaid, came to announce a visitor for Miss Darrell.
Milly sprang to her feet, flushed with excitement.
‘It must be papa!’ she cried joyfully.
‘Lor’, no, miss; don’t you go to excite yourself like that. It isn’t your pa; it’s a younger gentleman.’
She handed Milly a card.
‘Mr. Stormont!’ the girl exclaimed, with a disappointed air; ‘my cousin Julian. I am coming to him, of course, Sarah. But I wish you had given me the card at once.’
‘Won’t you go and do somethink to your hair, miss? most young ladies do.’
‘O yes, I know; there are girls who would stop to have their hair done in Grecian plaits, if the dearest friend they had in the world was waiting for them in the drawing-room. My hair will do well enough, Sarah. — Come, Mary, you’ll come to the house with me, won’t you?’
‘Lor’, miss, here comes the gentleman,’ said Sarah; and then decamped by an obscure side-path.
‘I had better leave you to see him alone, Milly,’ I said; but she told me imperatively to stay, and I stayed.
She went a little way to meet the gentleman, who seemed pleased to see her, but whom she received rather coldly, as I thought. But I had not long to think about it, before she had brought him to the summer-house, and introduced him to me.
‘My cousin Julian — Miss Crofton.’
He bowed rather stiffly, and then seated himself by his cousin’s side, and put his hat upon the table before him. I had plenty of time to look at him as he sat there talking of all sorts of things connected with Thornleigh, and Miss Darrell’s friends in that neighbourhood. He was very good-looking, fair and pale, with regular well-cut features, and rather fine blue eyes; but I fancied those clear blue eyes had a cold look, and that there was an expression of iron will about the mouth and powerful prominent chin. The upper part of the face was thoughtful, and there were lines already on the high white forehead, from which the thin straight chestnut hair was carefully brushed. It was the face of a very clever man, I thought; but I was not so sure that it was the face of a man I could like, or whom I should be inclined to trust.
Mr. Stormont had a low pleasant voice and an agreeable manner of speaking. His way of treating his cousin was half deferential, half playful; but once, when I looked up suddenly from my work, I seemed to catch a glimpse of a deeper meaning in the cold blue eyes — a look of singular intensity fixed on Milly’s bright face.
Whatever this look might mean, she was unconscious of it; she went on talking gaily of Thornleigh and her Thornleigh friends.
‘I do so want to come home, Julian,’ she said. ‘Do you think there is any hope for me this midsummer?’
‘I think there is every hope. I think it is almost certain you will come home.’
‘O Julian, how glad I am!’
‘But suppose there should be a surprise for you when you come home, Milly — a change that you may not quite like, at first?’
‘Has your father told you nothing?’
‘Nothing, except about his journeys from place to place, and not much about them. He has written very seldom during the last six months.’
‘He has been too much engaged, I suppose; and it’s rather like him to have said nothing about it. How would you like a stepmother, Milly?’
She gave a little cry, and grew suddenly pale.
‘Papa has married again!’ she said.
Julian Stormont drew a newspaper from his pocket, and laid it before her, pointing to an announcement in one column:
‘On May 18th, at the English legation in Paris, William Darrell, Esq., of Thornleigh, Yorkshire, to Augusta, daughter of the late Theodore Chester, Esq., of Regent’s Park.’
He read this aloud very slowly, watching Milly’s pale face as he read.
‘There is no reason why this should distress you, my dear child,’ he said. ‘It was only to be expected that your father would marry again, sooner or later.’
‘I have lost him!’ she cried piteously.
‘Yes; he can never be again the same to me that he has been. His new wife will come between us. No, Julian, I am not jealous. I do not grudge him his happiness, if this marriage can make him happy. I only feel that I have lost him for ever.’
‘My dear Milly, that is utterly unreasonable. Your father told me most particularly to assure you of his unaltered affection, when I broke the news of this marriage to you. He was naturally a little nervous about doing it himself.’
‘You must never let him know what I have said, Julian. He will never hear any expression of regret from me; and I will try to do my duty to this strange lady. Have you seen her yet?’
‘No, they have not come home yet. They were in Switzerland when I heard of them last; but they are expected in a week or two. Come, my dear Milly, don’t look so serious. I trust this marriage may turn out for your happiness, as well as for your father’s. Rely upon it, you will find no change in his feelings towards you.’
‘He will always be kind and good to me, I know,’ she answered sadly. ‘It is not possible for him to be anything but that; but I can never be his companion again as I have been. There is an end to all that.’
‘That was a kind of association which could not be supposed to last all your life, Milly. It is to be hoped that somebody else will have a claim upon your companionship before many years have gone by.’
‘I suppose you mean that I shall marry,’ she said, looking at him with supreme indifference.
‘Something like that, Milly.’
‘I have always fancied myself living all my life with papa. I have never thought it possible that I could care for any one but him.’
Julian Stormont’s face darkened a little, and he sat silent for some minutes, folding and refolding the newspaper in a nervous way.
‘You are not very complimentary to your admirers at Thornleigh,’ he said at last, with a short hoarse laugh.
‘Who is there at Thornleigh? Have I really any admirers there?’
‘I think I could name half-a-dozen.’
‘Never mind them just now. I want you to tell me all you know about my stepmother.’
‘That amounts to very little. All I can tell you is, that she is the daughter of a gentleman, highly accomplished, without money, and four-and-twenty years of age. She was travelling as companion to an elderly lady when your father met her in a picture-gallery at Florence. He knew the old lady, I believe, and by that means became acquainted with the younger one.’
‘Only four-and-twenty! only four years older than I!’
‘Rather young, is it not? but when a man of your father’s age makes a second marriage, he is apt to marry a young woman. Of course this is quite a love-match.’
‘Yes, quite a love-match,’ Milly repeated, with a sigh.
I knew she could not help that natural pang of jealousy, as she thought how she and her father had once been all the world to each other. She had told me so often of their happy companionship, the perfect confidence that had existed between them.
Julian Stormont sat talking to her — and a little, a very little, to me — for about half an hour longer, and then departed. He was to sleep at Fendale, and go back to North Shields next morning. He was his uncle’s right hand in the business, Milly told me; and from the little I had seen of him I could fancy him a power in any sphere.
‘Papa has a very high opinion of him,’ she said, when we were talking of him after he had left us.
‘And you like him very much, I suppose?’
‘O yes, I like him very well. I have known him all my life. We are almost like brother and sister; only Julian is one of those thoughtful reserved persons one does not get on with very fast.’
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50