For a great many years it had been understood in Longfield that Miss Horatia Dane once had a lover, and that he had been lost at sea. By little and little, in one way and another, her acquaintances had found out or made up the whole story; and Miss Dane stood in the position, not of an unmarried woman exactly, but rather of having spent most of her life in a long and lonely widowhood. She looked like a person with a history, strangers often said (as if we each did not have a history); and her own unbroken reserve about this romance of hers gave everybody the more respect for it.
The Longfield people paid willing deference to Miss Dane: her family had always been one that could be liked and respected, and she was the last that was left in the old home of which she was so fond. This was a high, square house, with a row of pointed windows in its roof, a peaked porch in front, with some lilac-bushes around it; and down by the road was a long, orderly procession of poplars, like a row of sentinels standing guard. She had lived here alone since her father’s death, twenty years before. She was a kind, just woman, whose pleasures were of a stately and sober sort; and she seemed not unhappy in her loneliness, though she sometimes said gravely that she was the last of her family, as if the fact had a great sadness for her.
She had some middle-aged and elderly cousins living at a distance, and they came occasionally to see her; but there had been no young people staying in the house for many years until this summer, when the daughter of her youngest cousin had written to ask if she might come to make a visit. She was a motherless girl of twenty, both older and younger than her years. Her father and brother, who were civil engineers, had taken some work upon the line of a railway in the far Western country. Nelly had made many long journeys with them before and since she had left school, and she had meant to follow them now, after she had spent a fortnight with the old cousin whom she had not seen since her childhood. Her father had laughed at the visit as a freak, and had warned her of the dulness and primness of Longfield; but the result was that the girl found herself very happy in the comfortable home. She was still her own free, unfettered, lucky, and sunshiny self; and the old house was so much pleasanter for the girlish face and life, that Miss Horatia had, at first timidly and then most heartily, begged her to stay for the whole summer, or even the autumn, until her father was ready to come East. The name of Dane was very dear to Miss Horatia, and she grew fonder of her guest. When the village-people saw her glance at the girl affectionately, as they sat together in the family-pew of a Sunday, or saw them walking together after tea, they said it was a good thing for Miss Horatia; how bright she looked; and no doubt she would leave all her money to Nelly Dane, if she played her cards well.
But we will do Nelly justice, and say that she was not mercenary: she would have scorned such a thought. She had grown to have a great love for her cousin Horatia, and she liked to please her. She idealized her, I have no doubt; and her repression, her grave courtesy and rare words of approval, had a great fascination for a girl who had just been used to people who chattered, and were upon most intimate terms with you directly, and could forget you with equal ease. And Nelly liked having so admiring and easily pleased an audience as Miss Dane and her old servant Melissa. She liked to be queen of her company: she had so many gay, bright stories of what had happened to herself and her friends. Besides, she was clever with her needle, and had all those practical gifts which elderly women approve so heartily in girls. They liked her pretty clothes; she was sensible and economical and busy; they praised her to each other and to the world, and even stubborn old Andrew, the man, to whom Miss Horatia herself spoke with deference, would do any thing she asked. Nelly would by no means choose so dull a life as this for the rest of her days; but she enjoyed it immensely for the time being. She instinctively avoided all that would shock the grave dignity and old-school ideas of Miss Dane; and somehow she never had felt happier or better satisfied with life. I think it was because she was her best and most lady-like self. It was not long before she knew the village-people almost as well as Miss Dane did, and she became a very great favorite, as a girl so easily can who is good-natured and pretty, and well versed in city fashions; who has that tact and cleverness that come to such a nature from going about the world and knowing many people.