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THE

MYSTERY OF MIRBRIDGE.

CHAPTER I.

THE RECTORY. SPRINGTIME in England—whatever may be said to its discredit -is, after all, our best time. It may set in with its usual severity, but, like the parrot when it nips its mistress, its bite has a something caressing in it. Even the people that go abroad to avoid 'that hateful east wind' of ours pine to be at home again when the bullfinch begins his song. Oh, life in England now that April's there,' sings the poet in Italy as he sees in imagination, as Wordsworth saw, the daffodils, “the buttercups, the little children's dower,' and compares them, to its disadvan. tage, with the 'gaudy melon flower.'' What the maiden dying of consumption, and the old man dying of old age, alike desire to see once more before they go, is, above all other sights, the springtime, as it comes too slowly up their way. The spectacle of Nature renewing her youth and strength and beauty is grateful to everyone, whether they recognise what it is that charms them or no.

The Reverend Percival Thorne, walking in his Rectory garden this April morning before breakfast, recognises it well enough. His lot had long been cast in a manufacturing town, where the changes of the seasons were marked chiefly by the use or disuse of fires in the grates, or by the difference of the viands on the table, and he vastly prefers his country Rectory to Stoketon.

'I seem to breathe freely for the first time these ten years,' he observed to his wife on his first arrival at Mirbridge, and he is sniffing the fresh odours that arise from the fields and streams around him now as though he could never inhale enough of them. His present lines, in comparison with his old ones, kave certainly fallen in a pleasant place.

The Rectory is a house of considerable size, standing on a knoll, with a well-wooded hill behind it, that shields it from north and east; around it runs a veranda, from which, in summer time, so charming a view is afforded, that it often tempts certain of its indwellers to remain at home, and take the loveliness of neighbouring but more distant landscapes upon trust, from hearsay, rather than stir from their chairs.

The garden is large and very picturesque, being interspersed with huge lichen-covered boulders (which have rolled down years ago from the hill behind) and ancient trees, whose still leafless boughs are moss-covered like the antlers of a stag. It is skirted by an unseen high road, sunk between deep banks, on the other side of which is a meadow, intersected by the Mir, at present a bright, sparkling stream, full of high spirits indeed, yet respectful of its banks, but which, a month earlier, when the snow from the hills begins to melt, is given to spread itself to right and left, till it looks more like a lake than a river. To the west the valley narrows; the stream is there pent up between two walls of rock, and never ceases, even in the driest weather, to make complaint of its imprisonment. Beyond this gorge rises a range of hills, almost large enough to be called mountains, green, save when capped by snow, to their very summits. On the south the landscape is shut in by low-lying woods which, even in summer-time, do not reach the spire of the village church, nor the scarcely less aspiring turrets of the mansion of the Squire. As fine a home-view as even in England, so rich in similar scenes that to the very alien who looks upon them it seems almost 'bome,' was ever beheld from Rectory garden.

On his favourite walk, between the apple-tree and the boxwood hedge, the Rector paces up and down-a man of sixty or more, but upright as a dart, and bright-eyed as a star. It is not always thus with him, for the reverend gentleman, in common with most of his clerical brethren in these times, has cause enough for depression ; but the pure air and bright sunshine have for the moment driven sombre thoughts away. Moreover, truth to say, he has another reason for his unwonted lightheartedness in a certain day-dream in which he has been indulging-not for the first time.

It is broken by a clapping of hands from the veranda and a. musical cry of 'Pa-pa, pa-pa !' which awakes the whoes like the notes of a key-bugle ; the very hills, though in gentlest tones, seem to be calling for him.

If it could only be,' he murmurs to himself, with a half. sigh; ‘yet wby should it not be ?' and he leisurely obeys the summons.

In the veranda which frames her charming little figure, as. though it were a picture, stands the Rector's second daughter, Lucy : her cheeks, which have naturally a bright, though delicate colour, are pale ; her dark-brown hair is short as that of a boy, for it is only a few weeks since it began to grow, after a dangerous illness, in which the whole silken harvest of it had to be sheared away. She is quite convalescent now, and her sweat looks are rather improved than otherwise, or so it appearg to her fond parent, by the ordeal which she bas gone through. She is one of those girls whose charms satisfy us so completely that we think they can never change for the better, yet on whom every change seems to confer new beauties ; not that Lucy Thorne is really beautiful in an artistic sense, but only winsome and attractive in the highest degree. Six months ago the Rector could not have conceived to himself how he could have loved a daughter more ; but at that time she had been almost lost to him, and by God's mercy had been given back to his arms, at the very edge of the grave. It is the first time since last autumn that she has 'b d' to him, as she calls it, a music he had never thought to hear again ; and at the sound of it the selfish tears start to his eyes, because his darling is with him still, and exposed to all earthly snares and woes, and not a saint in heaven. It is the case with even the best of us; though we know that if our dear ones die they

In a city glorious,

A great and distant city,
Have bought a mansion incorruptible,

Would they could have stayed with us ! is still our cry.

• This is very shocking ! cries the fairy figure, shaking a reproving finger at her parent as he toils up the sloping sward to the veranda. "To be late on the first morning that his daughter has come down to breakfast.'

You very wicked and abominable girl!' returns the Rector, whose humour it is to load with the most severe reproaches the child who in his eyes is faultless, and whom he is secretly conscious of having done his best to spoil, ' how dare you say so ? Why, your mother and I have been waiting for you, and for Clara,' he adds with precipitancy (like one who has been nearly forgetting himself, or, rather, somebody else), these threequarters of an hour. Where on earth, my dear'—this to his wife, who is sitting at the breakfast-table superintending the tea-urn— did this very shameless and disrespectful young person acquire her babit of mendacity ?'

* You had better both come in and shut the window,' returns the lady of the house, without condescending to take the least notice of this grave question of morals. “It is very unwise of you, Percy, to go out so early without an overcoat ; and if I had not insisted upon the precaution-would you believe it ?-that girl of yours, only just recovering from her illness, would have gone without a shawl to call you in.'

• Don't call her my girl,' said the Rector, looking at the delin. quent as if she were some toothsome dainty, which he would prefer to anything on the well-spread table in the way of eating, and shaking his handsome head with a great show of indignation ; she is an unworthy minx, and the plague of our lives

Cut me some ham, you witch-fat and very thin, as your father loves it, though I dare say you have forgotten all about his likes and dislikes. There is certainly nothing like the atmosphere of a sick-room for increasing natural selfishness.'

'I wish you'd eat your toast while it's hot, my dear,' observed Mrs. Thorne drily. She did not disapprove of her husband's affectionate banter of Lucy, and much less was she jealous of it, for she was well aware that there was someone in the world whom the Rector loved still better than his younger daughter, but she always discouraged it, for it sometimes gave offence in other quarters. To keep the peace, and to cause others to do so, was good Mrs. Thorne's mission, which had earned for her the gratitude of her family and the title of 'The Special Constable.'

She had prejudices and preferences of her own, no doubt ; but she never showed them, except, indeed, as respected the Rector, whom she worshipped without much concealment. She was his junior by only a few years, but looked much younger; not a wrinkle had the envious crow planted on her plump and comely cheek; her brow only showed signs of care, but it was care for others, not for herself, and they had no resemblance to a frown. Thirty years ago she had been the handsomest of Lancashire lasses ; and as a matron she still bore away the bell. Of this, however, I believe she was unconscious. It was natural to her to dress with taste, but she gave far less thought to her whole attire than to the choice of a ribbon, or a rose, to be worn by one of her girls. Her manner was very quiet, and she spoke but little ; always, however, as sensibly as gently, and nothing escaped her eye.

• Where is the Duchess ? inquired the Rector presently. 'Her Grace is less punctual even than usual.'

• Clara has been up some time,' replied Mrs. Thorne, confining herself to the defence of her offspring, without taking notice of the high rank accorded to her.

• It's a great day, you know. papa, and preparations must be made accordingly,' said Lucy slily; there are three degrees of comparison in a young lady's attire : Hightems, Tightems, and Scrub! With Ciara this morning it is Hightems.'

“And with you, you minx ? But you need not tell me ; I can see by your waspish waist that it is Tightems.'

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