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    Chapter 4

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    Chapter 4
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    A DISCOVERY

    For several days Coventry was confined to his room, much against his
    will, though everyone did their best to lighten his irksome captivity.
    His mother petted him, Bella sang, Lucia read, Edward was devoted, and
    all the household, with one exception, were eager to serve the young
    master. Jean Muir never came near him, and Jean Muir alone seemed to
    possess the power of amusing him. He soon tired of the others, wanted
    something new; recalled the piquant character of the girl and took a
    fancy into his head that she would lighten his ennui. After some
    hesitation, he carelessly spoke of her to Bella, but nothing came of
    it, for Bella only said Jean was well, and very busy doing something
    lovely to surprise Mamma with. Edward complained that he never saw
    her, and Lucia ignored her existence altogether. The only intelligence
    the invalid received was from the gossip of two housemaids over their
    work in the next room. From them he learned that the governess had
    been "scolded" by Miss Beaufort for going to Mr. Coventry's room; that
    she had taken it very sweetly and kept herself carefully out of the
    way of both young gentlemen, though it was plain to see that Mr. Ned
    was dying for her.

    Mr. Gerald amused himself by thinking over this gossip, and quite
    annoyed his sister by his absence of mind.

    "Gerald, do you know Ned's commission has come?"

    "Very interesting. Read on, Bella."

    "You stupid boy! You don't know a word I say," and she put down the book
    to repeat her news.

    "I'm glad of it; now we must get him off as soon as possible--that is, I
    suppose he will want to be off as soon as possible." And Coventry woke
    up from his reverie.

    "You needn't check yourself, I know all about it. I think Ned was very
    foolish, and that Miss Muir has behaved beautifully. It's quite
    impossible, of course, but I wish it wasn't, I do so like to watch
    lovers. You and Lucia are so cold you are not a bit interesting."

    "You'll do me a favor if you'll stop all that nonsense about Lucia and
    me. We are not lovers, and never shall be, I fancy. At all events, I'm
    tired of the thing, and wish you and Mamma would let it drop, for the
    present at least."

    "Oh Gerald, you know Mamma has set her heart upon it, that Papa desired
    it, and poor Lucia loves you so much. How can you speak of dropping what
    will make us all so happy?"

    "It won't make me happy, and I take the liberty of thinking that this is
    of some importance. I'm not bound in any way, and don't intend to be
    till I am ready. Now we'll talk about Ned."

    Much grieved and surprised, Bella obeyed, and devoted herself to Edward,
    who very wisely submitted to his fate and prepared to leave home for
    some months. For a week the house was in a state of excitement about his
    departure, and everyone but Jean was busied for him. She was scarcely
    seen; every morning she gave Bella her lessons, every afternoon drove
    out with Mrs. Coventry, and nearly every evening went up to the Hall to
    read to Sir John, who found his wish granted without exactly knowing how
    it had been done.

    The day Edward left, he came down from bidding his mother good-bye,
    looking very pale, for he had lingered in his sister's little room with
    Miss Muir as long as he dared.

    "Good-bye, dear. Be kind to Jean," he whispered as he kissed his sister.

    "I will, I will," returned Bella, with tearful eyes.

    "Take care of Mamma, and remember Lucia," he said again, as he touched
    his cousin's beautiful cheek.

    "Fear nothing. I will keep them apart," she whispered back, and
    Coventry heard it.

    Edward offered his hand to his brother, saying, significantly, as he
    looked him in the eye, "I trust you, Gerald."

    "You may, Ned."

    Then he went, and Coventry tired himself with wondering what Lucia
    meant. A few days later he understood.

    Now Ned is gone, little Muir will appear, I fancy, he said to himself;
    but "little Muir" did not appear, and seemed to shun him more carefully
    than she had done her lover. If he went to the drawing room in the
    evening hoping for music, Lucia alone was there. If he tapped at Bella's
    door, there was always a pause before she opened it, and no sign of Jean
    appeared though her voice had been audible when he knocked. If he went
    to the library, a hasty rustle and the sound of flying feet betrayed
    that the room was deserted at his approach. In the garden Miss Muir
    never failed to avoid him, and if by chance they met in hall or
    breakfast room, she passed him with downcast eyes and the briefest,
    coldest greeting. All this annoyed him intensely, and the more she
    eluded him, the more he desired to see her--from a spirit of opposition,
    he said, nothing more. It fretted and yet it entertained him, and he
    found a lazy sort of pleasure in thwarting the girl's little maneuvers.
    His patience gave out at last, and he resolved to know what was the
    meaning of this peculiar conduct. Having locked and taken away the key
    of one door in the library, he waited till Miss Muir went in to get a
    book for his uncle. He had heard her speak to Bella of it, knew that she
    believed him with his mother, and smiled to himself as he stole after
    her. She was standing in a chair, reaching up, and he had time to see a
    slender waist, a pretty foot, before he spoke.

    "Can I help you, Miss Muir?"

    She started, dropped several books, and turned scarlet, as she said
    hurriedly, "Thank you, no; I can get the steps."

    "My long arm will be less trouble. I've got but one, and that is tired
    of being idle, so it is very much at your service. What will you have?"

    "I--I--you startled me so I've forgotten." And Jean laughed, nervously,
    as she looked about her as if planning to escape.

    "I beg your pardon, wait till you remember, and let me thank you for the
    enchanted sleep you gave me ten days ago. I've had no chance yet, you've
    shunned me so pertinaciously."

    "Indeed I try not to be rude, but--" She checked herself, and turned her
    face away, adding, with an accent of pain in her voice, "It is not my
    fault, Mr. Coventry. I only obey orders."

    "Whose orders?" he demanded, still standing so that she could not
    escape.

    "Don't ask; it is one who has a right to command where you are
    concerned. Be sure that it is kindly meant, though it may seem folly
    to us. Nay, don't be angry, laugh at it, as I do, and let me run
    away, please."

    She turned, and looked down at him with tears in her eyes, a smile on
    her lips, and an expression half sad, half arch, which was altogether
    charming. The frown passed from his face, but he still looked grave and
    said decidedly, "No one has a right to command in this house but my
    mother or myself. Was it she who bade you avoid me as if I was a madman
    or a pest?"

    "Ah, don't ask. I promised not to tell, and you would not have me break
    my word, I know." And still smiling, she regarded him with a look of
    merry malice which made any other reply unnecessary. It was Lucia, he
    thought, and disliked his cousin intensely just then. Miss Muir moved as
    if to step down; he detained her, saying earnestly, yet with a smile,
    "Do you consider me the master here?"

    "Yes," and to the word she gave a sweet, submissive intonation which
    made it expressive of the respect, regard, and confidence which men find
    pleasantest when women feel and show it. Unconsciously his face
    softened, and he looked up at her with a different glance from any he
    had ever given her before.

    "Well, then, will you consent to obey me if I am not tyrannical or
    unreasonable in my demands?"

    "I'll try."

    "Good! Now frankly, I want to say that all this sort of thing is very
    disagreeable to me. It annoys me to be a restraint upon anyone's liberty
    or comfort, and I beg you will go and come as freely as you like, and
    not mind Lucia's absurdities. She means well, but hasn't a particle of
    penetration or tact. Will you promise this?"

    "No."

    "Why not?"

    "It is better as it is, perhaps."

    "But you called it folly just now."

    "Yes, it seems so, and yet--" She paused, looking both confused and
    distressed.

    Coventry lost patience, and said hastily, "You women are such enigmas I
    never expect to understand you! Well, I've done my best to make you
    comfortable, but if you prefer to lead this sort of life, I beg you
    will do so."

    "I _don't_ prefer it; it is hateful to me. I like to be myself, to have
    my liberty, and the confidence of those about me. But I cannot think it
    kind to disturb the peace of anyone, and so I try to obey. I've promised
    Bella to remain, but I will go rather than have another scene with Miss
    Beaufort or with you."

    Miss Muir had burst out impetuously, and stood there with a sudden fire
    in her eyes, sudden warmth and spirit in her face and voice that amazed
    Coventry. She was angry, hurt, and haughty, and the change only made her
    more attractive, for not a trace of her former meek self remained.
    Coventry was electrified, and still more surprised when she added,
    imperiously, with a gesture as if to put him aside, "Hand me that book
    and move away. I wish to go."

    He obeyed, even offered his hand, but she refused it, stepped lightly
    down, and went to the door. There she turned, and with the same
    indignant voice, the same kindling eyes and glowing cheeks, she said
    rapidly, "I know I have no right to speak in this way. I restrain myself
    as long as I can, but when I can bear no more, my true self breaks
    loose, and I defy everything. I am tired of being a cold, calm machine;
    it is impossible with an ardent nature like mine, and I shall try no
    longer. I cannot help it if people love me. I don't want their love. I
    only ask to be left in peace, and why I am tormented so I cannot see.
    I've neither beauty, money, nor rank, yet every foolish boy mistakes my
    frank interest for something warmer, and makes me miserable. It is my
    misfortune. Think of me what you will, but beware of me in time, for
    against my will I may do you harm."

    Almost fiercely she had spoken, and with a warning gesture she hurried
    from the room, leaving the young man feeling as if a sudden thunder-gust
    had swept through the house. For several minutes he sat in the chair she
    left, thinking deeply. Suddenly he rose, went to his sister, and said,
    in his usual tone of indolent good nature, "Bella, didn't I hear Ned ask
    you to be kind to Miss Muir?"

    "Yes, and I try to be, but she is so odd lately."

    "Odd! How do you mean?"

    "Why, she is either as calm and cold as a statue, or restless and queer;
    she cries at night, I know, and sighs sadly when she thinks I don't
    hear. Something is the matter."

    "She frets for Ned perhaps," began Coventry.

    "Oh dear, no; it's a great relief to her that he is gone. I'm afraid
    that she likes someone very much, and someone don't like her. Can it be
    Mr. Sydney?"

    "She called him a 'titled fool' once, but perhaps that didn't mean
    anything. Did you ever ask her about him?" said Coventry, feeling rather
    ashamed of his curiosity, yet unable to resist the temptation of
    questioning unsuspecting Bella.

    "Yes, but she only looked at me in her tragical way, and said, so
    pitifully, 'My little friend, I hope you will never have to pass through
    the scenes I've passed through, but keep your peace unbroken all your
    life.' After that I dared say no more. I'm very fond of her, I want to
    make her happy, but I don't know how. Can you propose anything?"

    "I was going to propose that you make her come among us more, now Ned is
    gone. It must be dull for her, moping about alone. I'm sure it is for
    me. She is an entertaining little person, and I enjoy her music very
    much. It's good for Mamma to have gay evenings; so you bestir yourself,
    and see what you can do for the general good of the family."

    "That's all very charming, and I've proposed it more than once, but
    Lucia spoils all my plans. She is afraid you'll follow Ned's example,
    and that is so silly."

    "Lucia is a--no, I won't say fool, because she has sense enough when she
    chooses; but I wish you'd just settle things with Mamma, and then Lucia
    can do nothing but submit," said Gerald angrily.

    "I'll try, but she goes up to read to Uncle, you know, and since he has
    had the gout, she stays later, so I see little of her in the evening.
    There she goes now. I think she will captivate the old one as well as
    the young one, she is so devoted."

    Coventry looked after her slender black figure, just vanishing through
    the great gate, and an uncomfortable fancy took possession of him, born
    of Bella's careless words. He sauntered away, and after eluding his
    cousin, who seemed looking for him, he turned toward the Hall, saying to
    himself, I will see what is going on up here. Such things have happened.
    Uncle is the simplest soul alive, and if the girl is ambitious, she can
    do what she will with him.

    Here a servant came running after him and gave him a letter, which he
    thrust into his pocket without examining it. When he reached the Hall,
    he went quietly to his uncle's study. The door was ajar, and looking in,
    he saw a scene of tranquil comfort, very pleasant to watch. Sir John
    leaned in his easy chair with one foot on a cushion. He was dressed with
    his usual care and, in spite of the gout, looked like a handsome,
    well-preserved old gentleman. He was smiling as he listened, and his
    eyes rested complacently on Jean Muir, who sat near him reading in her
    musical voice, while the sunshine glittered on her hair and the soft
    rose of her cheek. She read well, yet Coventry thought her heart was not
    in her task, for once when she paused, while Sir John spoke, her eyes
    had an absent expression, and she leaned her head upon her hand, with an
    air of patient weariness.

    Poor girl! I did her great injustice; she has no thought of captivating
    the old man, but amuses him from simple kindness. She is tired. I'll put
    an end to her task; and Coventry entered without knocking.

    Sir John received him with an air of polite resignation, Miss Muir with
    a perfectly expressionless face.

    "Mother's love, and how are you today, sir?"

    "Comfortable, but dull, so I want you to bring the girls over this
    evening, to amuse the old gentleman. Mrs. King has got out the
    antique costumes and trumpery, as I promised Bella she should have
    them, and tonight we are to have a merrymaking, as we used to do when
    Ned was here."

    "Very well, sir, I'll bring them. We've all been out of sorts since the
    lad left, and a little jollity will do us good. Are you going back, Miss
    Muir?" asked Coventry.

    "No, I shall keep her to give me my tea and get things ready. Don't read
    anymore, my dear, but go and amuse yourself with the pictures, or
    whatever you like," said Sir John; and like a dutiful daughter she
    obeyed, as if glad to get away.

    "That's a very charming girl, Gerald," began Sir John as she left the
    room. "I'm much interested in her, both on her own account and on her
    mother's."

    "Her mother's! What do you know of her mother?" asked Coventry, much
    surprised.

    "Her mother was Lady Grace Howard, who ran away with a poor Scotch
    minister twenty years ago. The family cast her off, and she lived and
    died so obscurely that very little is known of her except that she left
    an orphan girl at some small French pension. This is the girl, and a
    fine girl, too. I'm surprised that you did not know this."

    "So am I, but it is like her not to tell. She is a strange, proud
    creature. Lady Howard's daughter! Upon my word, that is a discovery,"
    and Coventry felt his interest in his sister's governess much increased
    by this fact; for, like all wellborn Englishmen, he valued rank and
    gentle blood even more than he cared to own.

    "She has had a hard life of it, this poor little girl, but she has a
    brave spirit, and will make her way anywhere," said Sir John admiringly.

    "Did Ned know this?" asked Gerald suddenly.

    "No, she only told me yesterday. I was looking in the _Peerage_ and
    chanced to speak of the Howards. She forgot herself and called Lady
    Grace her mother. Then I got the whole story, for the lonely little
    thing was glad to make a confidant of someone."

    "That accounts for her rejection of Sydney and Ned: she knows she is
    their equal and will not snatch at the rank which is hers by right. No,
    she's not mercenary or ambitious."

    "What do you say?" asked Sir John, for Coventry had spoken more to
    himself than to his uncle.

    "I wonder if Lady Sydney was aware of this?" was all Gerald's answer.

    "No, Jean said she did not wish to be pitied, and so told nothing to the
    mother. I think the son knew, but that was a delicate point, and I asked
    no questions."

    "I shall write to him as soon as I discover his address. We have been so
    intimate I can venture to make a few inquiries about Miss Muir, and
    prove the truth of her story."

    "Do you mean to say that you doubt it?" demanded Sir John angrily.

    "I beg your pardon, Uncle, but I must confess I have an instinctive
    distrust of that young person. It is unjust, I dare say, yet I cannot
    banish it."

    "Don't annoy me by expressing it, if you please. I have some penetration
    and experience, and I respect and pity Miss Muir heartily. This dislike
    of yours may be the cause of her late melancholy, hey, Gerald?" And Sir
    John looked suspiciously at his nephew.

    Anxious to avert the rising storm, Coventry said hastily as he turned
    away, "I've neither time nor inclination to discuss the matter now, sir,
    but will be careful not to offend again. I'll take your message to
    Bella, so good-bye for an hour, Uncle."

    And Coventry went his way through the park, thinking within himself, The
    dear old gentleman is getting fascinated, like poor Ned. How the deuce
    does the girl do it? Lady Howard's daughter, yet never told us; I don't
    understand that.
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