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The Lady Of The Red Admirals
by [?]

“Law, miss, how you do run on!”

The young lady who had given utterance to this amazing rigmarole stood at the top of a terrace flight (much cracked and broken) between two leaden statuettes (headless)–a willowy child in a large-brimmed hat, with a riding-switch in one hand and the other holding up an old tartan shawl, which she had pinned about her to imitate a horse-woman’s habit. As she paced to and fro between the leaden statuettes–

Pedes vestis defluxit ad imos
Et vera incessu patuit dea,

–and I noted almost at once that two or three butterflies (“red admirals” they were) floated and circled about her in the sunlight. A child of commoner make, and perhaps a year older, dressed in a buff print frock and pink sunbonnet, looked up at her from the foot of the steps. The faces of both were averted, and I stood there for at least a minute on the verge of the laurels, unobserved, considering the picture they made, and the ruinous Jacobean house that formed its background.

Never was house more eloquent of desolation. Unpainted shutters, cracking in the heat, blocked one half of its windows. Weather-stains ran down the slates from the lantern on the main roof. The lantern over the stable had lost its vane, and the stable-clock its minute-hand. The very nails had dropped out of the gable wall, and the wistaria and Gloire de Dijons they should have supported trailed down in tangles, like curtains. Grass choked the rain-pipes, and moss dappled the gravel walk. In the border at my feet someone had attempted a clearance of the weeds; and here lay his hoe, matted with bindweed and ring-streaked with the silvery tracks of snails.

“Very well, Lobelia. We will be sensible house-maid and cook, and talk of business. We came out, I believe, to cut a cabbage-leaf to make an apple-pie”–

At this point happening to turn her head she caught sight of me, and stopped with a slight, embarrassed laugh. I raised my hat.

“I beg your pardon, sir, but no strangers are admitted here.”

“I beg your pardon”–I began; and with that, as I shifted my walking-stick, my foolish ankle gave way, and plump I sat in the very middle of the bindweed.

“You are ill?” She came quickly towards me, but halted a pace or two off. “You look as if you were going to faint.”

“I’ll try not to,” said I. “The fact is, I have just twisted my ankle on the side of Skirrid, and I wished to be told the shortest way to the station.”

“I don’t believe you can walk; and”–she hesitated a second, then went on defiantly–“we have no carriage to take you.”

“I should not think of putting you to any such trouble.”

“Also, if you want to reach Aber, there is no train for the next two hours. You must come in and rest.”

“But really “–

“I am mistress here. I am Wilhelmina Van der Knoope.”

Being by this time on my feet again, I bowed and introduced myself by name. She nodded. The child had a thoughtful face–thoughtful beyond her years–and delicately shaped rather than pretty.

“Lobelia, run in and tell the Admirals that a gentleman has called, with my permission.”

Having dismissed the handmaiden, she observed me in silence for a few moments while she unpinned her tartan riding-skirt. Its removal disclosed, not–as I had expected–a short frock, but one of quite womanly length; and she carried it with the air of a grown woman.

“You must make allowances, please. I think,” she mused, “yes, I really think you will be able to help. But you must not be surprised, mind. Can you walk alone, or will you lean a hand on my shoulder?”

I could walk alone. Of what she meant I had of course no inkling; but I saw she was as anxious now for me to come indoors as she had been prompt at first to warn me off the premises. So I hobbled after her towards the house. At the steps by the side-door she turned and gave me a hand. We passed across a stone-flagged hall and through a carpetless corridor, which brought us to the foot of the grand staircase: and a magnificent staircase it was, ornate with twisted balusters and hung with fine pictures, mostly by old Dutch masters. But no carpet covered the broad steps, and the pictures were perishing in their frames for lack of varnish. I had halted to stare up at a big Hondecoeter that hung in the sunlight over the first short flight of stairs–an elaborate “Parliament of Fowls”–when the girl turned the handle of a door to my right and entered.