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    Chapter 5

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    Chapter 5
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    BRESSANT PICKS A TEA-ROSE.

    Supper was ready: Cornelia surveyed the table for the last time, to make
    sure it was all right. It was an extension-table, but the spare leaves
    had been removed, and it was reduced to a circle. A mellow western light
    from that portion of the sky unswathed in clouds streamed through the
    window, and did duty as a lamp. The cloth was white, and tapered down in
    soft folds at the corners; a pleasant profusion of sparkling china and
    silver, and of savory eatables, filled the circumference of the board,
    leaving just space enough to operate in, and no more. In the centre of
    the table, and perceptible both to eyes and nose on entering the room,
    was a tall glass dish, lined with wet green leaves, and pyramided with
    red strawberries. A comfortable steam ascended from the nose of the
    tea-pot, and vanished upward in the gloom of the ceiling; the brown
    toast seemed crackling to be eaten; the smooth-cut slices of marbled
    beef lay overlapping one another in silent plenteousness; and the knives
    and forks glistened to begin. Cornelia opened the entry-door, and called
    across to her papa in the study that supper was ready. Then she took up
    her position behind her chair, with one hand resting on its back, and a
    silent determination that the visitor, whoever he was, should be
    impressed with her dignity, condescension, and good looks.

    "This is my daughter Cornelia. Mr. Bressant is going to be a pupil of
    mine, my dear," said the professor, as he and Bressant advanced into the
    room.

    He gave his hand an introductory wave in Cornelia's direction as he
    spoke, but probably did not speak loud enough to be distinctly beard by
    his guest. Nevertheless, seeing the motion and the lady, Bressant
    inclined forward his shoulders with an elastic readiness of bearing
    which was customary with him, in spite of his unusual stature, and then
    took his place at the table without bestowing any further attention upon
    her. It passed through Cornelia's mind, as she lifted the tea-pot, that
    Mr. Bressant was outrageously conceited, and should be taken down at the
    first opportunity. She had made a very graceful courtesy, and it was not
    to be overlooked in that way with impunity.

    "Milk and sugar, sir?" said she, interrogatively, raising her eyes to
    the young man's face with a somewhat gratuitous formality of manner, and
    holding a piece of sugar suspended over the cup.

    Bressant had certainly been looking in her direction as she spoke; he
    had the opposite place to her at table; but instead of replying, even
    with a motion of the head, he, after a moment, turned to Professor
    Valeyon, who was gently oscillating himself in the rocking-chair he
    always occupied at meals, and asked him whether he knew any thing about
    a place in town called "Abbie's Boarding-house."

    Cornelia laid down the sugar and tongs, and looked very insulted and
    flushed. What sort of a creature was this her papa had brought to his
    supper-table? Papa, who had noticed the awkward turn, and was tickled by
    the humor thereof, could not forbear to give evidence of amusement,
    insomuch that his daughter, who was by no means of a lymphatic
    temperament, was almost ready to leave the table, or burst into tears
    with injured and astonished dignity.

    Bressant, with that exceeding quickness of perception which most persons
    with his infirmity possess under such circumstances, transferred his
    glance from the professor to the young lady, and at once arrived at a
    pretty correct understanding of the difficulty. He was not embarrassed,
    for it had probably never occurred to him that his deafness was so much
    a defect as a difference of organization, and he lost no time in
    explaining matters in his customary way.

    "I'm deaf; when you talk to me you must speak loud," said he, looking
    full at Cornelia's disturbed face.

    Miss Valeyon had never been so thoroughly discomfited. She was smitten
    on three sides at once. Bad enough to be insulted; worse, having become
    properly angry, to find no insult was meant; and, worst of all, to have
    been the means of drawing attention, by her bad temper, to a physical
    infirmity in her papa's guest. She abandoned upon the instant all
    intention of being ceremonious and imposing, and only thought how she
    might atone, to her papa and to Bressant, for her ill-behavior.

    He would not take tea--nothing but water; and, as Cornelia proceeded in
    silence to pour out her papa's cup, the latter answered Bressant's
    question about the boarding-house.

    "Know it very well, sir. Very good house. What have you heard about it?"

    "Nothing more than that; I asked a man at the depot. My trunk has been
    taken there. I'm satisfied if the woman 'Abbie' is respectable, and
    gives me enough to eat." The young man had accepted Cornelia's tender of
    a slice of beef, and seemed fully equal to doing it again.

    "The 'woman Abbie' respectable, sir!" exclaimed the professor in
    half-muzzled ire; but he checked himself suddenly, and tried to be
    contented with shoving his plate, tumbler, and tea-cup, to and fro
    before him. "I could not have recommended you to a better person," he
    added presently, evidently putting a restraint upon himself. "I have the
    highest--I hold her in very high estimation, sir."

    Bressant nodded, and presently took some more of the beef.

    "Have you seen Abbie yet, Mr. Bressant?" inquired Cornelia in a timid
    tone, which, however, was deprived of all melody by the effort to suit
    it to the young man's ears. But it was necessary to say something.

    "Oh, no!" he replied, smiling at her in the pure good-nature of physical
    complacency, and noticing for the first time that she was an agreeable
    spectacle. He judged absolutely and primitively, never having had that
    experience of women which might have enabled him to make comparison the
    base of his opinion. "I came right up here from the depot. My trunk was
    sent to the boarding-house; it will hire a room for me, I suppose."

    At this sally, Cornelia smiled very graciously, though ten minutes
    before she would have snubbed it promptly. She had had some experience
    with the young men of the village--easy victims--and had acquired a
    rather good opinion of her satirical powers. But Bressant was a peculiar
    case; his deafness enlisted her compassion and forbearance, and her own
    late rudeness made her gentle. Perhaps the young gentleman was not so
    far out of the way in failing to consider his infirmity a disadvantage.

    Meanwhile, Professor Valeyon was swinging backward and forward, ever and
    anon pausing to take a bite or a sup, and eying the stem of the
    strawberry-dish, in deepest contemplation. Cornelia, who from a
    combination of causes, felt more embarrassed than ever in her
    remembrance, devoutly wished that he would rouse himself, and make some
    conversation. She did all she could, in the way of supplying the guest
    with eatables, and making little remarks upon them, to fill up awkward
    pauses; but she was conscious she was being stupid; and even when she
    thought of a good thing to say, the reflection that it must needs be
    shouted aloud made her pause until the available moment had gone by. It
    was some relief that Bressant ate well, and seemed in no way shy or cast
    down himself. There was a freshness and vivacity in his enjoyment of his
    supper which was pleasing to Cornelia for several reasons: it was
    evidently very far from being affected, was consequently indirectly
    complimentary to her, and showed a certain boyishness in him which
    contrasted very agreeably, or, as Cornelia would have said, "cunningly,"
    with his mature and intellectual aspect. In fact, Bressant was in a
    particularly happy mood. The cool air and pleasant room, and the
    gratification of a healthy appetite, caused his senses to expand, and,
    as it were, sun themselves. Cornelia's beauty could not have been
    presented under more favorable auspices, especially as woman's
    loveliness had heretofore been an unturned page in the young man's life.
    True, it pleased him in the same way as, and probably not to a greater
    degree than, would the symmetrical elegance of a vase, or the tinted
    beauty of a flower; but he had not yet known the limitless additional
    charm given by life, variety, and emotion. Would he ever know it? or was
    he so profoundly ignorant of the matter as to run in danger of finding
    it out unexpectedly, and perhaps too late?

    The strawberry pyramid sank and disappeared. Cornelia began anxiously to
    wonder what was to be done now. Bressant sat enjoying his sensations,
    and Professor Valeyon, who appeared to have arrived at some definite
    conclusion after his meditations, rolled up his napkin and shoved it
    into the ring, previous to setting it down with that peculiar tap which
    announced that the meal was over.

    On leaving the table, Bressant sauntered out of the room and on to the
    balcony, with a disregard of what other people might intend, which
    caused Cornelia to recollect her first impression of him. Nevertheless,
    not knowing what else she could do, she followed, and found him leaning
    over the railing, and looking about him with serene enjoyment. The
    clouds had been mostly dispersed; a fresh air moved in the damp garden;
    and Cornelia was soon aware that the mosquitoes were abroad. Her
    muslin-covered arms and shoulders began to suffer.

    Bressant raised himself at her approach, and stood with one hand
    against the railing, looking down upon her with a half-smile of interest
    and satisfaction, which made Cornelia feel not so much like a human
    being, as some rare natural curiosity which he was glad to have the
    opportunity of examining.

    "You are one of the daughters?" said he, with the sudden scrutinizing
    contraction of the eyebrows that often accompanied his questions. "There
    are two, aren't there? Which one are you?"

    "I'm Cornelia," replied she, provoked, as the words left her mouth, that
    she had not said "Miss Valeyon." But the question had surprised her out
    of her presence of mind, and the necessity of speaking loud, if nothing
    else, hindered her from making the correction.

    "Is the other any thing like you?" resumed he, after a moment's more
    contemplation, which, spite of its directness, had in it a certain
    element of unsophisticatedness that prevented it from seeming rude.

    "Who, Sophie?" exclaimed the young lady, bursting forth into an
    unexpected gurgle of laughter, to which Bressant at once responded in
    kind, though having no idea what the merriment was about. "I wish you
    could see her! There couldn't be a greater difference if I was a negro!"

    The laugh died away in Bressant's eyes, and he pressed his hand rapidly
    down over his face, as if to sharpen his wits, or clear away cobwebs.

    "That's natural," he remarked, reflectively. "I never saw any thing like
    you."

    "If he'd said 'any _body_,'" thought Cornelia, "I should have said he
    meant to compliment. How funny he is! just like a boy in some ways. I
    believe I know more than he does, after all!"

    "Have you any sisters, Mr. Bressant?" asked she aloud, looking up at him
    with more cordiality and confidence than she had yet felt or shown.

    "Not any. I should think it would be a good thing. Do you like it?"

    "Of course; but then I am a sister myself, so it don't apply," said
    Cornelia, with the sunshine of another laugh. It was delightful to look
    at her at such times; every part of her partook of the merriment, so
    that her hands, feet, and waist, might all be said to laugh for
    themselves. Cornelia could express a great deal more in a bodily than in
    a spiritual way. Her material self, indeed, seemed so completely and
    bounteously endowed as to leave little place or occasion for a soul. The
    warm, rounded, fragrant, wholesome personality which met the eye,
    satisfied it; the harmonious tumult of life, that thrilled in every
    movement, was contentment to the other perceptions; the thought of a
    soul, bringing with it that other of death, was cold and inconsistent.
    Such mortal perfection loses its full effect, unless we can look upon it
    as physically immortal: as soon as we begin to refine our ideas into the
    abstract, we sully our enjoyment.

    "But your mother must have given you some idea of what a sister would
    be," continued Cornelia, presently.

    "Would she? I wish I had one!" said the young man, unconscious that no
    such desire had ever entered his head till now, and yet at a loss to
    account for its presence. "Mine died more than twenty years ago," he
    explained.

    "The poor boy! I believe he don't know what a woman is!" murmured
    Cornelia to herself, perhaps not displeased at the reflection that it
    lay with her to enlighten him. "No wonder he looked at me as if I were a
    mammoth squash, or something. I'm going down in the garden to pluck a
    tea-rose bud," added she aloud. "Won't you come?"

    "Yes," said Bressant, following her down the glistening granite steps
    with an air of half-puzzled admiration. He liked his new sensations very
    much, but knew not what to make of them; and so had a sense of
    adventurous uncertainty, which was perhaps a pleasure in itself.

    Cornelia walked down the path in front of him, picking her dainty steps
    to avoid stray spears of grass or weeds, and gathering up her light
    skirts in one hand, out of the way of the bushes which leaned lovingly
    forward to drop a tear upon her. At length she reached the tea-rose
    bush, and paused there. Bressant came up and stood beside her.

    It was just dark enough to make the difference between a perfect and an
    imperfect bud a matter of some doubt. Cornelia peeped cautiously about,
    putting aside the wet twigs gingerly, and lifting up one flower after
    another; desisting every once in a while to slap at the fine sting of a
    mosquito on her arms or neck.

    "Oh! there's one that looks nice!" exclaimed she, disposing her drapery
    to reach across the bush for a distant bud which looked in every respect
    satisfactory. But Bressant saw it, and plucked it without effort,
    drawing blood from his finger as he did so, however. He smelt it, and
    looked from it to Cornelia, apparently trying to identify an idea.

    "Aren't you going to give me my bud?" demanded Miss Valeyon. "What's the
    matter, sir?"

    "In some way it reminds me of you," replied he, giving it to her with a
    shake of the head. "I don't see how, but it does!"

    Cornelia gave him a sharp side-look, to make out if he was sincere; but
    his face at the moment was in shadow.

    "Perhaps because it pricked your finger," said she.

    She had not spoken loud, and was almost startled when his reply showed
    he had heard her. There was again that expression of marvellous
    efficiency and power in his face and bearing, but combined with one
    partly doubt and partly shrewd scrutiny.

    "I plucked the bud all the same," he remarked. Cornelia, for some
    reason, felt a little provoked and a little frightened. He wasn't
    entirely unsophisticated after all; and she felt quite uncertain where
    the ignorance ended and the knowledge began. She put the bud in her
    hair, and they walked on, Bressant being now at her side, instead of
    behind. The path was hardly wide enough for two, and now and then she
    felt her shoulder touch his arm. Every time this happened, she fancied
    her companion gave a kind of involuntary start, and looked around at her
    with a quick, inquiring expression--fancied, for she did not meet his
    look, being herself conscious of a sort of irregularity of the breath
    and pulse attending these contacts, which she could not understand, and
    did not feel altogether at ease about. Certainly, there was something
    odd in this Bressant! Cornelia hardly knew whether he strongly repelled
    or powerfully attracted her. She had half a mind to run back to the
    house.

    At this moment, however, they arrived at the fountain, and stood
    silently contemplating its weak, persistent struggles. The heavy rain
    had not raised its spirits a whit; but neither had it lessened its sense
    of duty to be performed. It labored just as hard if not harder than
    ever.

    Presently Bressant walked round to the opposite side of the basin, shook
    himself and stamped his feet, like one overcoming a feeling of
    drowsiness, and then, stooping down, put his hand in the water and
    brought some up to his forehead. It passed through Cornelia's mind that
    she had read in her "Natural Philosophy," at school, that water was a
    good conductor of electricity, but she could not establish any clear
    connection between her remembrance of this fact and Bressant's action.
    The results of thoughts often present themselves to us when the
    processes remain invisible.

    "What an absurd little fountain!" observed he, coming round again to
    Cornelia, and looking down upon her with a smile that seemed to call for
    a responsive one from her. "What is the use of it?"

    "Oh, we're used to it, you know; and then that little sound it makes is
    pleasant to listen to."

    "Is it?" said Bressant, apparently struck by the idea. "I should like to
    hear it. 'A pleasant sound!' I never thought of a sound being pleasant."

    "Poor fellow!" thought Cornelia again, with a strong impulse of
    compassion and kindliness. "What a dreary life, not even to know that
    sounds were beautiful! I suppose all the voices he hears must be harsh
    and unnatural, and those are the only kinds of sounds he would attend
    to." Looking at him from this new point of view, the feeling of mistrust
    and uncertainty of a few minutes before was forgotten. Standing near the
    margin of the basin was a rustic bench fantastically made of curved and
    knotted branches, the back and arms contrived in rude scroll-work, and
    the seat made of round transverse pieces, through whose interstices the
    rain-water had passed, leaving it comparatively dry. Cornelia sat down
    upon it and motioned Bressant to take his place by her side. As he did
    so, she could not help a slight thrill of dismay. He was so very big,
    and took up so much room!

    Bressant sat looking straight before him, and said nothing. Stealing a
    side-glance at him, Cornelia was possessed by an absurd fancy that he
    was alarmed at his position. The idea of being able to scare such a
    giant excited the young lady's risibilities so powerfully that she could
    not contain herself, but, to her great horror, broke suddenly forth into
    a warbling ecstasy of laughter. Bressant looked around, in great
    surprise. It was an occasion for presence of mind. Something must be
    done at once.

    "Hush! hold perfectly still! It was so absurd to see you sitting there,
    and not knowing! There--now--still!" _Spat!_

    A mosquito, which, after considerable reconnoitring, had settled upon
    Bressant's broad hand, had sacrificed its life to rescue Cornelia from
    her dilemma.

    Bressant felt the soft, warm fingers strike smartly, and then begin to
    remove, cautiously and slowly, because the mosquito was possibly not
    dead after all. What was the matter with the young man? His blood and
    senses seemed to quiver and tingle with a sensation at once delicious
    and confusing. In the same instant, he had seized the soft, warm fingers
    in both his hands, and pressed them convulsively and almost fiercely.
    Cornelia very naturally cried out, and sprang to her feet. Bressant, it
    would seem not so naturally, did the same thing, and with the air of
    being to the full as much astonished and startled as she.

    "What do you mean, sir? how dare you--?" she said, paling after her
    first deep flush.

    He looked at her, and then at his own hand, on which the accommodating
    mosquito was artistically flattened, and then at her again, with a
    slight, interrogative frown.

    "How did it happen? What was it? I didn't mean it!"

    Cornelia was quite at a loss what to do or say under such extraordinary
    circumstances. She felt short of breath and indignant; but she had never
    heard of a young man's questioning a lady as to how he had come to take
    a liberty with her. As she stood thus confounded, her unfortunate
    perception of the ludicrous betrayed her once more; but this time her
    recent shock played a part in it, and came very near producing a bad fit
    of hysterics. Bressant looked on without a word or a motion.

    In less than a minute, for Cornelia's nerves were very strong, and had
    never been overtaxed, she had regained command of herself. Bressant was
    standing between her and the house, and she pointed up the path.

    "Please go home as quickly as possible."

    Off he walked, with every symptom of readiness and relief. Cornelia
    followed after, but, when she reached the house, she found her papa
    staring inquiringly out of his study-door; the uncanny pupil in divinity
    had disappeared.
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