Uncle and Niece

The die was cast. Sir Philip Nunnely knew it; Shirley knew it; Mr. Sympson knew it. That evening, when all the Fieldhead family dined at Nunnely Priory, decided the business.

Two or three things conduced to bring the baronet to a point. He had observed that Miss Keeldar looked pensive and delicate. This new phase in her demeanour smote him on his weak or poetic side; a spontaneous sonnet brewed in his brain; and while it was still working there, one of his sisters persuaded his lady-love to sit down to the piano and sing a ballad—one of Sir Philip’s own ballads. It was the least elaborate, the least affected—out of all comparison the best of his numerous efforts.

It chanced that Shirley, the moment before, had been gazing from a window down on the park. She had seen that stormy moonlight which ‘le Professeur Louis’ was perhaps at the same instant contemplating from her own oak-parlour lattice; she had seen the isolated trees of the domain—broad, strong, spreading oaks and high-towering, heroic beeches—wrestling with the gale. Her ear had caught the full roar of the forest lower down; the swift rushing of clouds, the moon, to the eye hasting swifter still, had crossed her vision. She turned from sight and sound, touched, if not rapt, wakened, if not inspired.

She sang, as requested. There was much about love in the ballad—faithful love, that refused to abandon its object; love that disaster could not shake; love that, in calamity, waxed fonder, in poverty, clung closer. The words were set to a fine old air. In themselves they were simple and sweet; perhaps, when read, they wanted force; when well sung they wanted nothing. Shirley sang them well: she breathed into the feeling softness, she poured round the passion force. Her voice was fine that evening, its expression dramatic. She impressed all, and charmed one.

On leaving the instrument she went to the fire and sat down on a seat—semi-stool, semi-cushion. The ladies were round her—none of them spoke. The Misses Sympson and the Misses Nunnely looked upon her as quiet poultry might look on an egret, an ibis, or any other strange fowl. What made her sing so? They never sang so. Was it proper to sing with such expression, with such originality, so unlike a school-girl? Decidedly not! It was strange; it was unusual. What was strange must be wrong; what was unusual must be improper. Shirley was judged.

Moreover, old Lady Nunnely eyed her stonily from her great chair by the fireside. Her gaze said: ‘This woman is not of mine or my daughter’s kind. I object to her as my son’s wife.’

Her son, catching the look, read its meaning. He grew alarmed. What he so wished to win there was danger he might lose. He must make haste.

The room they were in had once been a picture-gallery. Sir Philip’s father—Sir Monckton—had converted it into a saloon; but still it had a shadowy, long-withdrawing look. A deep recess with a window —a recess that held one couch, one table, and a fairy cabinet—formed a room within a room. Two persons standing there might interchange a dialogue, and, so it were neither long nor loud, none be the wiser.

Sir Philip induced two of his sisters to perpetrate a duet; he gave occupation to the Misses Sympson. The elder ladies were conversing together. He was pleased to remark that, meantime, Shirley rose to look at the pictures. He had a tale to tell about one ancestress, whose dark beauty seemed as that of a flower of the South. He joined her, and began to tell it.

There were mementos of the same lady in the cabinet adorning the recess; and while Shirley was stooping to examine the missal and the rosary on the inlaid shelf, and while the Misses Nunnely indulged in a prolonged screech, guiltless of expression, pure of originality, perfectly conventional and absolutely unmeaning, Sir Philip stooped too, and whispered a few hurried sentences. At first, Miss Keeldar was struck so still you might have fancied that whisper a charm which had changed her to a statue; but she presently looked up and answered. They parted. Miss Keeldar returned to the fire and resumed her seat; the Baronet gazed after her, then went and stood behind his sisters. Mr. Sympson—Mr. Sympson only—had marked the pantomime.

  By PanEris using Melati.

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