Read CHAPTER XIII of Nancy Stair A Novel , free online book, by Elinor Macartney Lane, on ReadCentral.com.

THE DUKE VISITS STAIR FOR THE FIRST TIME

On my return to Stair I found Nancy on the south steps with a letter in her hand. In her white frock, with her hair bobbing in a bunch of curls on the top of her head, she looked scarce older than the day I had found her there “making verses” years agone.

“You went away,” she said, with reproach in her tone.

“Guess whom I fell in with,” I answered.

She hesitated a minute.

“Robin,” said I.

“Robin who?” she inquired.

“Who but Robin Burns?”

“Oh, did ye?” she cried, her face aglow on the instant; “did ye, Jock? Why didn’t ye bring him back with ye?”

“He’s for Ayr this afternoon,” I answered; “but he sent a word to ye,” and I gave her the card in Burns’ own hand.

“That’s funny,” she said, putting it in the bosom of her gown, and she went on after a bit of musing, “if he swap his rhyming ware for mine it will be a losing bargain for him.”

Before I had time to answer, Dandy Carmichael came in view with a troop of dogs at his heels, and at sight of him I recalled an arrangement made the evening before to have a tea drinking on the lawn, and that he was bidden to luncheon to help with the cards of invitation.

The rest of the day was spent with pen and ink and address books, and this jostle of circumstance put the Burns meeting out of my mind entirely, nor did I mention it to Danvers one way or another, which turned out to be a more unfortunate occurrence than I can tell.

On the day set for the festivity Danvers came early, with the Arran grooms behind him carrying flowers from the conservatories for the decoration of the great hall, and all of the morning the house was filled with gay young voices and merry preparations for the entertainment of friends. Stands of scarlet droopers were set on the porch, the hot-house flowers being placed against the tapestry and the old armor; bowls of drink were brewed and set to cool, and two o’clock found Dame Dickenson in sober black silk, with a canny eye for the refreshments, and myself in black as well, and a state of what might be described as pleasurable anxiety.

Dandy’s last words to Nancy before leaving to bring the Erskines back with him were these: “You are to look your very best; I desire the Hon. Mrs. Erskine struck mute with admiration,” and when she came down the stairs I could but think that she had taken his counsel to heart, whether because she was to meet “her rival,” as she laughingly called Isabel Erskine, or by reason of the expected presence of his Grace of Borthwicke, I was far from deciding.

She wore a huge black hat and a black lace gown, with a kerchief tied in front and falling near to the ground. Her gloves were black as well, coming almost to the shoulder, her only touch of color being a cluster of roses in the knot of lace upon her bosom.

“How handsome you are, Jock Stair,” she said, coming toward me. “How handsome you are! I did well when I selected you for a father,” she finished with a laugh.

The Arran party were among the first to arrive, and in spite of the restless character of the entertainment I found time for a short talk with Isabel Erskine, a modishly attired, fair girl, with round blue eyes and many meaningless phrases, for which I saw no necessity. She had one sincere emotion in her life, however; one which she took small pains to conceal, and this was an infatuation for Danvers Carmichael.

It was he who presented the two young women to each other, and I noted with pride the bearing of my daughter at this meeting, for she was genuinely glad to meet Miss Erskine, and with much gentleness and gravity explained the reasons which had prevented her from coming over the day before to pay her respects. Isabel, who was not at her ease, responded that Danvers had told them how busy every one was at Stair, and that the omission of a visit on Nancy’s part was, under the circumstances, but natural.

That Isabel Erskine did not like Nancy I knew on the instant I saw them together, and that Nancy was unaware of it, and would have cared nothing about her dislike had she known of it, was a thing of which I was equally certain.

The pretty picture of the gaily gowned ladies with their furbelows and parasols in shifting groups under the beeches, the sunlight falling through the leaves in broken golden shapes upon the shining silks and satins of the dresses, the merry chatter of the younger folk and the more demure coquetry of the older ones, are still a pleasant picture in my memory of that far-by day.

Upon a demand from some of the guests to see the “lace school,” and the labor teaching as well, Danvers took it on himself to act as conductor of these merry inquisitive parties, and the wonder and interest of the ladies in the school was remarkable to see; and I recall now that Mrs. Opie made her first visit to the burn that afternoon, and within a month had planned her written work concerning it.

It was nearly four before the Duke of Borthwicke arrived, Hugh Pitcairn and Sir Patrick Sullivan coming with him, unannounced, through the west entrance.

His grace looked younger than he did at the time of our last meeting: but his eyes were the same; misty, unholy, and bland. He wore gray cloth of the same accented plainness, and from the time of his entrance stood with his head uncovered in an attitude of great deference to the women-folk; a bearing which accorded poorly with the tales afloat concerning the manner of his private life.

To us, who for the most part knew London but by name, the bearing of this celebrated personage was a matter for interest and study, and if it were in my power to set him forth as he showed himself to us that day there would be none of fair judgment who could blame Nancy for her conduct toward him afterward I can affirm that never from the moment that his eyes fell on her did he remove them from her face. He was accosted by several gentlemen in his progress toward us, but it was with a fixed glance of absorbed admiration of her that he answered them, curtly, as I thought, and as one who brooks no interruption.

Crossing the space toward us he came alone, the forward poise of the body, and more than all the power of his head and chest, fixing the idea I already had of a splendid kind of devil who would make ill-fortune for any who crossed him.

“It is a great pleasure to see you again,” he said, bowing low before Nancy.

“You have been away a long time,” she answered.

“The longest month that I have ever spent,” he returned.

“The Highlands were not merry?” she asked.

“I had no heart for them.”

“No?” she said. “I am sorry.”

“I should rather, were it mine to choose, that you were glad to have me find them dull,” he answered.

“Would that be quite friendly?” she inquired, with a smile of intentional misunderstanding.

“I am scarce asking for friendship,” he returned, and there was no mistaking the intent of either word or eye.

“By the way,” he continued, “I have ridden half over Scotland and laid by four horses to be here this afternoon; for which,” he added, with the little outward wave of his hand which became him so well, “I am claiming no merit; for is there a man who knows you who would have done otherwise?”

A look passed between them, a look which I was at a complete loss to understand, as she answered, with a laugh:

“I think Mr. Pitcairn might successfully have struggled with the temptation of laming horses to see me.”

“But,” the duke retorted, “as you told me yourself on that memorable night we first met, ‘Pitcairn’s not rightly a man; he’s just a head.’”

“In many ways,” responded Nancy, and her eyelids drooped at her own audacity, “in many ways he reminds me of you, your grace!”

The duke smiled back at her with a little drawing together of the eyelids, which I had learned to know so well.

“I have,” he said, “nearly a fortnight to spend in Edinburgh, in which I shall make it the effort of my life to show you the difference between us.”