A Girl’s Love
It is a warm evening in early Summer; the sun is setting behind a long range of fir and yew-clad hills, at the feet of which twists in and out, as it follows their curves, a placid, peaceful river. Opposite these hills, and running beside the river, are long-stretching meadows, brilliantly green with fresh-springing grass, and gorgeously yellow with newly-opened buttercups. Above, the sunset sky gleams and glows with fiery red and rich deep chromes. And London is almost within sight.
It is a beautiful scene, such as one sees only in this England of ours—a scene that defies poet and painter. At this very moment it is defying one of the latter genus; for in a room of a low-browed, thatched-roofed cottage which stood on the margin of the meadow, James Etheridge sat beside his easel, his eyes fixed on the picture framed in the open window, his brush and mahl-stick drooping in his idle hand.
Unconsciously he, the painter, made a picture worthy of study. Tall, thin, delicately made, with pale face crowned and set in softly-flowing white hair, with gentle, dreamy eyes ever seeking the infinite and unknown, he looked like one of those figures which the old Florentine artists used to love to put upon their canvases, and which when one sees even now makes one strangely sad and thoughtful.
The room was a fitting frame for the human subject; it was a true painter's studio—untidy, disordered, and picturesque. Finished and unfinished pictures hung or leant against the walls, suits of armor, antique weapons, strange costumes littered the floor or hung limply over mediæval chairs; books, some in bindings which would have made the mouth of a connoisseur water, lay open upon the table or were piled in a distant corner. And over all silence—unbroken save by the sound of the water rushing over the weir, or the birds which flitted by the open window—reigned supreme.
The old man sat for some time listening to Nature's music, and lost in dreamy admiration of her loveliness, until the striking of the church clock floated from the village behind the house; then, with a start, he rose, took up his brushes, and turned again to the easel. An hour passed, and still he worked, the picture growing beneath the thin, skillful hand; the birds sank into silence, the red faded slowly from the sky, and night unfolded its dark mantle ready to let it fall upon the workaday world.
Silence so profound took to itself the likeness of loneliness; perhaps the old man felt it so, for as he glanced at the waning light and lay his brush down, he put his hand to his brow and sighed. Then he turned the picture on the easel, made his way with some little difficulty, owing to the litter, across the room, found and lit an old briar-wood pipe, and dropping into the chair again, fixed his eyes upon the scene, and fell into the dreamy state which was habitual with him.
So lost in purposeless memory was he, that the opening of the door failed to rouse him.
It was opened very gently and slowly, and as slowly and noiselessly a young girl, after pausing a moment at the threshold, stepped into the room, and stood looking round her and at the motionless figure in the chair by the window.
She stood for full a minute, her hand still holding the handle of the door, as if she were not certain of her welcome—as if the room were strange to her, then, with a little hurried pressure of her hand to her bosom, she moved toward the window.
As she did so her foot struck against a piece of armor, and the noise aroused the old man and caused him to look round.
With a start he gazed at the girl as if impressed with the idea that she must be something unsubstantial and visionary—some embodiment of his evening dreams, and so he sat looking at her, his artist eye taking in the lithe, graceful figure, the beautiful face, with its dark eyes and long, sweeping lashes, its clearly penciled brows, and soft, mobile lips, in rapt absorption.
It is possible that if she had turned and left him, never to have crossed into his life again, he would have sunk back into dreamland, and to the end of his days have regarded her as unreal and visionary; but, with a subtle, graceful movement, the girl threaded the maze of litter and disorder and stood beside him.