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WITH WHICH IS INCORPORATED "BENTLEY'S MISCELLANY."
A Bachelor's Blunder.
By W. E. NORRIS.
AUTHOR OF "THIRLBY HALL,' 'ADRIAN VIDAL,' ETC.
JACOB AS A HERO.
from time immemorial. The advocates of sitting up late have so little chance of being listened to that they seldom venture to assert themselves, and must take comfort from the thought that their habit is more imitated, if less admired, than the other. However, both practices have one advantage in common, namely that of increased elbow-room for him who adopts them, and a sense of self-approbation arising from the knowledge that he has all his wits about him, while so many of his fellow-mortals are horizontal, unconscious, and quite powerless for good or evil. It was probably for this reason that that young misanthrope Jacob Stiles was wont to take his walks abroad at an hour when the blinds at Farndon Court were still down and nobody was stirring, unless it might be the grooms taking the horses out to exercise.
Jacob slipped out noiselessly, as usual, on the morning after the return of the master of the house; and a very fine morning it was. An autumn sun, with little enough power in it, but luminosity enough to satisfy the soul of any rising artist, was sending slant rays across the drenched grass of the park; the mists were curling up from the lake, and the woods, in all the glory of varied colour, suggested no thought of death or decay at that moment of general awakening. Jacob strolled along one of the gravelled paths which led through clumps of rhododendrons to the shrubbery,
filled his lungs with the keen morning air, rejoiced in the fresh, moist smell of the earth, and thought to himself—as he sometimes did before the cares of the day came upon him—that this world, despite all that seems to prove the contrary, must really be a place in which man is meant to be happy.
If his back had not been turned to the house, he would have seen that another early riser had emerged from it and was following in his footsteps. Also, if he had possessed that power of thought-reading which has found so much favour with our half-sceptical, half-credulous generation, and which would be so excessively inconvenient if it were real, he might have discovered that that other person's reflections were pretty nearly identical with his own. Never yet had Hope known any troubles which a bright morning could not dissipate, at least for the time being. It is probable that she had not retired in the best of spirits after her conversation with her sister-in-law on the previous evening; but when one is twenty years of age, and in perfect health, heaviness is apt to endure but for a night. Hope had now been two months married, and she had spoken nothing but the truth in saying that she had not felt bored during that time. If she and her husband were not precisely the lovers that Miss Herbert had hastily assumed them to be, they were at any rate excellent friends, and as Hope had never expected more than that, she had every reason to be satisfied. Dick had been kindness itself. Certainly no lover could have been more anxious to surround her with luxuries and to make her journey enjoyable for her ; and now that she had been brought back to her new home, she found it all that she could have wished. When she had walked some little distance, she turned and looked back at the house, with its steep roofs glistening in the sun, and had no fault to find with its architecture. It was not so grand a place as Helston Abbey ; but it had a more habitable air, and seemed to smile in a friendly manner upon its young mistress. Hope improved the occasion by a few good resolutions. She was not going to be fretful and capricious again, as she knew that she had sometimes been during her engagement; she was not going to waste any more time in wondering whether her lot was exactly that which she would have chosen, if she had been free to choose ; above all things she was not going to be exacting. What, under the circumstances, could be more absurd than that she should show herself exacting? Of course Dick must be allowed to go away and stay away as often and as long as he pleased; when he came home it would be her duty to make his home pleasant for him, that was all. It was true that that duty might be a little more easy to perform if his house
had not happened to contain a sister of cynical proclivities; but Hope was determined not to dwell upon drawbacks that fine sunshiny morning; so she turned away again and resumed her walk towards the shrubbery.
Thus it was that Jacob, who was standing with folded arms, gazing absently at the view, became conscious of her approach. She did not see him; and, obeying the impulse which was always his first impulse on catching sight of a fellow-creature, he concealed himself behind a belt of evergreens and waited. She passed quite close to him, walking slowly and swinging the sunshade which she carried in her hand, while he, peering between the branches, scanned her features with eager curiosity. His verdict upon her was that Miss Herbert had made use of a very inadequate expression in describing her as pretty. "I am not at all sure,” he mused,
“ “ that she is not the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. She has a good face too; I don't think she will want to turn me adrift ;
; though God knows it would be no great misfortune to me to be turned out of Farndon!”
Then he became more analytical. Jacob's art-studies had been conducted in harmony with those canons for which Tristram could not find words to express his scorn, and knew what the ideal human form ought to be. He measured Hope by this standard, and found that her defects were too trifling to deserve mention. After that he proceeded to somewhat subtler but not less confident conclusions. “There is an odd sort of expression in those grey eyes of hers; she seems to be looking for something that she hasn't found yet. She is not unhappy, but she is not happy either: and it would surprise me very much to hear that she was in love with her husband."
This shows that Jacob's powers of observation were of no mean order, and that, for all his disinclination to look his neighbours in the face, he must have studied them surreptitiously to some purpose. Indeed, if he had not done so he could hardly have been the very promising artist that he was.
Hope, meanwhile, pursued her leisurely way, happily unconscious that behind the bushes on her right hand there lurked a youth capable of drawing such startingly rapid deductions from a mere glimpse of her face. On reaching the end of the shrubbery, she found herself at an iron gate, beyond which a footpath led across the park; and as she had still plenty of time before her, she wandered down this until at length she came to the margin of the lake, where she found a punt moored. It is a peculiarity of punts, as distinguished from other boats, that nobody can look at them without instantly wishing to get into them and sit down.
Hope experienced this desire, and although the seats of the punt in question were still wet with the night dews, she gave effect to it. She had not been seated long when another ambition, almost equally natural and harmless, took possession of her. Some fifty yards away from her there was a small island, round the shores of which a bed of water-lilies had spread itself. The silver cups dotted over that expanse of flat green leaves were all the more tempting because they were out of reach, and after Hope had contemplated them longingly for a little while, and had noticed that a long pole was lying at her feet, she could not resist unfastening the painter which attached the punt to its stake.
Now everybody knows that water-lilies are not easy flowers to pluck; but everybody does not know-because there are comparatively so few people who have tried it—that it is even more difficult for a novice to manipulate a punt-pole. Hope pushed herself off from the bank quite successfully; but she soon discovered that to shape her course for any given point was another matter. Also, the punt-pole had a disagreeable tendency to get under the bottom of the punt and drag her, head first, into the water after it. Rather than let it succeed in this malignant intention, she allowed it at last to slip out of her fingers altogether—a thing she never would have done if she had realised what must be the inevitable result of such imprudence. To be drifting about in a flat-bottomed boat close to dry land, yet hopelessly removed from it, and to see the punt-pole, which might be the salvation of you, floating in a tantalizing manner just beyond your grasp, is a position trying alike to the patience and the dignity. Hope would gladly have paid five pounds to anyone who would have rescued her from it; but as nobody to whom five pounds could be offered was in sight, and as she could not bring herself to the humiliating course of shrieking for assistance, there was nothing for her to do but to sit down and make the best of it. “I
suppose they will begin to look for me when I don't turn up at breakfast,"
, she reflected," and then there will be a hue and cry. If it were only Dick I shouldn't mind so much, but I feel sure that Carry knows how to use a punt-pole, and will be quite unable to understand what I dropped the thing into the water for. Perhaps if I wait long enough it will float back to me.”
But it did nothing of the kind. On the contrary, it drifted in the opposite direction ; and Hope was disconsolately wondering whether she would be drowned if she jumped cverboard, when, to her great joy, she caught sight of a slim young man hastening across the slopes of the park with an evident intention of offering help. This was no other than Jacob Stiles, who from the wooded