- CHAPTER VII WHERE THE WEB BEGINS TO BREAK
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WHERE THE WEB BEGINS TO BREAK
WHEN Aunt Cass enters the hall with the packet of newspapers in her hand, it is with a lagging step and an air of hesitancy quite unlike her usual direct movements. On her left as she entered is the library, and on the right the drawing room, and in neither is it her custom to linger at this hour, or at any hour before dinner. The morning-room at the rear of the house, and the shaded terraces and airy arbours beyond it, are much more to her liking, especially in the absence of Hope.
But this morning her feet seem to pause, almost of their own volition, at the door of the library, and then she turned back slowly, and is almost at the outer door, without knowing why; she has some vague thought of saying a word more to the new-comer, but, just as she is about to appear upon the threshold, she catches the words spoken by Terence Glynne.
"Felix, old man, I fear you have not forgotten your old tricks. Have you become an expert, &c.?"
She stands still now, the newspapers slipping from | | 87 her hands to the floor, until she hears the answer, and then, gathering up the fallen "news." with the half-conscious movement of the tidy housekeeper she hurries into the library, drops upon the divan near the window, and thinks.
The quiescent mood in which she has followed the instructions of her mentor a little while before has now entirely passed, and the uneasy feeling, which drew her back to the piazza has now full possession; only, now she does not desire to go back to rejoin Felix--and his friend; and she has quite forgotten the pony phaeton coming so leisurely around the lake from Redlands.
Over and over again she is muttering: "'His old tricks'--'an expert'--'his control'--'a lady of fixed views'--'a difficult subject.'"
For some moments she sits pondering, and now somehow the feeling of dull acquiescence in whatever might be, seems to have been another, and not her own, and the growing aggressiveness which is her normal condition, begins to show itself in a change of attitude, a lifting of the head, and a restless tapping of her boot toes one against the other, a habit old and confirmed, and one which has furnished Hope with much amusement.
And now, having arrived at an almost normal state of mind, she begins, as a matter of course, to tear off the wrappers from magazine and newspaper, and to "browse" here and there at "contents" and headlines.
But somehow they do not hold her interest, and she finds her eyes taking in a jumble of literary notes, such as a "The Sick Man of the Orient," "The | | 88 Silver Question," "New Sleeves and Crinoline," and "Winter in Honolulu," and her ears at the same time are catching fragments of a conversation. And what woman will not, unthinkingly, if but for a moment, adopt the rôleä of listener at the sound of the words, "Love," "woman," and "jealousy."
These words, and such as these, cause Aunt Cass to let the newspapers slip from her lap to the soft rug at her feet, and to sit a listener still; and so sitting, she hears the tale of two lovers, their compact, and their parting.
And now, as Terence Glynne goes down the drive, she thinks once more of the approaching phaeton; and goes softly to the window to look out.
The phaeton is not in sight, but Felix Chetwynde is, and once more he becomes the object of her chiefest interest, for he is reading a letter, and the look of his half-averted face is not good to see.
She watches him as he finishes the letter, observes his pantomime of wrath and disappointment, his march up and down the piazza, his mutterings of which she can catch only here and there a word, and she notes, with gleaming eye, the fall of the crumpled note and its fluttering course, until it lodges in the brier rose beside the steps, and now she softly drops the lace over the French window behind which she stands and waits. For, now that she is her alert self once more, even the abbreviated blue skirts, and the alpine hat, can no longer trouble her spirit.
She waits until Felix has given his order about the bicycle and strolled away with his well-assumed air of leisure and indifference, and then she goes boldly | | 89 out upon the piazza and stands at the top of the steps.
And why not, Mrs. Hilton's ponies have just entered the gate and come, slowly trotting, fat and sleek, around the curve. As they come on Aunt Cassandra finds ample time to pluck a spray or two of the scented brier rose, and to stoop down and loosen a long intruding branch, which seems to cling about her feet; and finally to tuck the fragrant sweet brier, and something else, into her trim, blue bodice. The one is visible, the other quite out of sight.
Mrs. Gertrude Hilton is of the women of whom it is said, "They wear well," and the word is used, in her case, in its fullest and best meaning, to know her a little is to admire passively. To know her better, to love her more, and those who share her daily life, and know it in all its details--if a woman's real life is ever really and fully known--these love her best of all.
The Hiltons have been less than three months at Redlands, and yet between herself and Cassandra Chetwynde a real friendship has sprung up, at which the younger members of the two families have wondered not a little, for no two women were ever created more unlike in person, in manner, and, for the most part, in tastes. Yet of sincerity, of tolerance, and of a certain broad worldly-wise charity, the two are equal possessors, and on this ground a friendship may safely and well begin.
Upon occasion Cassandra Chetwynde could be discreet, even circuitous, in her dealings with the world, but she could also be direct at will, and where she trusted she willed to be direct.| | 90
"You are going to stop for luncheon," begins Miss Cassandra, while Mrs. Hilton is not yet out of her low carriage. "Don't say you're not or I shall begin to doubt the goodness of providence--who has sent you, I am sure!"
Mrs. Hilton smiles as she comes slowly up the steps, and takes her friend's hand with that gentle dignity which never forsakes her. Never was there a sweeter combination of unassuming ladyhood, and gracious queenliness of manner, than is blended in this slender woman, who is neither short nor tall, and whose face is refined, pleasing, winning, rather than strictly beautiful.
"Such a fine mingling of simplicity and dignity," Miss Cassandra has been heard to say, "makes me, gnash my teeth with envy, it is so far beyond me."
"If my refusal to lunch with you will make you a dangerous sceptic," the lady says with her cordial hand-clasp and fine smile. "I shall surely stay; especially as I am very sure of engaging myself meantime." And then she draws back and surveys the short skirts and bicycle boots with undisguised astonishment.
"My dear Miss Chetwynde! Is it possible? What power, what genii, good or ill, has won you over at last, making you into a veritable bicycle--"
"Fool!" interjects the other sharply. "Don't try to be polite! Come in, you have hit the nail as usual. I have been wrought upon, bewitched, and conjured, what you will, and I can't breathe freely until I tell somebody all about it!"
"Oh, I don't mean anybody! I mean you! just | | 91 yourself. I couldn't talk to any one else about this. Come back to the morning-room, Mrs. Hilton, I want a peep into your dear mind."
Face to face in the cool and pleasant morning-room, and assured against intrusion, Mrs. Hilton's dark and gentle face is turned toward the uneasy spinster, who even now clutches a newspaper, as if unawares.
"Mrs. Hilton, do you believe in hypnotism?"
"In a measure--yes."
Miss Chetwynde spreads the crumpled newspaper out upon her knee and folds it as if for reading. Then she holds it out to the lady opposite. "Read that!" she says grimly.
"That"--is a disquisition on hypnotism, written by a believer in the cult, and it describes, in detail, the degrees of susceptibility to the stronger will or the strong will asserted against another strong will, unconscious or quiescent.
Mrs. Hilton reads the passages indicated by the finger of the hostess, and says, as she puts the paper down--
"There is nothing very startling in all this, Miss Chetwynde. There is no doubt, in my mind, of the power of some natures over others."
"Strong natures over weak ones--yes."
"Not always. A strong nature, if it is quite unconscious of the effort made to bias or control it, may be swayed by a nature no stronger, even less strong, perhaps."
"What! against its will?"
"No not against its will. But while the will is in abeyance. For instance, if I possessed the hypnotic | | 92 power, while having a will no stronger than yours, or less strong, perhaps, might influence you, so long as you had no knowledge of the fact, but when once you are aware of my purpose, and your will is opposed to mine, I should fail utterly."
"You have studied this question, have you not?"
"And," Miss Chetwynde was fast falling back into her wonted brisk direct manner, "have you ever seen a hypnotist?"
"One or two professional ones; yes. As for amateurs, if one may call them so, they are becoming as plentiful as tramps. Why, I think you must have one in your own household."
Miss Chetwynde starts, and a flush rises to her face. "Do you mean Felix?"
Mrs. Hilton's eyes have grown suddenly grave, and she looks closely at her companion's face. "Pray don't misapprehend me, Miss Chetwynde," she says earnestly. "I only mean that I have heard Loyd speak of Mr. Chetwynde as having, during their year together at school, become a strong convert to hypnotism, and as having experimented, in it with very good success."
"Well?" Miss Chetwynde throws herself back in her low swinging chair, and allows her pent-up ire to flash from her eyes and sound in her voice. "He has not abandoned his experiments. He has been practising his art upon me! This," she struck at the folds of the blue cycling costume, "is one of his results," and, before her listener can vent her surprise in words, the now fully aroused spinster launches into her story.| | 93
"I may as well say it, for I dare say I have not always concealed the fact that from the very first I did not quite like Felix Chetwynde. As a boy when I first came to know the children, it was only a negative sort of dislike. I did not like boys of that age; and he was a boy. I wanted Hope to myself; and, while I tried to treat him kindly, I confess I was glad when he elected to go back to school. When he ran away, two or three years later, I was not greatly surprised, and my feelings toward him were not made the more tender when I saw poor Hope's grief. But when he came back to us, after seeing life as a miner, a cow-boy, a government soldier, and Indian tamer, I was actually surprised to find my very soul rising up in antipathy against the young scamp! He had given himself a year's polish, after roughing it, and he came back a good-looking, well-enough-mannered fellow. I used to berate myself at times, and accuse myself of jealousy, because Hope was so pleased, so delighted at his return. I have tried at times to be amiable, but it's been killing work. He couldn't speak or smile, sit down or get up without ruffling all my feathers the wrong way. And yet he has hypnotised me!"
"Are you sure of that?" Mrs. Hilton can scarcely suppress her smiles.
"Sure! Listen, Hope despises the bicycle."
"I know," tolerantly.
"And I have not been far behind her in my dislike of the queer, uncanny thing. But when I saw the evolutions at the Manhattan Beach meet, I somehow felt as if there might be some exhilaration | | 94 in the act of flying through space so lightly. I was fool enough to express this change of opinion openly one day, and that might have been the end of it all if Hope had not gone to the mountains."
"I have wondered that you did not accompany her."
"Me! Do I look, even in this rig, like a mountain climber? No thank you! The Lakeside is good enough for me. But--well it can't be denied, Mrs. Hilton, left alone here with Felix, he has lost no time in trying his skill upon me, and--he has very nearly succeeded--" she stops short.
"Do you mean--" Mrs. Hilton begins in tone of surprise, and then she too cuts short her speech. "I beg your pardon," she says; "I was very near being inquisitive."
"You couldn't be that if you tried! I know what you were going to say. You wonder if he had any object other than to test his strength upon me. Well, he had."
She looks down at her short skirts. "And it was not just to convert me, willy nilly, to the bicycle. He had a personal reason, and--I think I have found it out this very day; and now," springing to her feet, "I must get out of this ridiculous rig and be ready for luncheon, and when I come back I'll tell you, if you like, how it feels to be hypnotised. Meantime--"
"Meantime I have not seen the morning papers," and Mrs. Hilton takes up one of the open sheets, and nods to her retiring friend. "Take your time, I shall be quite well amused."
When Miss Chetwynde reaches her chamber she | | 95 shuts the door with a sharp click of the lock, turns the key, and hastily takes from her bodice the crumpled letter, so slyly rescued from the clutch of the brier-rose bush.
For a moment she looks at it as it lies in her hand, and then smooths it out upon the table at her side. This done she glances at the first words, and at the signature, and then resolutely folds it and locks it away in her desk, after which she removes the jaunty bicycle costume and hurries back to her guest.
During luncheon, and for some time after it is removed, the two ladies converse upon hypnotism and its possibilities, but the name of Felix is not mentioned again until Mrs. Hilton says, with just a gleam of amusement in her clear eyes.
"If it will not seem impertinent, Miss Chetwynde, I would like to ask a question."
"I will risk an 'impertinence' from you."
"It is this, then. You have become a cyclist, you believe, while under the influence of another mind. Once you abhorred the sport. How is it with you now! Candidly, Miss Cassandra, that costume of yours is quite fetching. Shall you abandon it and the sport now?"
"No. Not unless I find that, with the 'influence' removed, the skill goes too. I'll ride now without Felix Chetwynde's aid if I fall a hundred times before I succeed. I shall not feel that I am freed from his horrid influence until I do ride, and ride well."
"He can never influence you, now that you must know his purpose; surely you believe that?"
"Oh, yes, I know that. It was my ignorance of | | 96 any intent to coerce me, and my sudden interest, or what I thought was my interest, in the sport. If Hope had been here it could not have happened."
"I believe that. Miss Hope Chetwynde is a girl of very clear insight and of splendid nerve and intelligence. She would have seen through it all I fully believe." Mrs. Hilton is silent a moment then she sighs and adds, "I wish she and my girl would become closer friends. Hope Chetwynde has just the sort of calm courage and sound sense joined to refined perceptions, that Lorna would be the better for contact with. I sometimes think that she and her brother are too much together. They are too much alike, and the sensitiveness of each reacts upon the other. They are too ideal, too full of dreams and fancies. At times the singular telepathic influence between the two become, to me, almost uncanny. They are mutual mind readers at times."
"We must bring them together more. Hope's engagement for the past month was unfortunate in some respects. But we must remedy that; she returns, you know, to-day, probably at six."
When Mrs. Hilton sets out for home Miss Chetwynde, having withdrawn for a moment from the terrace, where they have been loitering, reappears, arrayed in her bicycle frock.
"I'm going to escort you over the level part of the way," she says. "I must try my strength, and get control of my wheel before Felix comes back, and fancy that won't be before evening. He went your way, I think."
"It's very likely. He made an engagement with | | 97 Lorna to ride as far as the Heights this afternoon. You will hardly see him yet."
Miss Chetwynde made very good headway so far as balance was concerned, but her steering left much to be desired, and when she had endangered the legs of the ponies and her own equilibrium half a dozen times by her wild careering from "port to lee," she dismounted and came to the side of the carriage leading her steed.
"I need all the road," she says whimsically, "and I'm going to try the west track for a little way, so I'll leave you here."
As she puts out her hand, Mrs. Hilton leans toward her, and, as the two palms meet, looks into her eyes earnestly and long.
"There is something I must ask you," she says slowly, "and I have hesitated until now. You have spoken very frankly to me of Felix Chetwynde; and now I ask you to put yourself, for a moment, in my place. Lorna is very dear to me, as dear as if I were really her mother, and her father has entrusted her to my care. If he were living--but we need not dwell on that. I must do my duty, as best I can, alone. I have seen that your nephew is strongly attracted toward Lorna, and--sometimes I have thought--have feared--that she returns this feeling. Tell me frankly, Miss Chetwynde, if you and your Hope stood in the place of Lorna and I, and if Felix were still the man, tell me if, knowing him as you do, you would be willing to give her to him."
A moment there is silence between them, while the little spinster, still holding the hand of her | | 98 friend, looks up and down the road, as if seeking for the right answer in space. Then she lifts her left hand, and grasping the slender palm of the other between her two plumper, smaller ones, gives it a strong, long pressure, and releasing it slowly says, as she turns away and toward her wheel:--
"No, Mrs. Hilton! I--WOULD--NOT!"
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