“Has she come?”
“No, Mamma, not yet.”
“I wish it were well over. The thought of it worries and excites me. A cushion for my back, Bella.”
And poor, peevish Mrs. Coventry sank into an easy chair with a nervous sigh and the air of a martyr, while her pretty daughter hovered about her with affectionate solicitude.
“Who are they talking of, Lucia?” asked the languid young man lounging on a couch near his cousin, who bent over her tapestry work with a happy smile on her usually haughty face.
“The new governess, Miss Muir. Shall I tell you about her?”
“No, thank you. I have an inveterate aversion to the whole tribe. I’ve often thanked heaven that I had but one sister, and she a spoiled child, so that I have escaped the infliction of a governess so long.”
“How will you bear it now?” asked Lucia.
“Leave the house while she is in it.”
“No, you won’t. You’re too lazy, Gerald,” called out a younger and more energetic man, from the recess where he stood teasing his dogs.
“I’ll give her a three days’ trial; if she proves endurable I shall not disturb myself; if, as I am sure, she is a bore, I’m off anywhere, anywhere out of her way.”
“I beg you won’t talk in that depressing manner, boys. I dread the coming of a stranger more than you possibly can, but Bella must not be neglected; so I have nerved myself to endure this woman, and Lucia is good enough to say she will attend to her after tonight.”
“Don’t be troubled, Mamma. She is a nice person, I dare say, and when once we are used to her, I’ve no doubt we shall be glad to have her, it’s so dull here just now. Lady Sydney said she was a quiet, accomplished, amiable girl, who needed a home, and would be a help to poor stupid me, so try to like her for my sake.”
“I will, dear, but isn’t it getting late? I do hope nothing has happened. Did you tell them to send a carriage to the station for her, Gerald?”
“I forgot it. But it’s not far, it won’t hurt her to walk” was the languid reply.
“It was indolence, not forgetfulness, I know. I’m very sorry; she will think it so rude to leave her to find her way so late. Do go and see to it, Ned.”
“Too late, Bella, the train was in some time ago. Give your orders to me next time. Mother and I’ll see that they are obeyed,” said Edward.
“Ned is just at an age to make a fool of himself for any girl who comes in his way. Have a care of the governess, Lucia, or she will bewitch him.”
Gerald spoke in a satirical whisper, but his brother heard him and answered with a good-humored laugh.
“I wish there was any hope of your making a fool of yourself in that way, old fellow. Set me a good example, and I promise to follow it. As for the governess, she is a woman, and should be treated with common civility. I should say a little extra kindness wouldn’t be amiss, either, because she is poor, and a stranger.”
“That is my dear, good-hearted Ned! We’ll stand by poor little Muir, won’t we?” And running to her brother, Bella stood on tiptoe to offer him a kiss which he could not refuse, for the rosy lips were pursed up invitingly, and the bright eyes full of sisterly affection.
“I do hope she has come, for, when I make an effort to see anyone, I hate to make it in vain. Punctuality is such a virtue, and I know this woman hasn’t got it, for she promised to be here at seven, and now it is long after,” began Mrs. Coventry, in an injured tone.
Before she could get breath for another complaint, the clock struck seven and the doorbell rang.
“There she is!” cried Bella, and turned toward the door as if to go and meet the newcomer.
But Lucia arrested her, saying authoritatively, “Stay here, child. It is her place to come to you, not yours to go to her.”
“Miss Muir,” announced a servant, and a little black-robed figure stood in the doorway. For an instant no one stirred, and the governess had time to see and be seen before a word was uttered. All looked at her, and she cast on the household group a keen glance that impressed them curiously; then her eyes fell, and bowing slightly she walked in. Edward came forward and received her with the frank cordiality which nothing could daunt or chill.
“Mother, this is the lady whom you expected. Miss Muir, allow me to apologize for our apparent neglect in not sending for you. There was a mistake about the carriage, or, rather, the lazy fellow to whom the order was given forgot it. Bella, come here.”
“Thank you, no apology is needed. I did not expect to be sent for.” And the governess meekly sat down without lifting her eyes.
“I am glad to see you. Let me take your things,” said Bella, rather shyly, for Gerald, still lounging, watched the fireside group with languid interest, and Lucia never stirred. Mrs. Coventry took a second survey and began:
“You were punctual, Miss Muir, which pleases me. I’m a sad invalid, as Lady Sydney told you, I hope; so that Miss Coventry’s lessons will be directed by my niece, and you will go to her for directions, as she knows what I wish. You will excuse me if I ask you a few questions, for Lady Sydney’s note was very brief, and I left everything to her judgment.”
“Ask anything you like, madam,” answered the soft, sad voice.
“You are Scotch, I believe.”
“Are your parents living?”
“I have not a relation in the world.”
“Dear me, how sad! Do you mind telling me your age?”
“Nineteen.” And a smile passed over Miss Muir’s lips, as she folded her hands with an air of resignation, for the catechism was evidently to be a long one.
“So young! Lady Sydney mentioned five-and-twenty, I think, didn’t she, Bella?”
“No, Mamma, she only said she thought so. Don’t ask such questions. It’s not pleasant before us all,” whispered Bella.
A quick, grateful glance shone on her from the suddenly lifted eyes of Miss Muir, as she said quietly, “I wish I was thirty, but, as I am not, I do my best to look and seem old.”
Of course, every one looked at her then, and all felt a touch of pity at the sight of the pale-faced girl in her plain black dress, with no ornament but a little silver cross at her throat. Small, thin, and colorless she was, with yellow hair, gray eyes, and sharply cut, irregular, but very expressive features. Poverty seemed to have set its bond stamp upon her, and life to have had for her more frost than sunshine. But something in the lines of the mouth betrayed strength, and the clear, low voice had a curious mixture of command and entreaty in its varying tones. Not an attractive woman, yet not an ordinary one; and, as she sat there with her delicate hands lying in her lap, her head bent, and a bitter look on her thin face, she was more interesting than many a blithe and blooming girl. Bella’s heart warmed to her at once, and she drew her seat nearer, while Edward went back to his dogs that his presence might not embarrass her.
“You have been ill, I think,” continued Mrs. Coventry, who considered this fact the most interesting of all she had heard concerning the governess.
“Yes, madam, I left the hospital only a week ago.”
“Are you quite sure it is safe to begin teaching so soon?”
“I have no time to lose, and shall soon gain strength here in the country, if you care to keep me.”
“And you are fitted to teach music, French, and drawing?”
“I shall endeavor to prove that I am.”
“Be kind enough to go and play an air or two. I can judge by your touch; I used to play finely when a girl.”
Miss Muir rose, looked about her for the instrument, and seeing it at the other end of the room went toward it, passing Gerald and Lucia as if she did not see them. Bella followed, and in a moment forgot everything in admiration. Miss Muir played like one who loved music and was perfect mistress of her art. She charmed them all by the magic of this spell; even indolent Gerald sat up to listen, and Lucia put down her needle, while Ned watched the slender white fingers as they flew, and wondered at the strength and skill which they possessed.
“Please sing,” pleaded Bella, as a brilliant overture ended.
With the same meek obedience Miss Muir complied, and began a little Scotch melody, so sweet, so sad, that the girl’s eyes filled, and Mrs. Coventry looked for one of her many pocket-handkerchiefs. But suddenly the music ceased, for, with a vain attempt to support herself, the singer slid from her seat and lay before the startled listeners, as white and rigid as if struck with death. Edward caught her up, and, ordering his brother off the couch, laid her there, while Bella chafed her hands, and her mother rang for her maid. Lucia bathed the poor girl’s temples, and Gerald, with unwonted energy, brought a glass of wine. Soon Miss Muir’s lips trembled, she sighed, then murmured, tenderly, with a pretty Scotch accent, as if wandering in the past, “Bide wi’ me, Mither, I’m sae sick an sad here all alone.”
“Take a sip of this, and it will do you good, my dear,” said Mrs. Coventry, quite touched by the plaintive words.
The strange voice seemed to recall her. She sat up, looked about her, a little wildly, for a moment, then collected herself and said, with a pathetic look and tone, “Pardon me. I have been on my feet all day, and, in my eagerness to keep my appointment, I forgot to eat since morning. I’m better now; shall I finish the song?”
“By no means. Come and have some tea,” said Bella, full of pity and remorse.
“Scene first, very well done,” whispered Gerald to his cousin.