WHILE returning from their visit to the Waters’-Meet, Noel told Sophia that however great might be his interest in James Maynard or the mermaid, he was very averse to meddling with, or prying into, the affairs of Lord Littmass and she might find it a dangerous pool to stir, and regret afterwards having approached it.
‘I don’t care,’ she replied ‘he has no business as an old friend and a relation of mamma’s, who half lives in our house, to go and have skeletons and things in our cupboards and so I mean to rout them out. I have put up with it long enough, and I know mamma is worried by it. Besides, supposing that there is nothing that I can do when I know all, I can go on holding my tongue as I have done all these years. You needn’t laugh at the idea of my being silent. You know I can do it when I like.’
‘Well, do as you think best, only be careful. Lady Bevan is gentle and nervous,
and Lord Littmass may be dangerous, and you are impetuous and I am meditating an
early start for
‘What, running away from the scene of action?’
‘The emergency is this: I undertook to write a paper for one of the Quarterlies,
and the editor has written to say that up to a very recent date my article was
unimpeachable, but that some new information has come out which I must consult
before my paper is put into type. And the time is so short, that he advises me
to come to
‘I shall be sorry to lose you but go by all means. I didn’t know you had any connection in that quarter. You never told me a word about your writing when I have been scolding you for not writing.’
‘I have done so little in that way yet, that perhaps I felt I deserved your reproaches and I hate cackling over my eggs, especially when they are only experimental ones. I like to appear before my friends as a full-blown author, and not as a student merely. What else is power or grace but concealment of method? I prefer sweeping away my chips before exhibiting my work.’
‘I remember how clean and tidy your studio was when I had the honour of admission to see your bust of Undine. And I was disappointed at being received as a stranger, and not finding you in your shirt-sleeves, and treading on bits of marble.’
‘Just as, when you dine out, the first thing you do is to rush into the kitchen and see how the dinner is being cooked.’
‘I don’t do anything of the kind, sir. I care more how the company is dressed than the food. I am so glad, however, to find that you are writing something, that I won’t quarrel with you at present. It was always your fancy to gather your experience in private, and appear as a proficient all at once. Do you remember when my father resuscitated the forgotten game which used to be called “the devil on two sticks,” but which we called “whizzgig,” how we were all toiling to discover the secret of playing it, and you wouldn’t touch it until you suddenly took it up one day and astonished papa himself, who said he had never seen it played better and all the time you had been shutting yourself up and practising it in private?
‘You seem to go on the same principle now, and I shall not be surprised any day to see you come out in some character which involves an experience your friends have little idea you possess – perhaps an awfully wicked one. Even now you may be a regular Don Giovanni for aught I can tell.’
‘Yes; happily we are not transparent for our thoughts to shine out through us. There is a’ possibility of concealing one’s bad side. It is a great blessing to be able to bury our dead past out of the sight of our friends, if not out of our own. But tell me, do you not practise your songs in private before singing them to your friends?’
‘Scarcely. I just glance at them when they first come, to get an idea of their meaning. Little more.’
‘You do that by an intense though momentary concentration, which you can perhaps exercise in the presence of others, the question being one of interpretation only. Were it one of creation, as with most artist work, I suspect you would be more retiring when the faculty had to be exercised.’
‘I don’t know. I never could create anything. I can only criticise what others do. I have no invention and if I had I believe it would be just the same.’ And then, tickled by some fancy, she went off into an explosion of laughter, which kept breaking out again on every attempt to renew the conversation, until they were nearly home.
On entering the Manor House, Sophia found Lady Bevan watching for her with a
somewhat uneasy aspect. Taking her aside, she told her that Lord Littmass had
been suddenly called away to
‘On the receipt of my letters yesterday.’
‘I wish you could give me at least another day. It will be a great blow to lose our two principal gentlemen at once. Can you not manage it?’
‘I shall be only too glad to stay if I can be of any use,’ said Noel. ‘Not that I feel myself essential to your comfort, even in the absence of Lord Littmass,’ he added, laughing.
‘I depend upon you, then, for to-morrow at least,’ said Lady Bevan, retiring.