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First Violin, The

THE FIRST VIOLIN.

CHAPTER I.

MISS HALLAM.

“Wonderful weather for April!” Yes, it certainty was wonderful. I fully agreed with the sentiment expressed at different periods of the day by different members of my family; but I did not follow their example and seek enjoyment out-of-doors—pleasure in that balmy spring air. Trouble—the first trouble of my life—had laid her hand heavily upon me. The world felt disjointed and all upside-down; I very helpless and lonely in it. I had two sisters, I had a father and a mother; but none the less was I unable to share my grief with any one of them; nay, it had been an absolute relief to me when first one and then another of them had left the house, on business or pleasure intent, and I, after watching my father go down the garden-walk, and seeing the gate close after him, knew that, save for Jane, our domestic, who was caroling lustily to herself in the kitchen regions, I was alone in the house.

I was in the drawing-room. Once secure of solitude, I put down the sewing with which I had been pretending to employ myself, and went to the window—a pleasant, sunny bay. In that window stood a small work-table, with a flower-pot upon it containing a lilac primula. I remember it distinctly to this day, and I am likely to carry the recollection with me so long as I live. I leaned my elbows upon this table, and gazed across the fields, green with spring grass, tenderly lighted by an April sun, to where the river—the Skern—shone with a pleasant, homely, silvery glitter, twining through the smiling meadows till he bent round the solemn overhanging cliff crowned with mournful firs, which went by the name of the Rifted or Riven Scaur.

In some such delightful mead might the white-armed Nausicaa have tossed her cowslip balls among the other maids; perhaps by some such river might Persephone have paused to gather the daffodil—“the fateful flower beside the rill.” Light clouds flitted across the sky, a waft of wind danced in at the open window, ruffling my hair mockingly, and bearing with it the deep sound of a church clock striking four.

As if the striking of the hour had been a signal for the breaking of a spell, the silence that had prevailed came to an end. Wheels came rolling along the road up to the door, which, however, was at the other side of the house. “A visitor for my father, no doubt,” I thought indifferently; “and he has gone out to read the funeral service for a dead parishioner. How strange! I wonder how clergymen and doctors can ever get accustomed to the grim contrasts amid which they live!”

I suffered my thoughts to wander off in some such track as this, but they were all through dominated by a heavy sense of oppression—the threatening hand of a calamity which I feared was about to overtake me, and I had again forgotten the outside world.

The door was opened. Jane held it open and said nothing (a trifling habit of hers, which used to cause me much annoyance), and a tall woman walked slowly into the room. I rose and looked earnestly at her, surprised and somewhat nervous when I saw who she was—Miss Hallam, of Hallam Grange, our near neighbor, but a great stranger to us, nevertheless, so far, that is, as personal intercourse went.

“Your servant told me that every one was out except Miss May,” she remarked, in a harsh, decided voice, as she looked not so much at me as toward me, and I perceived that there was something strange about her eyes.

“Yes; I am sorry,” I began, doubtfully.

She had sallow, strongly marked, but proud and aristocratic features, and a manner with more than a tinge of imperiousness. Her face, her figure, her voice were familiar, yet strange to me—familiar because I had heard of her, and been in the habit of occasionally seeing her from my very earliest childhood; strange, because she was reserved and not given to seeing her neighbors’ houses for purposes either of gossip or hospitality. I was aware that about once in two years she made a call at our house, the vicarage, whether as a mark of politeness to us, or to show that, though she never entered a church, she still chose to lend her countenance and approval to the Establishment, or whether merely out of old use and habit, I knew not. I only knew that she came, and that until now it had never fallen to my lot to be present upon any of those momentous occasions.

Feeling it a little hard that my coveted solitude should thus be interrupted, and not quite knowing what to say to her, I sat down and there was a moment’s pause.

“Is your mother well?” she inquired.

“Yes, thank you, very well. She has gone with my sister to Darton.”

“Your father?”

“He is well too, thank you. He has a funeral this afternoon.”

“I think you have two sisters, have you not?”

“Yes; Adelaide and Stella.”

“And which are you?”

“May; I am the second one.”

All her questions were put in an almost severe tone, and not as if she took very much interest in me or mine. I felt my timidity increase, and yet—I liked her. Yes, I felt most distinctly that I liked her.

“May,” she remarked, meditatively; “May Wedderburn. Are you aware that you have a very pretty north-country sounding name?”

“I have not thought about it.”

“How old are you?”

“I am a little over seventeen.”

“Ah! And what do you do all day?”

“Oh!” I began, doubtfully, “not much, I am afraid, that is useful or valuable.”

“You are young enough yet. Don’t begin to do things with a purpose for some time to come. Be happy while you can.”

“I am not at all happy,” I replied, not thinking of what I was saying, and then feeling that I could have bitten my tongue out with vexation. What could it possibly matter to Miss Hallam whether I were happy or not? She was asking me all these questions to pass the time, and in order to talk about something while she sat in our house.

“What makes you unhappy? Are your sisters disagreeable?”

“Oh, no!”

“Are your parents unkind?”

“Unkind!” I echoed, thinking what a very extraordinary woman she was and wondering what kind of experience hers could have been in the past.

“Then I can not imagine what cause for unhappiness you can have,” she said, composedly.

I made no answer. I repented me of having uttered the words, and Miss Hallam went on:

“I should advise you to forget that there is such a thing as unhappiness. You will soon succeed.”

“Yes—I will try,” said I, in a low voice, as the cause of my unhappiness rose up, gaunt, grim and forbidding, with thin lips curved in a mocking smile, and glittering, snake-like eyes fixed upon my face. I shivered faintly; and she, though looking quickly at me, seemed to think she had said enough about my unhappiness. Her next question surprised me much.

“Are you fair in complexion?” she inquired.

“Yes,” said I. “I am very fair—fairer than either of my sisters. But are you near-sighted?”

“Near sightless,” she replied, with a bitter little laugh. “Cataract. I have so many joys in my life that Providence has thought fit to temper the sunshine of my lot. I am to content myself with the store of pleasant remembrances with which my mind is crowded, when I can see nothing outside. A delightful arrangement. It is what pious people call a ‘cross,’ or a ‘visitation,’ or something of that kind. I am not pious, and I call it the destruction of what little happiness I had.”

“Oh, I am very, very sorry for you,” I answered, feeling what I spoke, for it had always been my idea of misery to be blind—shut away from the sunlight upon the fields, from the hue of the river, from all that “lust of the eye” which meets us on every side.

“But are you quite alone?” I continued. “Have you no one to—”

I stopped; I was about to add, “to be kind to you—to take care of you?” but I suddenly remembered that it would not do for me to ask such questions.

“No, I live quite alone,” said she, abruptly. “Did you think of offering to relieve my solitude?”

I felt myself burning with a hot blush all over my face as I stammered out:

“I am sure I never thought of anything so impertinent, but—but—if there was anything I could do—read or—”

I stopped again. Never very confident in myself, I felt a miserable sense that I might have been going too far. I wished most ardently that my mother or Adelaide had been there to take the weight of such a conversation from my shoulders. What was my surprise to hear Miss Hallam say, in a tone quite smooth, polished, and polite:

“Come and drink tea with me to-morrow afternoon—afternoon tea I mean. You can go away again as soon as you like. Will you?”

“Oh, thank you. Yes, I will.”

“Very well. I shall expect you between four and five. Good-afternoon.”

“Let me come with you to your carriage,” said I, hastily. “Jane—our servant is so clumsy.”

I preceded her with care, saw her seated in her carriage and driven toward the Grange, which was but a few hundred yards from our own gates, and then I returned to the house. And as I went in again, my companion-shadow glided once more to my side with soft, insinuating, irresistible importunity, and I knew that it would be my faithful attendant for—who could say how long?



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