Chapter VIII. "Hands Across the Sea."
 

"Oh, how jolly you all look!" cried Hildegarde, peeping through the hedge. "Where are you going?"

The Merryweathers were going to ride; so much was evident. Five bicycles stood at the door, glittering in the sunlight; five riders were in the act of mounting, plainly bound on a pleasure- trip.

"Only for the mail, and a little spin after it," cried Mr. Merryweather. "Wish you could come too, Miss Grahame. You will certainly have to get a wheel and join us. Nothing like it, I assure you."

Bell and Gertrude, in trim short skirts and gaiters, sat already perched, ready for the start; and Phil and Gerald were putting a last touch to their shining metal-work.

Mrs. Merryweather came out on the steps, with Kitty by her side.

"Here are my letters, dear people," she said. "And don't forget the boots, please; they are very important."

"May one inquire what boots?" asked Mr. Merryweather.

"I really have no idea!" replied his wife. "Somebody said at breakfast that you must be sure to remember the boots, and dwelt on their importance; therefore I mention them."

"Ou, avez-vous procure ce chapeau?" inquired Gerald, politely.

"My dear Gerald, you know that I will not endure slang that is less than fifty years old."

"It isn't slang, Mother! At least it may be; but I want to know, because, really, you know, ma'am, when it comes to baskets--"

Mrs. Merryweather put up her hand, and removed her head-gear. "Dear me!" she said, "it is a basket, sure enough. That is very curious! Why--why then, I must have picked the raspberries into my hat."

A shout of laughter, in which Mrs. Merryweather joined placidly, greeted this announcement. "I put plenty of green leaves in it," she said; "it will be all right. But I sent it to the minister's wife, and I fear she will be surprised. My dear Gertrude, have you learned your Latin lesson, that I see you starting off so freely?"

"Yes, mother," said Gertrude, sadly. "I learned it, and it was a detestable lesson. I am so tired of hearing that Titus Labienus was stationed on a hill!"

"I know!" chimed in Phil. "I remember when I was in Caesar, about forty years ago, and Titus Labby was on the hill then. It's my belief he got stuck there, and was afraid to come down."

"That is curious!" said Mrs. Merryweather, meditatively. "Always on a hill; why, so he is! That is rather interesting, don't you think so?"

"With all respect, I do not!" said Mr. Merryweather. "I desire to depart. If Caesar had had a wheel, he would not have been so tedious."

"Oh, jolly!" cried Gerald. "Caesar commanded to let scoot the legions through the morasses and bogges the bogs. Then came Vercingetorix on a '91 Columbia, weighing seventy-three pounds, and said, 'How in time am I to get up this hill?' Then spake to him Caesar, and said these words,--Get out, you Ferguson!"

For Ferguson, swiftly departing, had launched a kick at his brother in passing, nearly sending him from his seat. Gerald whirled off in pursuit; the others followed more soberly, and the whole party disappeared round the curve of the road.

Hildegarde looked after them rather dolefully. A year ago a girl on a bicycle was a shocking thing to our heroine; she shook her little head severely, and said that nothing would induce her to mount one. Somehow her views had changed since she had seen the Merryweathers on theirs. She began to think that it would be uncommonly pleasant to go skimming along like a swallow, swooping down the hills and whirling along the levels. "The nearest approach to flying that this generation will see," Mr. Merryweather called it, and Hilda inclined to think he was right. However--

"Remember that you are both coming over this morning," called Mrs. Merryweather, cheerfully. "I mean this evening, of course, to tea. We will have some music. Kitty, my dear, we must go to our French."

"Shall we bring our sewing out on the verandah, mammy?" asked Hilda, rousing herself from a little reverie. "Ah, you have the letters, sly one, and never told me!"

"I doubted if there was anything that would interest you, my love," said Mrs. Grahame. "Yes; let us have our work, by all means. There are one or two business letters that I should like you to look over."

Hilda smiled and departed, revolving the thought that she was a selfish and empty-headed wretch. She did not want to read business letters; she wanted to be on a wheel, flying over the smooth road, with the wind lifting her hair and breathing cool against her cheek. And here was her mother sitting alone, and the new tablecloths to hem, and--and altogether--"If you could tell me why they thought it worth while to keep you," she said to herself, "I should be glad to know it. Perhaps you can tell me what P-I-G spells."

Returning with the wide sewing basket, she found her mother looking over a pile of letters. "It is high time," said Mrs. Grahame, "that you began to take some interest in business matters." Hildegarde wondered what was coming; her mother looked very grave; she held in her hand a square grey envelope. "I shall be greatly obliged, therefore, my dear," her mother continued, with the same portentous gravity, "if--you would--read that"; and she gave the letter to Hildegarde.

"Oh, mamma! you wicked, wicked deceiver! You frightened me almost to death; and it is from Jack, dear old Jack. Oh, how delightful! You pleasant person, Mrs. Grahame; I forgive you, though my heart still throbs with terror. Are you all comfortable, my own? Your little feet all tucked up beneath your petticoat, so that they cannot steal in and out? Don't you want a glass of milk, or a cracker, or a saddle of mutton, or anything else? Then be silent! and oh, how happy we shall be!" Hildegarde settled herself in her chair, sighed with pleasure, and broke the seal of the fat letter.

"DEAR HILDA: It seems an age since I last wrote, but there is so much going on I have hardly time to breathe. There have been some awfully jolly concerts this spring, and I have been going to them, and practising four hours a day, and having lessons and all that. Herr J. played at the last two concerts, and I know what heaven is like--my heaven, at least--since I heard him. He played--"

Here followed an accurate list of the great violinist's performances, covering three sheets of note-paper.

"It isn't the technique and all that, though of course he is the first in the world for that and everything else; it's the sense, the heart that he puts into it. In that adagio--well, I played it to you once, like the cheeky little duffer I was, and felt pleased as Punch with myself, and no end cocked up because you liked it. Hilda, I ought to have been taken out and shot for daring to touch it! When the maestro (they call him maestro here, so you mustn't think me Frenchified), when he played it, the world seemed just to melt away, and nothing left but a voice, that sang, and sang, and told you more than you ever dreamed of in all your life before. I wish I could describe things, but you know I can't, so you won't expect it. But one thing I will tell you, if you'll promise not to tell any living soul--"

"Stop, my dear!" said Mrs. Grahame, quickly. "We must not touch upon the boy's confidences. Head that part to yourself."

"Thank you, ma'am!" said Hilda. "This mark of trust is most gratifying, I assure you. 'Not tell any living soul except your mother, dear.' Now how do you feel, madam?"

"Dear Jack!" said Mrs. Grahame, softly. "Dear lad! of course I shall like to hear it. Go on, Hilda, and I promise not to interrupt again."

"The day after the last concert--it was only day before yesterday, but it seems an age--I went to take my lesson, and my master was not there. He is often late, so I just took out some music and began to play over the things I had studied. There was a sonata of Rubinstein's, very splendid, that has quite possessed me lately. I played that, and I suppose I forgot where I was and all about it, for I went on and on, never hearing a sound except just the music. You must hear it when I come back, Hilda. It begins in the minor, and then there is the most superb sweep up into the major; your heart seems to sweep up with it, and you find yourself in another world, where everything is divine harmony. I'm talking nonsense, I know, but that piece just sends me off my head altogether. Well, at last I finished it and came down from the clouds, and when I turned around, Hilda, there was the maestro himself, standing and listening. Well! you can't go through the floor and all that sort of thing, as they do in the fairy-books, but I did wish I was a mouse, or a flea, or anything smaller that there is. He stood still a minute. Perhaps he was afraid I would behave like some asses the other day--they weren't Americans, I am happy to say-- who met him, and went down on their knees in the hotel entry, and took bits of mud from his shoes for a keepsake; they truly did, the horrid pigs! And he just said 'Dummkopfer!' and went off and left them kneeling there. Wasn't that jolly? Well, I say, he might have thought I would act like that, and yet I don't believe he did, for he had the kindest, friendliest look on his face. He came forward and held out his hand, and said, 'So you play the great sonata, my son; and love it, too, I perceive.'

"I don't know exactly what I said,--some rubbish about how much I cared for it; but I stammered mostly, and got all kinds of colours. I guess you can tell pretty much how I behaved, though I really am getting to be not quite so much of a muff. Anyhow, he seemed to understand, and nodded, and said, 'Give me now the violin, for there are things you understand not yet in the piece.'

"Oh, Hilda! he took my violin in his own hands, and played for me. Think of it! the greatest master in the world, all alone with me there, and playing like--like--well, I don't know how to say what I mean, so you'll have to imagine it for yourself. He went all through it, stopping once in a while to explain to me, and to describe this or that shade of expression or turn of the wrist. It was the most splendid lesson any one ever had, I believe. But that is not the best, and I hardly like to tell even you the rest. You may think I am just bluffing, and anyhow,--but it is the truth, so--well, after about half an hour my master came in, and of course he was delighted, and highly honoured, and bowing and scraping and all. But the maestro came and put his hand on my shoulder, and said, 'Friend, will you give me up this pupil, hein?'

"I don't mind if you don't believe it; I didn't myself, but thought I was asleep and dreaming it all. 'I will give you in exchange two others,' he said. 'The fat English lady has shortness of breath, and cannot keep my hours of work, and the young Russian makes eyes at me, which is not to be endured. Will you take them, both very rich, and give me in exchange this child?'

"Of course there is only one answer, you know; it is like when a king asks for anything. And besides, Herr Geiger is so good and kind, he was really perfectly delighted at my having the great chance,--the chance of a lifetime. So I am going this afternoon to take my first regular lesson from the great master of the world, and I don't deserve it, Hilda, and I wonder why everything is done so for me, and such happiness given to a fellow like me, when there are hundreds of other fellows who deserve it a great deal more. I know what you and your mother would say, and I do feel it, and I am thankful, I truly think, with all my heart, and I hope I shall be a better fellow in every way, and try to make some return. I couldn't go without telling you. Of course I wrote a line to the governor first. He will be so happy! And of course if it hadn't been for him, I never should have had any music, or any violin, or anything; and without you and your mother, Hilda, I never should have come here, that is certain. So I don't see very clear, sometimes, when I think about you and him.

"Time for the lesson now. Good-bye! I am the happiest fellow in the world! Best love to your mother, and uncle--no! shall write to him by this mail.

"Always your affectionate

"JACK.

"P.S. Lesson glorious! he is really the greatest man in the world, I don't care who the next is. I didn't thank you for your last letter. Of course I felt for a minute as if my gas-balloon had bust, when you told me that the lovely Rose was going to marry Dr. Flower; but I guess it is all right. You see, she must be very sweet and all that; but after all, I never saw her, and you say she has no ear for music, and I am afraid that would have been a pretty bad thing, don't you think so yourself? So I guess it is all right, and I am as jolly as a coot. Awfully jolly about the new neighbours turning out such bricks. Do any of them play or sing? JACK.

"P.P.S. I fought my first duel yesterday, with a chap who slanged the U. S. I got a cut on my left arm, but then, I cut a little slice off his ear, so I was all right. J."

"Dear me!" exclaimed Mrs. Grahame; "a duel! The naughty, naughty boy! Those student duels are not apt to be serious affairs nowadays, I believe, but still it seems a dreadful thing. What will the Colonel say when he hears it?"

"He will very likely be pleased as Punch, as Jack says," rejoined Hildegarde. "To have his milksop fight a duel would probably seem to him a very encouraging thing. And of course, mammina, it isn't like a real, dreadful duel, is it? I mean, it is more a kind of horrid bear-play? But oh, to think of our Jack cutting off a piece of a man's ear! It almost spoils the beautiful other part of it. No, nothing can spoil that. Dear, delightful, stupid, glorious old Jack! I always knew he had genius. When shall we see the Colonel?"

"Possibly to-night, at the Merryweathers'," said her mother. "These pleasant little tea-parties seem to take in all our little circle. See! there come the riders back again, Gerald and Phil racing, as usual. Hear them shout! Certainly, never a family was better named."

Hildegarde came up behind her mother, and put her arms lightly round her neck.

"I prefer my pea!" she said. And the two women laughed and kissed each other and went on with their work.