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    Chapter 6

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    Chapter 7
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    The reading went on, not of course "for ever," like that harvest melody
    he spoke of, but for a considerable time. The words, I concluded, were
    for the initiated, and not for me, and after a while I gave up trying to
    make out what it was all about. Those last expressions I have quoted
    about the "august Mother of the house" were unintelligible, and appeared
    to me meaningless. I had already come to the conclusion that however
    many of the ladies of the establishment might have experienced the
    pleasures and pains of maternity, there was really no mother of the
    house in the sense that there was a father of the house: that is to say,
    one possessing authority over the others and calling them all her
    children indiscriminately. Yet this mysterious non-existent mother of
    the house was continually being spoken of, as I found now and afterwards
    when I listened to the talk around me. After thinking the matter over, I
    came to the conclusion that "mother of the house" was merely a
    convenient fiction, and simply stood for the general sense of the
    women-folk, or something of the sort. It was perhaps stupid of me, but
    the story of Mistrelde, who died young, leaving only eight children, I
    had regarded as a mere legend or fable of antiquity.

    To return to the reading. Just as I had been absorbed before in that
    beautiful book without being able to read it, so now I listened to that
    melodious and majestic voice, experiencing a singular pleasure without
    properly understanding the sense. I remembered now with a painful
    feeling of inferiority that my _thick_ speech had been remarked On
    earlier in the day; and I could not but think that, compared with the
    speech of this people, it was thick. In their rare physical beauty, the
    color of their eyes and hair, and in their fascinating dress, they had
    struck me as being utterly unlike any people ever seen by me. But it was
    perhaps in their clear, sweet, penetrative voice, which sometimes
    reminded me of a tender-toned wind instrument, that they most differed
    from others.

    The reading, I have said, had struck me as almost of the nature of a
    religious service; nevertheless, everything went on as before--reading,
    working, and occasional conversation; but the subdued talking and moving
    about did not interfere with one's pleasure in the old man's musical
    speech any more than the soft murmur and flying about of honey bees
    would prevent one from enjoying the singing of a skylark. Emboldened by
    what I saw the others doing, I left my seat and made my way across the
    floor to Yoletta's side, stealing through the gloom with great caution
    to avoid making a clatter with those abominable boots.

    "May I sit down near you?" said I with some hesitation; but she
    encouraged me with a smile and placed a cushion for me.

    I settled myself down in the most graceful position I could assume,
    which was not at all graceful, doubling my objectionable legs out of her
    sight; and then began my trouble, for I was greatly perplexed to know
    what to say to her. I thought of lawn-tennis and archery. Ellen Terry's
    acting, the Royal Academy Exhibition, private theatricals, and twenty
    things besides, but they all seemed unsuitable subjects to start
    conversation with in this case. There was, I began to fear, no common
    ground on which we could meet and exchange thoughts, or, at any rate,
    words. Then I remembered that ground, common and broad enough, of our
    human feelings, especially the sweet and important feeling of love. But
    how was I to lead up to it? The work she was engaged with at length
    suggested an opening, and the opportunity to make a pretty little
    speech.

    "Your sight must be as good as your eyes are pretty," said I, "to enable
    you to work in such a dim light."

    "Oh, the light is good enough," she answered, taking no notice of the
    compliment. "Besides, this is such easy work I could do it in the dark."

    "It is very pretty work--may I look at it?"

    She handed the stuff to me, but instead of taking it in the ordinary
    way, I placed my hand under hers, and, holding up cloth and hand
    together, proceeded to give a minute and prolonged scrutiny to her work.

    "Do you know that I am enjoying two distinct pleasures at one and the
    same time?" said I. "One is in seeing your work, the other in holding
    your hand; and I think the last pleasure even greater than the first."
    As she made no reply, I added somewhat lamely: "May I--keep on holding
    it?"

    "That would prevent me from working," she answered, with the utmost
    gravity. "But you may hold it for a little while."

    "Oh, thank you," I exclaimed, delighted with the privilege; and then, to
    make the most of my precious "little while," I pressed it warmly,
    whereupon she cried out aloud: "Oh, Smith, you are squeezing too
    hard--you hurt my hand!"

    I dropped it instantly in the greatest confusion. "Oh, for goodness
    sake," I stammered, "please, do not make such an outcry! You don't know
    what a hobble you'll get me into."

    Fortunately, no notice was taken of the exclamation, though it was hard
    to believe that her words had not been overheard; and presently,
    recovering from my fright, I apologized for hurting her, and hoped she
    would forgive me.

    "There is nothing to forgive," she returned gently. "You did not really
    squeeze hard, only my hand hurts, because to-day when I pressed it on
    the ground beside the grave I ran a small thorn into it." Then the
    remembrance of that scene at the burial brought a sudden mist of tears
    into her lovely eyes.

    "I am so sorry I hurt you, Yoletta--may I call you Yoletta?" said I, all
    at once remembering that she had called me Smith, without the customary
    prefix.

    "Why, that is my name--what else should you call me?" she returned,
    evidently with surprise.

    "It is a pretty name, and so sweet on the lips that I should like to be
    repeating it continually," I answered. "But it is only right that you
    should have a pretty name, because--well, if I may tell you, because you
    are so very beautiful."

    "Yes; but is that strange--are not all people beautiful?"

    I thought of certain London types, especially among the "criminal
    classes," and of the old women with withered, simian faces and wearing
    shawls, slinking in or out of public-houses at the street corners; and
    also of some people of a better class I had known personally--some even
    in the House of Commons; and I felt that I could not agree with her,
    much as I wished to do so, without straining my conscience.

    "At all events, you will allow," said I, evading the question, "that
    there are _degrees_ of beauty, just as there are degrees of light.
    You may be able to see to work in this light, but it is very faint
    compared with the noonday light when the sun is shining."

    "Oh, there is not so great a difference between people as _that_,"
    she replied, with the air of a philosopher. "There are different kinds
    of beauty, I allow, and some people seem more beautiful to us than
    others, but that is only because we love them more. The best loved are
    always the most beautiful."

    This seemed to reverse the usual idea, that the more beautiful the
    person is the more he or she gets loved. However, I was not going to
    disagree with her any more, and only said: "How sweetly you talk,
    Yoletta; you are as wise as you are beautiful. I could wish for no
    greater pleasure than to sit here listening to you the whole evening."

    "Ah, then, I am sorry I must leave you now," she answered, with a bright
    smile which made me think that perhaps my little speech had pleased her.

    "Do you wonder why I smile?" she added, as if able to read my thoughts.
    "It is because I have often heard words like yours from one who is
    waiting for me now."

    This speech caused me a jealous pang. But for a few moments after
    speaking, she continued regarding me with that bright, spiritual smile
    on her lips; then it faded, and her face clouded and her glance fell. I
    did not ask her to tell me, nor did I ask myself, the reason of that
    change; and afterwards how often I noticed that same change in her, and
    in the others too--that sudden silence and clouding of the face, such as
    may be seen in one who freely expresses himself to a person who cannot
    hear, and then, all at once but too late, remembers the other's
    infirmity.

    "Must you go?" I only said. "What shall I do alone?".

    "Oh, you shall not be alone," she replied, and going away returned
    presently with another lady. "This is Edra," she said simply. "She will
    take my place by your side and talk with you."

    I could not tell her that she had taken my words too literally, that
    being alone simply meant being separated from her; but there was no help
    for it, and some one, alas! some one I greatly hated was waiting for
    her. I could only thank her and her friend for their kind intentions.
    But what in the name of goodness was I to say to this beautiful woman
    who was sitting by me? She was certainly very beautiful, with a far more
    mature and perhaps a nobler beauty than Yoletta's, her age being about
    twenty-seven or twenty-eight; but the divine charm in the young girl's
    face could, for me, exist in no other.

    Presently she opened the conversation by asking me if I disliked being
    alone.

    "Well, no, perhaps not exactly that," I said; "but I think it much
    jollier--much more pleasant, I mean--to have some very nice person to
    talk to."

    She assented, and, pleased at her ready intelligence, I added: "And it
    is particularly pleasant when you are understood. But I have no fear
    that you, at any rate, will fail to understand anything I may say."

    "You have had some trouble to-day," she returned, with a charming smile.
    "I sometimes think that women can understand even more readily than
    men."

    "There's not a doubt of it!" I returned warmly, glad to find that with
    Edra it was all plain sailing. "It must be patent to every one that
    women have far quicker, finer intellects than men, although their brains
    are smaller; but then quality is more important than mere quantity. And
    yet," I continued, "some people hold that women ought not to have the
    franchise, or suffrage, or whatever it is! Not that I care two straws
    about the question myself, and I only hope they'll never get it; but
    then I think it is so illogical--don't you?"

    "I am afraid I do not understand you, Smith," she returned, looking much
    distressed.

    "Well, no, I suppose not, but what I said was of no consequence," I
    replied; then, wishing to make a fresh start, I added: "But I am so glad
    to hear you call me Smith. It makes it so much more pleasant and
    homelike to be treated without formality. It is very kind of you, I'm
    sure."

    "But surely your name is Smith?" said she, looking very much surprised.

    "Oh yes, my name is Smith: only of course--well, the tact is, I was just
    wondering what to call you."

    "My name is Edra," she replied, looking more bewildered than ever; and
    from that moment the conversation, which had begun so favorably, was
    nothing but a series of entanglements, from which I could only escape in
    each case by breaking the threads of the subject under discussion, and
    introducing a new one.
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    Chapter 7
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