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   Chapter 1 No.1

The Front Yard By Constance Fenimore Woolson Characters: 9063

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


OLD Mrs. Preston had not been able to endure the hotel at Salerno. She had therefore taken, for two months, this house on the shore.

"I might as well be here as anywhere, saddled as I am with the Abercrombies," she remarked to her cousin, Isabella Holland. "Arthur may really do something: I have hopes of Arthur. But as to Rose, Hildegarde, and Dorothea, I shall plainly have to drag them about with me, and drag them about with me, year after year, in the hope that the constant seeing of so many straight statues, to say nothing of pictures, may at last teach them to have spines. Here they are now; did you ever see such shoulders, or rather such a lack of them? Hildegarde, child, come here a moment," she added, as the three girls drew near. "I have an idea. Don't you think you could hold your shoulders up a little? Try it now; put them up high, as though you were shrugging them; and expand your chest too; you mustn't cramp that. There!-that is what I mean; don't you think, my dear, that you could keep yourself so?"

Hildegarde, with her shoulders elevated and her long chin run out, began to blush painfully, until her milk-white face was dyed red. "I am afraid I could not keep myself so long, aunt," she answered, in a low voice.

"Never mind; let them down, then: it's of no use," commented Mrs. Preston, despairingly. "Go and dance for twenty-five minutes in the upper hall, all of you. And dance as hard as you can."

The three girls, moving lifelessly, went down the echoing vaulted corridor. They were sisters, the eldest not quite sixteen, all three having the same lank figures with sloping shoulders and long thin throats, and the same curiously white, milk-white skin. Orphans, they had been sent with their brother Arthur to their aunt, Mrs. Octavia Preston, five years before, having come to her from one of the West India Islands, their former home.

"Those girls have done nothing but eat raw meat, take sea baths, and practise calisthenics and dancing ever since I first took charge of them," Mrs. Preston was accustomed to remark to intimate friends; "yet look at them now! Of course I could not send them to school-they would only grow lanker. So I take them about with me patiently, governess and all."

But Mrs. Preston was not very patient.

The three girls having disappeared, Isabella thought the occasion favorable for a few words upon another subject. "Do you like to have Paulie riding so often with Mr. Ash, Cousin Octavia? I can't help being distressed about it."

"Don't be Mistering John Ash, I beg; no one in the world but you, Isabella, would dream of doing it-a great swooping creature like that-the horseman in 'Heliodorus.'"

"You mean Raphael's fresco? Oh, Cousin Octavia, how can you think so? Raphael-such a religious painter, and John Ash, who looks so dissipated!"

"Did I say he didn't look dissipated? I said he could ride. John Ash is one of the most dissipated-looking youths I have ever met," pursued Mrs. Preston, comfortably. "The clever sort, not the brutal."

"And you don't mind Paulie's being with him?"

"Pauline Euphemia Graham has been married, Pauline Euphemia Graham is a widow; it ill becomes those who have not had a tithe of her experience (though they may be much older) to set themselves up as judges of her conduct."

Mrs. Preston had a deep rich voice, and slow enunciation; her simplest sentences, therefore, often took on the tone of declamation, and when she held forth at any length, it was like a Gregorian chant.

"Oh, I didn't mean to judge, I'm sure," said Isabella; "I only meant that it would be such a pity-such a bad match for dear Paulie in case she should be thinking of marrying again. Even if one were sure of John Ash-and certainly the reverse is the case-look at his mother! I am interested, naturally, as Paulie is my first cousin, you know."

"Do you mean that your first cousin's becoming Mrs. John Ash might endanger your own matrimonial prospects?"

"Oh dear no," said poor little Isabella, shrinking back to her embroidery. She was fifty, small, plain, extremely good. In her heart she wished that people would take the tone that Isabella had "never cared to marry."

"Here is Pauline now, I think," said Mrs. Preston, as a figure appeared at the end of the hall.

Isabella was afraid to add, "And going out to ride again!" But it was evident that Mrs. Graham intended to ride: she wore her habit.

"I wish you were going, too," she said to Mrs. Preston, pausing in the doorway with her skirt

uplifted. Her graceful figure in the closely fitting habit was a pleasant sight to see.

"Thanks, my dear; I should enjoy going very much if I were a little more slender."

"You are magnificent as you are," responded Pauline, admiringly.

And in truth the old lady was very handsome, with her thick silver hair, fine eyes with heavy black eyebrows, and well-cut aquiline profile. Her straight back, noble shoulders, and beautiful hands took from her massive form the idea of unwieldiness.

"Isabella-you who are always posing for enthusiasm-when will you learn to say anything so genuine as that?" chanted Cousin Octavia's deep voice. "I mention it merely on your account, as a question of styles conversational. Here is Isabella, who thinks John Ash so dissipated, Pauline; she fears that it may injure the family connection if you marry him. I have told her that no one here was thinking of marrying or of giving in marriage; if she has such ideas, she must have brought them with her from Florence. There are a great many old maids in Florence."

"I can only answer for myself: I certainly am not thinking of marriage," said Pauline, laughing, as she went down the stairs.

"Oh, Cousin Octavia, you have set Pauline against me!" exclaimed Isabella, in distress.

"Don't be an idiot; Pauline isn't against any one: she doesn't care enough about it. She is a good deal for herself, I acknowledge; but she's not against any one. Pauline bears no malice; she is delightfully uncertain; she hasn't a theory in the world to live up to; in addition, to have her in the house is like going to the play all the time-she is such a stupendous liar!"

Isabella, who was punching round holes in a linen band with an implement of ivory, stopped punching. "I am sure poor Paulie-"

"Am I to sit through a defence of Pauline Euphemia Graham, born Preston, at your hands, Isabella? Pray spare me that. I am much more Pauline's friend than you ever can be. Did I say that she lied? Nature has given her a face that speaks one language and a mind that speaks another; she, of course, follows the language of her mind; but others follow that of her face, and this makes the play. Eh!-what noise is that?"

"We have come to pay you a visit, Aunt Octavia," called a boyish voice; its owner was evidently mounting the stairs three at a time: now he was in the room. "They're all down at the door-Freemantle and Gates and Beckett. And what do you think-we've got Griff!"

"Griff himself?" said Aunt Octavia, benevolently, as the lad, with a very pretty gallantry, bent to kiss her hand.

"Yes, Griff himself; you may be sure we're drawing like mad. Griff has come down from Paris for only three weeks, and he says he will go with us to P?stum, and all about here-to Amalfi, Ravello, and everywhere. But of course P?stum's the stunner."

"Yes, of course P?stum's the stunner," repeated Aunt Octavia, as if trying it in Shakespearian tones.

"I say, may they come up?" Arthur went on.

They came up-three boys of seventeen and eighteen, and Griffith Carew, who was ten years older. These three youths, with Arthur Abercrombie, were studying architecture at the Beaux-Arts, Paris; this spring they had given to a tour in Italy for the purpose of making architectural drawings. Griffith Carew was also an architect, but a full-fledged one. His indomitable perseverance and painstaking accuracy caused all the younger men to respect him; the American students went further; they were sure that Griff had only to "let himself go," and the United States would bloom from end to end with City Halls of beauty unparalleled. In the mean time Griff, while waiting for the City Halls perhaps, was so kind-hearted and jovial and unselfish that they all adored him for that too. It was a master-treat, therefore, to Arthur and his companions, to have their paragon to themselves for a while on this temple-haunted shore.

Griff sat down placidly, and began to talk to Aunt Octavia. He was of medium height, his figure heavy and strong; he had a dark complexion and thick features, lighted by pleasant brown eyes, and white teeth that gleamed when he smiled.

Aunt Octavia was gracious to Griff; she had always distinguished him from "Arthur's horde." This was not in the least because the horde considered him the architect of the future. Aunt Octavia did not care much about the future; her tests were those of the past. She had known Griff's mother, and the persons whose mothers Aunt Octavia had known-ah, that was a certificate!

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