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By Mrs. OLIPHANT.
HERE was but a small party for Christmas at Daintrey. The family were in mourning, which meant more than it usually means, and the whole life of the place was subdued. Nevertheless, the brothers and sisters were young, and were beginning to rise above the impression of the grief which had come upon them. The gloom had lightened a little; they began to forget the details of death, and regard the image of their brother in an aspect more familiar. It was not long since the news had come, and yet already this change had taken place, as was inevitable. The father and mother were less easily cheered; but life must go on even though death interrupts. The girls and boys could not be made to sit like mutes around a grave. They had to rise up again, and go on with their individual existence. Lady Beresford, who was a wise mother, felt and acknowledged this, though her heart was still bleeding. Christmas was coming; and though there could be no Christmas festivities in the ordinary sense of the word, one or two old friends and connections were invited. Sir Robert, for his part, was opposed to the appearance of strangers. He was never very fond of visitors. “What do you want with people here?’ he said, with a kind of growl, in which he disguised his grief. “Surely once in a way the girls might get through Christmas without visitors. Christmas! the very idea of these horrible merry Christmases that we shall have to go through makes me ill l “I should do without them only too gladly, Robert: but the girls and the boys are too young to be cooped up. Grief is so monotonous, and they are so young. It is not that they love him the less; but they must live—for that matter, we must all go on living, she said, keeping with an effort the tears in her eyes. A mother who cannot give herself over to her sorrow, who must work through all her little daily round of duties all the same, and think of the girls’ bonnets, and the boots and flannels of the boys at school, and only now and then in a spare moment can shut her door or turn her face to the wall and weep a little over her dead, the tears that have been gathering slowly while she has smiled and talked and kept everything going through the long day—has a hard task when her troubles come; but Lady Beresford bore her burden as sweetly as a woman could, holding up as long as was possible, then stopping to have her cry out, and rising and going on again. Sir Robert became morose with she had her way, and the few were invited whom it had seemed to her good to invite. One of them was Edmund Coventry, who had been a ward of Sir Robert, and now in his manhood calculated upon being a member of the Daintrey party at all those periods which are specially dedicated to home. He was a young man of excellent character and very fair fortune; and, if the truth must be told, the heads of the house at Daintrey had concluded that he would be a very convenient match for Maud, who was the second girl. Perhaps it would be better to say that one of the heads of the house had already perceived and accepted this view. A matchmaking mother is a thing that is supposed on English soil to be extremely objectionable; and yet if she does not think of the welfare of her girls, who is to do it? The French mother considers it her first duty. Lady Beresford was a high-minded Englishwoman, and not a scheming mamma; but she could not shut her eyes to the fact that Edmund Coventry was exactly suited to Maud. And so, among the few who came to spend a very quiet Christmas at Daintrey, and ‘cheer a sad house,' which was what she said in her invitations, Edmund was one of the first of whom she thought. “Poor boy!' she said, “he has always come here. He has no other place where he will care to go. Of course he will know that it will not be lively. But he is a good boy. I do not think he will mind." “I am sure, mamma, he will not mind,” said Susan, who was the eldest. Susan was going to make a by no means brilliant marriage. She was to marry a young man who was in the diplomatic service, but had no money, and was scarcely the sort of man to be a diplomat; so that the prizes of that profession seemed improbable to him. And she thought it very desirable that Maud and Edmund Coventry should see a good deal of each other. “He will be glad to be with us in our trouble, she said; “he was always fond of Willie.” Thus the invitation was given half in love and tender certainty of sympathy, yet half with a certain calculation too. The other guests were of a very quiet kind—a brother of Sir Robert's, a lonely bachelor; a widowed sister of Lady Beresford's with her little boy and girl; the former clergyman of the parish, who had been Willie's tutor once upon a time; a nephew who was an orphan, and had no home to spend his Christmas in; and Edmund. “He will be the only little bit of liveliness. He will help to cheer us up, Susan said. Her attaché was to come too, but only for a few days. He was one of those to whom social duties were important, and he had a great many visits to pay. But for this mourning they would have been married before now. Edmund Coventry was a young man who was very well off, and very greatly esteemed. He was twenty-seven—no longer a boy. He had a very nice estate, and a house in town, and no relations to speak of. He was very well-looking, without being handsome, which is perhaps the sort of compromise with nature which is most approved
in England. There are a great many people who do not care for unusually handsome men. Beauty is an extravagance, they feel, in the male portion of the world. But Edmund's good looks did not. go the length of beauty. He was not a tall, muscular, well-developed hero, but slight, and not more than of middle stature. With all he was an ingratiating, lovable young man, very gentle in manners, very tender in his friendships; no doubt he would make an excellent husband. There was no need to explain to him the position of affairs in the house. He knew all about it, and he sympathised with them in every point. • Mamma hesitated to ask you,' said Maud, · because we were to be so quiet.' • Could I wish to be anything but quiet?' he said, with a tender half-reproach. Do you think, after all the happy times here, that I have no feeling. But, indeed, no one had thought that, as Vaud made haste to say.
The carols were sung, but with tears in them. The house was dressed as usual with holly and all the decorations of the time; and there was at least a great deal of conversation which lengthened the gloom and silence of the previous period. Even Sir Robert was glad to talk to Mr. Lightfoot, who had been the rector in former times. On Christmas night the attempt at games was somewhat doleful as it will be, alas! this Christmas in many a sorrowing and many an anxious house ; hut the talk and the little bustle of renewed movement did everybody good. The commonplace ghost-stories which are among the ordinary foolishnesses of Christmas did not suit with the more serious tone in which their thoughts flowed; but there was some talk among the older people about those sensations and presentiments that seem sometimes to convey a kind of prophecy, only understood after the event, of sorrow on the way; and the young ones amused themselves after a sort with discussions of those new-fangled fancies which have replaced that old favourite lore. They talked about what is called spiritualism, and of many things, both in that fantastic faith and in the older ghostly traditions,which we are all half glad to think cannot be explained. The older people, indeed, unhesitatingly rejected all mediums and supernatural operators of every kind as impostors; but even on this point various members of the party had things to tell which they did not know how to explain. “Is not there some tradition of a ghost about Daintrey ?' Mr. Lightfoot, the old rector, said, as they all sat in a wide circle round the great glowing fire just before the moment should arrive for bed-candles and general good-nights. There was not very much light in the room, but, large as it was, it was all ruddy and brilliant with the blaze of the great cheerful fire.
Nothing of the sort,' said Sir Robert emphatically. It was he who was most strong as to the whole thing being an imposition, and who did not believe a word’ of the stories he was told.
· I believe there is something-very vague,' said Lady Beresford. But there was a meaning look excbarged between them, and the talk
And by and by the ladies went all flocking out of the room, carrying their lights, like a procession of the wise virgins in the parable But their black dresses made that procession a sad one, though the soft bloom of the young faces came out with even more effect when the light found nothing else to dwell upon. The young men found a little relief from the gravity of the conversation in the smoking-room, where Mr. Beresford the elder, the uncle of the party, discoursed upon town and its charms, and congratulated himself that he was not like his brother Robert, the head of the family, and compelled to pass his winters in the middle of those damp acres of park. “It would kill me in a year, Mr. Beresford said. On the whole they were all glad that the worst was over, and Christmas got safely done with for + that year.
EDMUND showed no inclination to cut his visit short; he stayed on— after Uncle Reginald had returned to his dear club and his rooms in St. James's Street, and the attaché had gone on upon his round of visits, and young Beresford, the cousin, had returned to his work. The eldest of the sons at home was over twenty; the other two were boys at school. And Susan and Maud and little Edie were the girls. It could not be a very sad house, after all, with all that youth in it; and on the whole Daintrey began to turn round as it were, like the earth when a new day is breaking, turning itself to meet the light. Edmund was very much at home and very comfortable, and he was pleased to think that he was doing them good, as Lady Beresford told him with a smile of tender gratitude. It had not yet occurred to him that of all people in the world Maud was the one who would suit him most exactly for a wife. But he was in a very promising way for making that discovery, which had already faintly gleamed upon the consciousmess of Maud herself as neither unlikely nor unpleasant. They saw a great deal of each other, though not a bit too much. They were like brother and sister, Lady Beresford said; which was quite true: and yet there was always a possibility of something more. Daintrey was a handsome house of no particular period, built almost due east and west like a church. The front entrance was by a square court shut in by a screen-wall built between the two wings. At the back the wings were very shallow projecting but slightly from the corps de logis. On the south side of the house was a green terrace, as high as the windows of the sitting-rooms, ascended by handsome marble steps ornamented with vases as in an Italian garden and separated by the brilliant parterres of the flower-garden from the house. Running along the upper end of the garden and connecting it with the west end of the house was the lime-tree walk, a noble bit of avenue at right angles with the terrace. Both of these were beautiful—but the little square corner which connected them was not beautiful. Here, for no apparent reason at all, a wall had been built,
of place, screening in a square and rather gloomy angle of grass, in the midst of which stood a high pedestal surmounted by a large stone vase. Whether this was meant to commemorate anything, or whether it was merely supposed to be ornamental, in the days of George III. mobody could tell; but that it was very funereal and ugly was certain. In the side of this wall farthest from the house was a door which opened into the byway through the park. Perhaps the wall had been built to stop some right of way; perhaps—but there is little use in multiplying peradventures. There stood the wall built to shut out no one knew what; there loomed aloft the funeral urn upon its pedestal raised to commemorate mo, one knew what. Sometimes the door would be locked by a sulky gardener, and the key had to be hunted for in the house and out of it, high and low. At such, moments Sir Robert, especially if he had himself to wait, would vow that he would throw down the wall and abolish both urn and door. But Sir Robert was an absolute Tory in action, though something of a Liberal in politics; and threatened walls live long, especially when there is no reason why they should live. Edmund had gone out with the intention of walking to the village one of these wintry afternoons. There had been talk of skating, but the ice was not quite solid enough for skating, and his errands to the village were manifold. He were going to see about Maud's skates, which wanted something done to them. He was going to the Rectory to tell the new rector, who was young and a great athlete, to join the party at the pond to-morrow if the frost “held '; and he had other little commissions to do. When there is nothing better to be done it is something for a man to have commissions in the village—it gives him a reason for his walk; it makes him feel that he is not absolutely without an occupation. The boys were all about the pond, helping it to freeze, as the keeper said—watching, at least, with the most anxious eyes, how this process went on. Edmund came out at the western door of the house facing a low red sun, which shone into his eyes, casting long level gleams of light across the grass and dying it orange. He was very lighthearted to-day, with a feeling that poor Willie Beresford had died long ago, and that life had begun again, and that the prospects of existence were opening out. Perhaps it was Maud, whose sweetness and pleasant society had suggested to him long stretches. of happy life to come. He went out, glad even of the sharpness of the air, pleased to hear the crackling under his feet which betokened the frost, and admiring the fairy whiteness in which the great trees had robed themselves. All lit up with those red rays, with warm and gorgeous belts of colour upon the sky, and every prospect of cold and fine weather, the things most desirable when there is a frost and it is Christmas, the prospect round him was of itself exhilarating. How foolish, he thought, of the girls not to come out, to get the benefit of the smart walk through the park, and the keen fresh air which made his