A Snake in the Grass

THOUGH my affections might now be said to be fairly weaned from Eliza Millward, I did not yet entirely relinquish my visits to the vicarage, because I wanted, as it were, to let her down easy; without raising much sorrow, or incurring much resentment,--or making myself the talk of the parish; and besides, if I had wholly kept away, the vicar, who looked upon my visits as paid chiefly, if not entirely to himself, would have felt himself decidedly affronted by the neglect. But when I called there the day after my interview with Mrs Graham, he happened to be from home--a circumstance by no means so agreeable to me now as it had been on former occasions. Miss Millward was there, it is true, but she, of course, would be little better than a nonentity. However, I resolved to make my visit a short one, and to talk to Eliza in a brotherly, friendly sort of way, such as our long acquaintance might warrant me in assuming, and which, I thought, could neither give offence nor serve to encourage false hopes.

It was never my custom to talk about Mrs Graham either to her or anyone else; but I had not been seated three minutes, before she brought that lady on to the carpet herself, in a rather remarkable manner.

`Oh, Mr Markham!' said she, with a shocked expression and voice subdued almost to a whisper--`what do you think of these shocking reports about Mrs Graham?--can you encourage us to disbelieve them?'

`What reports?'

`Ah, now! you know!' she slyly smiled and shook her head.

`I know nothing about them--What in the world do you mean, Eliza?'

`Oh, don't ask me!--I can't explain it.' She took up the cambric handkerchief which she had been beautifying with a deep lace border, and began to be very busy.

`What is it, Miss Millward? what does she mean?' said I, appealing to her sister, who seemed to be absorbed in the hemming of a large, coarse sheet.

`I don't know,' replied she.'--`Some idle slander somebody has been inventing, I suppose. I never heard it till Eliza told me, the other day,--but if all the parish dinned it in my ears, I shouldn't believe a word of it--I know Mrs Graham too well!'

`Quite right, Miss Millward!--and so do I--whatever it may be.'

`Well!' observed Eliza, with a gentle sigh--`It's well to have such a comfortable assurance regarding the worth of those we love.--I only wish you may not find your confidence misplaced.'

And she raised her face, and gave me such a look of sorrowful tenderness as might have melted my heart, but within those eyes there lurked a something that I did not like; and I wondered how I ever could have admired them: her sister's honest face and small grey optics appeared far more agreeable;--but I was out of temper with Eliza, at that moment, for her insinuations against Mrs Graham--which were false, I was certain, whether she knew it or not.

I said nothing more on the subject, however, at the time, and but little on any other; for, finding I could not well recover my equanimity, I presently rose and took leave, excusing my- self under the plea of business at the farm;--and to the farm I went--not troubling my mind one whit about the possible truth of these mysterious reports, but only wondering what they were, by whom originated, and on what foundations raised,--and how they could the most effectually be silenced or disproved.

A few days after this, we had another of our quiet little parties, to which the usual company of friends and neighbours had been invited, and Mrs Graham among the number. She could not now absent herself under the plea of dark evenings or inclement weather, and, greatly to my relief, she came. Without her I should have found the whole affair an intolerable bore; but the moment of her arrival brought new life

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