- CHAPTER IV A RETROSPECT--ENTER AUNT CASSANDRA
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A RETROSPECT--ENTER AUNT CASSANDRA
"TRULY charming trio. A triangular alliance, well met after many days. And did you fall upon each other's neck and weep?"
"We were not school girls, you know, Sis. Nor yet in France."
"Felix! How dare you."
"But, Sis, you interrupt a fellow so hopeless--ly."
"It's the first time during this conversation, Fee, and you have talked of Messrs. the great, only, and illustrious Hilton and Glynne for at least half an hour."
The young man sitting astride the piazza railing laughing carelessly, and threw the stump of an exhausted cigar far out into the rose thicket upon the lawn opposite him, letting his eyes rest for a moment upon the clustering and spicy late roses; and then looking beyond, across the broad and sloping stretch of greensward, to the curving white road circling downward around the hillside, and past it, to where--with just a broad band of green between its blue, | | 52 and the white gravel of the highway--the lake lay sleeping and with scarce a ripple.
"You've found a charming nook, maiden. Have you neighbours just as charming?"
"That you must find out for yourself. The big, showy mansion over the hill to the north of us is occupied by an opulent brewer's family, and Madam Opulence, so saith her handmaid to mine, thinks it my duty to call upon her at once, owing, a little, to my youth, and a little more to her age and position, therefore superior, both of them."
"Holy saints! And the villa nestling over there ground that curve of blue water?"
"Is--for some reason, untenanted."
"That place, why it looks--from--here--ideal!"
"It is. I have visited it. It is almost prettier than this, and it has one charm that this place has not."
"Don't say that to the fishermen and their wives across the lake," the girl said, yawning prettily behind a concealing hand. "The people about here have faith in their ghost, I do assure you; and they manifest it by keeping as far away from Redlands as they can. The place is as lovely as it is charming."
The young man looked across the half-moon of sunlit water opposite that which indented the wooded shore, using his curved right hand as if it were a glass.
"I believe it's the very thing!" he murmured. | | 53 "How far is it from this haven of rest, sister mine?"
"One mile by water, two by land; and for what is it the 'very thing,' Fee? Do you purpose setting up your lodge in this wilderness?"
Felix Chetwynde turned his back to the lake, and swung a long limb over the piazza-rail as he faced his sister.
"I'm thinking of the Hiltons--of Mrs. Hilton, of Loyd, of course; and--most of all, of--"
"Lorna. Say, Fee. And you need not get red up to your eyes at the mere thought of a pretty girl, need you? It's not like you, old boy. Do you mean that the Hiltons want a house for the summer, or what is left of it?"
Felix nodded. "They do," he said briskly; "and I shall write to Loyd to-day to tell him all about the villa. About Redlands! By the way, who gave it that name?"
"Its builder and owner, I am told." Hope's tone has grown all at once lazily, almost coldly, indifferent. "Don't omit the ghost, Fee?"
"I won't." He has separated himself from the piazza-rail and pillar now, and is moving toward the open door as he speaks. "The place will suit Lorna to the very last hill and dale, brook and hollow; and between the good fishing and the--other attractions--" glancing at his sister.
"Felix Chetwynde!" The girl has lifted herself suddenly herself from the cushioned hammock, and her head poises itself proudly.
"Well?" He turns, suppressing a smile.
"Don't you dare to mention my name--in any way!" and she goes swiftly within.| | 54
Hope Chetwynde is the mistress of the pretty lakeside home--too big to be called a cottage, too low and rambling, rustic and gabled, to be fitly termed a villa; yet a villa it is called. She is also mistress of more than this.
Ten years before one of those sudden and awful railway holocausts, which come upon our beautiful great country all too often, had deprived Hope Chetwynde and her elder half-brother of their parents, both instantly killed, and clinging together in a clasp of love and death. This calamity left the two--Hope, still in a home school, and Felix nearing the end of his preparatory course--seemingly quite alone in the world, but with a joint income which assured them a life of comfort, if not of luxury.
And then had appeared the fairy (?) godmother.
Cassandra Chetwynde was the half-sister of Hope's father, and up to the time of his death she had been to Hope only a name, which stood for two things, wealth and eccentricity. But a week after the sad double funeral, and while Hope and her brother still lingered forlornly in the bereaved and dreary home, now a home no more, Cassandra Chetwynde became an active principle in the lives of the two. They were sitting forlornly opposite each other at the table where luncheon had been served, and still stood almost untasted--for the two had been discussing their future, and the subject had not proved a stimulant to the appetite--when the door opened almost without sound, and a diminutive person all in black and grey, and bearing herself, despite her smallness, with a dignity and self-possession which | | 55 the situation and the surprise from the least element of embarrassment, at least upon the part of the new-comer. "Good morning, my dears," she said, advancing and reaching Hope's side before the child could recover herself and rise, and quite ignoring Felix for the moment. "Don't rise; I am going to ask for a cup of tea soon. I am Miss Chetwynde, your father's half-sister. I heard of his death by an accident through an old newspaper picked up by chance. I was in California, and I came on at once." She has placed a small gloved hand upon the girl's shoulder; and now, having studied her since the first moment of entrance from a pair of keen, clever, and fine grey eyes, the small lady bends and kiss the white forehead upturned beneath her gaze. "You are very like your mother, dear!" she says, and then she turns toward the youth. "And this is--" She stops inquiringly. "Felix," he says, and rises with a low bow. "Felix!" She puts out a hand almost frigidly; and then, as it is withdrawn from his somewhat loose clasp, she catches at a chairback and almost reels. "I must sit down," she says, and sinks into the nearest chair. "Fe--, young man, have you finished your luncheon?" "Yes, madam." "Miss--if you please! Miss Chetwynde. Then, case, will you kindly order me some fresh tea? Nothing more, mind; and--leave your sister and myself to a quiet little chat. I see that I shall not get to know her until we are tête-à-tête."| | 56
Felix bows again, shoots a quizzical glance at his sister, and goes out, leaving the visitor smiling behind his retreating back at his equivocal answer and prompt retreat. Then she sinks back into the place he has just vacated, pushing away the seat she had first occupied, and turning again toward Hope.
"Your brother is not dull by any means," she says, smiling a little; "and I see you are wondering why I sent him away, eh? Well, I'll tell you. It's because I want to make your acquaintance--first, and I see that with this good-looking older brother to the fore your rôle is secondo."
"You are mistaken, Miss--Chetwynde; Felix is not overbearing, and--we are excellent chums! He's very good to me!"
"Glad to hear it, and glad that you have a proper spirit, Hope. I like a proper spirit in a girl. She's a poor chance in life without one. Now, let's understand each other at once; I hate rigmarole. How much do you know about me, Hope Chetwynde?"
Hope is ten years old, and she has never been snubbed nor suppressed. She has a bright wit and a nimble tongue, and she is by nature frank and fearless. "I know very little," she begins, meeting the eye of the new-comer openly, and with evident purpose to understand as well as to inform. "You are my papa's half-sister; and when his stepmother, your own mother, died you went to live with her only sister, who was childless and a widow."| | 57
"Quite so," says Miss Chetwynde, pushing away the dishes from before her.
"I believe you and papa seldom met after his first marriage. You and your aunt went abroad, and lived many years in Italy and Southern France. You came home shortly before papa and my mamma were married, and you were present at their wedding."
"Yes. It was all I could do."
"All--I--pardon me, I do not understand."
"Of course not. How should you, child? Who was to tell you how I came home to 'the States,' a lonely woman, craving sympathy and a home of my own. Two years before I had buried the man I loved, and two months before my aunt's death had left me a solitary woman. I came home with wealth, and with nothing else, hoping to make a home for your father and myself together. His first welcoming words--how they warmed my heart!--but his next speech made me an exile once more; for he told me, the moment the greetings were over, of his approaching marriage. That changed everything. I stayed for the wedding, and then I went back--alone."
"But--Auntie!--papa always called you his dear sister and my aunt. That is not quite all; for you gave mamma the most lovely opals and pearls, and they both, mamma and papa, begged you to stay with them."
"Poof! To be sure they did! What else could they do? An old maid in a dovecot; besides--you're a very sweet little girl now, my dear, but--I detested babies!"| | 58
"Oh, Auntie!" In spite of herself Hope laughed. "And yet you sent me my name, long, long before I was ready for it--and afterward, long afterward, I was told how, when you went away, you asked them to name their first-born son Felix, after--"
"After Felix Hope, my dead lover," Miss Chetwynde said, in a low, sad tone. "Yes, and I learned later that they did, and still later, that you had been named Hope, when I was far away." She mused a moment. "And is that all you can tell me?" she asked then.
"Very nearly. Papa used to speak of you often, and mamma taught me to pray for you as I did for papa and herself--"
"And--did you?" in a hushed tone.
"Of course, always!"
"Go on, my dear," said the other quite gently.
"I--I think that is all. Papa used to wish you would write us sometimes. He thought it would be so sad if anything happened to you, so far away."
"And after all it happened to him--and I--I did not write, I hate writing letters; they're the most barren of apologies for real interchange of thought. But I did keep an eye upon your people, through my man of business, who knew your father very well--only--Mr. Frayne chanced to be in the mountains last week, and I--was in the country. Fate seems to owe me some hateful grudge, I sometimes think; and poor Chris was buried, and I never knew." She turns away her face for a moment, and when she speaks again her tone has changed, and is brisk and businesslike once more. "Do you know why I have swooped down upon you like this, child?"| | 59
Hope shook her head. There was a little sob in her throat, and she could not speak at the moment.
"Then I'll tell you. You're young to talk business, but a child-woman knows her own mind and needs sooner than most think. Have you a guardian?"
"No. Papa--died--so soon."
"I know. And have you made any plans, you and Felix?"
"No, not really; we were trying to decide--when you came."
"Then hear mine. I have nothing to offer but my money, but I have come to make one last effort to set up a home. Will you come and live with me, child, until you are of age? Wait, let me finish. I will buy a pretty, cosy place near your school, and you may choose for guardian whom you will."
"It will be you then, Auntie."
"Tut, tut I you don't know me yet; wait and see. I will try and make a home for you until you are eighteen, then--if we both live and have not quarrelled, I mean to deed you exactly one half of my money, so that you may be just as independent as myself, and then--"
"Don't interrupt, child! I would do it now, if you were old enough. Understand me; if you and I are still under one roof a few years hence, it will be because we are mutually pleased so to live. And, in that case I shall not hesitate to give my wretched money where I willingly give my regard and friendship. Don't you see, child, that what I hope to receive from you will be worth more to me | | 60 than money? It will be what money cannot buy, child," again her voice takes that softer, sadder tone. "If you had lived one year of a lone woman's life, you would understand that I am asking quite as much as giving! Shall I let you think before you answer me?"
"No, Auntie, I know what I think, but--" she paused.
"I am thinking of Felix. Dear Auntie, I am sure I can love you very much, but--I can't leave Felix, now."
"Not for--a fortune?"
"We are not really poor, Auntie."
"Pooh! I know what you have--both of you; suppose you give Felix your share of your father's money--eh?"
"I would do that gladly--but if he wants me--no, I cannot leave him."
"And so I must go back alone?"
"Aunt Cassandra, why? You would love Felix when you knew him. Oh, I don't care for your money, but please stay with, us! I want you both! It will be so dear to have you to look up to, and to help me! Oh, I dread the loneliness of my new life so much, and I know there's a heart full of love and kindness in your bosom, I see it looking out of your eyes, even when they try to look stern. Be kind to us both, Auntie, do, do!"
"So." The lady leans across the table where the untasted tea has been deposited by the silent maid, and stands cooling and quite ignored. "So you choose Felix, and refuse half a million. Half a million! think, child."| | 61
Hope rises slowly, but, before she can reply, the door opens silently, and Felix appears upon the threshold.
"Miss Chetwynde," he says, in his soft, mellow drawl, and with a look of appeal in his eyes, "let me speak to her! I came under that open window just now, and heard your last words; let me advise Hope, she is so young and unselfish. Hope, you must not refuse this generous gift; I must leave you soon, and you need a woman friend more than you need--"
"Felix!" Hope is standing very erect, and her head is held high as she utters his name in clear, ringing, girlish tones, and looks from one to the other, turning back, at last, to the woman opposite her, but holding out her hand towards her brother, "Auntie, it must be both or neither!"
"Thank Heaven!" Cassandra Chetwynde has dropped back upon her chair, and, having looked long at the face of the now agitated girl, and from her to the puzzled youth in the doorway, she breaks into a peal of laughter that transfigures her small, strong face, and is heard with amazement by the servant in the kitchen. "Felix," the little spinster cries, when the gust of laughter has expended itself, "close that door and come here! Hope, you plucky, honest little maid, I wouldn't give you up now if you had as many big brothers to fling at my head as you have fingers on your two little hands I God bless you, my child-woman, did you think I would really turn my back upon the namesakes of Felix Hope. Sit down, both of you, and let us talk and settle our little plans."| | 62
And talk they do, and to such good purpose, for two of them at least, that, ten years later we find Aunt Cassandra and Hope Chetwynde together still, and the spinster enjoying in her own quaint way her heart's desire, a home and something to love, and to return that love freely.
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