THE TWO Misses Molyneux, this noblemans sisters, came presently to call upon her, and Isabel took a fancy to the young ladies, who appeared to her to have a very original stamp. It is true, that, when she spoke of them to her cousin as original, he declared that no epithet could be less applicable than this to the two Misses Molyneux, for that there were fifty thousand young women in England who exactly resembled them. Deprived of this advantage, however, Isabels visitors retained that of an extreme sweetness and shyness of demeanour, and of having, as she thought, the kindest eyes in the world.
They are not morbid, at any rate, whatever they are, our heroine said to herself; and she deemed this a great charm, for two or three of the friends of her girlhood had been regrettably open to the charge (they would have been so nice without it), to say nothing of Isabels having occasionally suspected that it might become a fault of her own. The Misses Molyneux were not in their first youth, but they had bright, fresh complexions, and something of the smile of childhood. Their eyes, which Isabel admired so much, were quiet and contented, and their figures, of a generous roundness, were encased in sealskin jackets. Their friendliness was great, so great that they were almost embarrassed to show it; they seemed somewhat afraid of the young lady from the other side of the world, and rather looked than spoke their good wishes. But they made it clear to her that they hoped she would come to lunch at Lockleigh, where they lived with their brother, and then might see her very, very often. They wondered whether she wouldnt come over some day and sleep; they were expecting some people on the twenty-ninth, and perhaps she would come while the people were there.
Her visitors blushed, and her cousin told her, after they were gone, that if she said such things to those poor girls, they would think she was quizzing them; he was sure it was the first time they had been called enchanting.
She had this pleasure a few days later, when, with Ralph and his mother, she drove over to Lockleigh. She found the Misses Molyneux sitting in a vast drawing-room (she perceived afterwards it was one of several), in a wilderness of faded chintz; they were dressed on this occasion in black velveteen. Isabel liked them even better at home than she had done at Gardencourt, and was more than ever struck with the fact that they were not morbid. It had seemed to her before that, if they had a fault, it was a want of vivacity; but she presently saw that they were capable of deep emotion. Before lunch she was alone with them, for some time, on one side of the room, while Lord Warburton, at a distance, talked to Mrs. Touchett.
Is it true that your brother is such a great radical? Isabel asked. She knew it was true, but we have seen that her interest in human nature was keen, and she had a desire to draw the Misses Molyneux out.
Isabel watched him a moment, at the other side of the room; he was evidently trying hard to make himself agreeable to Mrs. Touchett. Ralph was playing with one of the dogs before the fire, which the temperature of an English August, in the ancient, spacious room, had not made an impertinence. Do you suppose your brother is sincere? Isabel inquired with a smile.
When Lord Warburton showed her the house, after lunch, it seemed to her a matter of course that it should be a noble picture. Within, it had been a good deal modernisedsome of its best points had lost their purity; but as they saw it from the gardens, a stout, grey pile, of the softest, deepest, most weather-fretted hue, rising from a broad, still moat, it seemed to Isabel a castle in a fairy-tale. The day was cool and rather lustreless; the first note of autumn had been struck; and the watery sunshine rested on the walls in blurred and desultory gleams, washing them, as it were, in places tenderly chosen, where the ache of antiquity was keenest. Her hosts brother, the Vicar, had come to lunch, and Isabel had had five minutes talk with himtime enough to institute a search for theological characteristics and give it up as vain. The characteristics of the Vicar of Lockleigh were a big, athletic figure, a candid, natural countenance, a capacious appetite, and a tendency to abundant laughter. Isabel learned afterwards from her cousin that, before taking orders, he had been a mighty wrestler, and that he was still, on occasionin the privacy of the family circle as it werequite capable of flooring his man. Isabel liked himshe was in the mood for liking everything; but her imagination was a good deal taxed to think of him as a source of spiritual aid. The whole party, on leaving lunch, went to walk in the grounds; but Lord Warburton exercised some ingenuity in engaging his youngest visitor in a stroll somewhat apart from the others.
His own conversation (though he told Isabel a good deal about the house, which had a very curious history) was not purely archæological; he reverted at intervals to matters more personalmatters personal to the young lady as well as to himself. But at last, after a pause of some duration, returning for a moment to their ostensible theme, Ah, well, he said, I am very glad indeed you like the old house. I wish you could see more of itthat you could stay here a while. My sisters have taken an immense fancy to youif that would be any inducement.
These words were uttered with an indefinable sound which startled the girl; it struck her as the prelude to something grave; she had heard the sound before, and she recognised it. She had no wish, however, that for the moment such a prelude should have a sequel, and she said, as gaily as possible and as quickly as an appreciable degree of agitation would allow her, I am afraid there is no prospect of my being able to come here again.
You are so good as to have a theory about me which I dont at all fill out. Is there anything mysterious in a purpose entertained and executed every year, in the most public manner, by fifty thousand of my fellow-countrymenthe purpose of improving ones mind by foreign travel?
Lord Warburton was silent a moment. You judge only from the outsideyou dont care, he said presently. You only care to amuse yourself! The note she had heard in his voice a moment before reappeared, and mixed with it now was an audible strain of bitternessa bitterness so abrupt and inconsequent that the girl was afraid she had hurt him. She had often heard that the English were a highly eccentric people; and she had even read in some ingenious author that they were, at bottom, the most romantic of races. Was Lord Warburton suddenly turning romanticwas he going to make a scene, in his own house, only the third time they had met? She was reassured, quickly enough, by her sense of his great good manners, which was not impaired by the fact that he had already touched the furthest limit of good taste in expressing his admiration of a young lady who had confided in his hospitality. She was right in trusting to his good manners, for he presently went on, laughing a little, and without a trace of the accent that had discomposed herI dont mean, of course, that you amuse yourself with trifles. You select great materials; the foibles, the afflictions of human nature, the peculiarities of nations!
As regards that, said Isabel, I should find in my own nation entertainment for a lifetime. But we have a long drive, and my aunt will soon wish to start. She turned back toward the others, and Lord Warburton walked beside her in silence. But before they reached the othersI shall come and see you next week, he said.
She had received an appreciable shock, but as it died away she felt that she could not pretend to herself that it was altogether a painful one. Nevertheless, she made answer to this declaration, coldly enough, Just as you please. And her coldness was not coquetrya quality that she possessed in a much smaller degree than would have seemed probable to many critics; it came from a certain fear.