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

NANCY MEETS HER RIVAL

It was the morning after the outdoor party that Danvers came into the breakfast-room with a pleasant excitement showing in his face.

“I’ve a present for you,” he said, going over to Nancy, who had not left the table.

“For me?” she asked.

“For you though I’m far from sure that you deserve it, for if there’s a man in Edinburgh this morning whom ye haven’t in love with ye, he’s blind. However,” he laughed, “we’ll waive that,” and he took a box from his pocket and held it above his head.

“Will ye kiss me for it?” he cried.

“I will not,” said she decisively.

“Then you sha’n’t have it,” he said with great determination, moving as though to put it in his pocket.

“I’ll go and write some letters, then,” she remarked calmly, starting toward the door.

Afraid of losing her society for the morning, mayhap, he put the box on the table and pushed it toward her.

It was a small silver case, strong and firm, with a smaller box of white velvet inside, in which lay a ruby ring a gem for which men commit crimes and women sin; a gorgeous, sparkling, rosy stone, sending rainbow spots upon the wall, and rendering Nancy radiant and speechless as she slipped it on her finger.

“Is it for me, Dand?” she asked, almost in a whisper.

“For whom else would it be, Little Girl?” he answered, and the delight he had in her pleasure was a beautiful and husband-like thing to see.

“But why!” she asked. “Can I take it from him, Jock Stair?” she said, turning to me suddenly.

“A woman can surely take a gift from her future husband with no impropriety,” I answered.

“That’s true,” she said; “but you see there is no betrothal between us, and at the year’s end I might have to send it back for some other woman to wear, which would go far toward bringing me to my grave. I am afraid I can’t take it yet, Danvers.”

“Wear it,” he answers. “If ye can’t wear it as my betrothed wife, wear it in sign that I love you. Lord Stair hears that I hold it as token of nothing save my own love for you. If it gives you pleasure, Nancy, it’s all I ask.” At which she did the thing least expected of her by putting her head suddenly down on her hands and bursting into a flood of tears.

“Oh,” she cried, “these things are just putting me out of my mind. I wish I was in Heaven, where there is no marrying or giving in marriage!”

There was one point gained, however, for she wore the ring; and with it upon her finger Danvers could never be kept long from her thoughts.

At luncheon of this same day, old Janet McGillavorich, from Mauchline, whom Nancy ranked the chiefest of all her female friends, surprised us by a visit. She was a far-removed cousin of Sandy’s, who was constantly back and forth between her own home and Edinburgh by reason of her everlasting lawing.

It seems that her father had left her some property, and by the advices of Hugh Pitcairn she had turned this to great advantage, owning bits of land all over Scotland, from Solway side to John o’ Groats.

She was a masculine-looking female, with hair of no particular shade parted over a face very red in color, and with high cheekbones and small gray eyes set at an angle like the Chinese folks. She was above sixty years of age at this time, with a terrible honesty of conduct, great violence of language, and carried things with a high hand wherever she went.

Having heard of Nancy from Hugh Pitcairn four or five years before this, she had demanded to make her acquaintance, upon which Hugh fetched her over to tea one afternoon, and from that time forth she bore an unending grudge against me, that Nancy was not her own.

“And so ye write,” she had asked at this first interview; “I never read anything ye wrote, but I’m glad to meet in with any woman who has an aim ‘beyond suckling fools and chronicling small-beer.’ But ye must be careful what ye write, my dear,” she went on, “or ye’ll have the whole female population of Scotland clattering after ye. Be orthodox, and never trifle with tales concerning the seventh command. Stick to rhymes like ‘fountain and mountain’ and ‘airy and fairy,’ and such like things; for ye’ll find that the women who tell tales that would make ye blush, who lead dissolute, unthinking lives, who deceive their husbands, and smell themselves up with Lily-of-the-Valley-water when they go to the kirk, will be the hardest upon ye if ye stray from any accepted thought. They require the correctest thinking in print ye know!”

I never saw Nancy more pleased with any human being than with this fire-eating old lady; and when Janet finished her discourse by the statement, “God be praised! I never read poetry. Shakespeare sickened me of that. This thing of not saying right out what you mean turns my stomach. Padding out some lines to make them a bit longer, and chopping off ends of words to make others shorter, ought to be beneath any reasoning creature.” Nancy put her head on the table and laughed until I was afraid she would make herself ill.

It was after the luncheon, while Janet was still with us, that the Hon. Mrs. Erskine and her daughter came to pay us a visit of congratulation on the success of our entertainment. Danvers had gone off to walk, and so it fell upon the three of us to receive these visitors in the music-room, where we were having tea.

The elder lady, whom Sandy insisted had come to Edinburgh to marry me, was an intentional female, with much hair, much rouge, and a pallor heightened by rice-powder, which gave her a very floury and unclean appearance. Her eyes were an indescribable color, resembling the pulp of a grape, and near-set, a thing which I have never been able to abide in man, woman, or child. Her nose was long and peaked, and her mouth dropped at the corners. But it was the strange set of her whole figure which struck my notice again and again. For she was, to use a lumbering expression, all in front of her spine, with neither backward curve to her head, nor her shoulders nor hips, which gave her a peculiarly unpliable appearance. Her voice was high and of a singular penetrating quality, and she had an over-civil manner to us, as of one who has something to gain. Her gown, of blue, had many strange kinds of trimming which seemed both needless and inexpressive, and what with the rouge and the chains and hangings around her neck, she reminded me of nothing so much as a grotesque figure for a Christmas-tree decoration.

When it be added to all of this that she had a fearful habit of emphasizing certain words in a senseless and flippant style, and of waving a lace kerchief constantly, after the manner of a flag, it may be imagined with what joy I relished her society.

“Ah!” she said, “you are alone after the party. What a success it was! A positive triumph, positive! Isabel and I had been told how delightful Edinburgh society was, but we were not prepared for the gaiety we found. It was charming! Positively charming! And how beautiful you looked, my dear,” she went on, turning to Nancy. “Of course we’d heard of you every one in any society at all has heard of you, you know; but you’ve such style, my dear positively the belle-air, positively!

“I know you’re pleased to hear how your daughter is adored, aren’t you, Lord Stair? It’s what I say to the dear duchess (the Duchess of Mont Flathers, you know we’re just like sisters!). ‘Maria,’ I say to her, ’of course I am pleased to have Isabel the rage, as she is it’s only natural, she being my daughter, that I should feel so.’ I am enchanted at all the attention she receives, and at the way men rave over her. It’s a mother’s feeling. One night, I recall, when Danvers Carmichael had positively compromised Isabel by his attentions, for he’s always after her, the dear duchess said to me:

“‘Anne, this is going too far!’ And I said:

“’Dearest, it may be; but I have no heart to stop them. They both look so happy.’ And the duchess replied:

“’Anne, your feelings do you credit; and I think it’s so sweet and womanly to be so honest about it.’

“‘We naturally like to have our children beloved,’ I answered, stiffly.

“That’s just what I say all of the time!” she went on, as though some one might stop her by a speech of his own. “Just what I say, Lord Stair; both to Alexander Carmichael and his son. How beautiful, how very beautiful the friendship between you is. And between your children as well! Danvers is quite like a brother to your daughter, isn’t he?

“I really believe now don’t contradict me,” she said, waving her handkerchief at her daughter, “I really believe that Isabel was inclined to be jealous yesterday. Danvers has always been so devoted to her always, since she was quite a little, little girl; and I am afraid just a tiny morsel afraid that it was hard for her to share him.

“Not that you were to blame, dearest,” she said, turning to Nancy, “not the very least bit in the world. It was quite plain who claimed your time! Quite plain! His Grace of Borthwicke is positively the most fascinating creature I ever saw positively. We never can get him in London at all; so I never took my eyes from him; and all the town bowing before him and he absolutely on his knees before you, my dear! Absolutely!

“Pardon me for mentioning it forgive me, won’t you? but what a beautiful, exquisite ring! Look, Isabel! Quite like an engagement ring. Now could it I wonder could it,” peering at it and then at Nancy through her glasses Nancy, whose eyes had the significant darkness in them which I have mentioned so often.

“It is not an engagement ring,” she answered quietly.

And here Janet, who had watched the Hon. Mrs. Erskine in much the same manner as she would have regarded a foolish old cat, came into the talk.

“Since you think so highly of Danvers, Mrs. Erskine, ye must say a good word for him to Nancy Stair. He’s my choice for her to marry,” she said, looking around with a bland smile.

“And does he want to marry her?” Mrs. Erskine asked, abashed by this directness.

“He told me that he had asked her three times a day ever since they met, and I, for one, hope that she’ll think twenty times of him to once she thinks of that devilish John Montrose.”

I cared nothing for the silly old Mrs. Erskine, but my heart bled for her daughter, who became a piteous white at the turn the talk had taken, and put her handkerchief to her face, affecting a cough. Nancy saw this and her heart spoke.

“Dandy Carmichael,” she says, “talks to you, Mrs. MacGillavorich, to please ye you lay too much stress by what he says.”

But the italicizing lady was routed, and as Janet watched her departure from the window she said:

“Mark my words, John Stair! she’s fetched that girl here to marry her to Danvers Carmichael. I’ve not known Anne Erskine all these years for nothing. The old cat!” she cried.