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There was an awkward constraint upon him, nevertheless, as he touched her hand, and took a chair at the side of her couch.
"I see now," he began, not at all fluently, "how you occupy your hand. Only seeing you from the path outside, I thought you were playing upon something."
She was engaged in very nimbly and dexterously making lace. A lace- pillow lay upon her breast; and the quick movements and changes of her hands upon it, as she worked, had given them the action he had misinterpreted.
"That is curious," she answered with a bright smile. "For I often fancy, myself, that I play tunes while I am at work."
"Have you any musical knowledge?"
She shook her head.
"I think I could pick out tunes, if I had any instrument, which could be made as handy to me as my lace-pillow. But I dare say I deceive myself. At all events, I shall never know."
"You have a musical voice. Excuse me; I have heard you sing."
"With the children?" she answered, slightly colouring. "Oh yes. I sing with the dear children, if it can be called singing."
Barbox Brothers glanced at the two small forms in the room, and hazarded the speculation that she was fond of children, and that she was learned in new systems of teaching them?
"Very fond of them," she said, shaking her head again; "but I know nothing of teaching, beyond the interest I have in it, and the pleasure it gives me when they learn. Perhaps your overhearing my little scholars sing some of their lessons has led you so far astray as to think me a grand teacher? Ah! I thought so! No, I have only read and been told about that system. It seemed so pretty and pleasant, and to treat them so like the merry Robins they are, that I took up with it in my little way. You don't need to be told what a very little way mine is, sir," she added with a glance at the small forms and round the room.
All this time her hands were busy at her lace-pillow. As they still continued so, and as there was a kind of substitute for conversation in the click and play of its pegs, Barbox Brothers took the opportunity of observing her. He guessed her to be thirty. The charm of her transparent face and large bright brown eyes was, not that they were passively resigned, but that they were actively and thoroughly cheerful. Even her busy hands, which of their own thinness alone might have besought compassion, plied their task with a gay courage that made mere compassion an unjustifiable assumption of superiority, and an impertinence.
He saw her eyes in the act of rising towards his, and he directed his towards the prospect, saying: "Beautiful, indeed!"
"Most beautiful, sir. I have sometimes had a fancy that I would like to sit up, for once, only to try how it looks to an erect head. But what a foolish fancy that would be to encourage! It cannot look more lovely to any one than it does to me."
Her eyes were turned to it, as she spoke, with most delighted admiration and enjoyment. There was not a trace in it of any sense of deprivation.
"And those threads of railway, with their puffs of smoke and steam changing places so fast, make it so lively for me," she went on. "I think of the number of people who can go where they wish, on their business, or their pleasure; I remember that the puffs make signs to me that they are actually going while I look; and that enlivens the prospect with abundance of company, if I want company. There is the great Junction, too. I don't see it under the foot of the hill, but I can very often hear it, and I always know it is there. It seems to join me, in a way, to I don't know how many places and things that I shall never see."
With an abashed kind of idea that it might have already joined himself to something he had never seen, he said constrainedly: "Just so."
"And so you see, sir," pursued Phoebe, "I am not the invalid you thought me, and I am very well off indeed."
"You have a happy disposition," said Barbox Brothers: perhaps with a slight excusatory touch for his own disposition.
"Ah! But you should know my father," she replied. "His is the happy disposition!--Don't mind, sir!" For his reserve took the alarm at a step upon the stairs, and he distrusted that he would be set down for a troublesome intruder. "This is my father coming."
The door opened, and the father paused there.
"Why, Lamps!" exclaimed Barbox Brothers, starting from his chair. "How do you do, Lamps?"
To which Lamps responded: "The gentleman for Nowhere! How do you DO, sir?"
And they shook hands, to the greatest admiration and surprise of Lamp's daughter.
"I have looked you up half-a-dozen times since that night," said Barbox Brothers, "but have never found you."
"So I've heerd on, sir, so I've heerd on," returned Lamps. "It's your being noticed so often down at the Junction, without taking any train, that has begun to get you the name among us of the gentleman for Nowhere. No offence in my having called you by it when took by surprise, I hope, sir?"
"None at all. It's as good a name for me as any other you could call me by. But may I ask you a question in the corner here?"
Lamps suffered himself to be led aside from his daughter's couch by one of the buttons of his velveteen jacket.
"Is this the bedside where you sing your songs?"
The gentleman for Nowhere clapped him on the shoulder, and they faced about again.
"Upon my word, my dear," said Lamps then to his daughter, looking from her to her visitor, "it is such an amaze to me, to find you brought acquainted with this gentleman, that I must (if this gentleman will excuse me) take a rounder."
Mr. Lamps demonstrated in action what this meant, by pulling out his oily handkerchief rolled up in the form of a ball, and giving himself an elaborate smear, from behind the right ear, up the cheek, across the forehead, and down the other cheek to behind his left ear. After this operation he shone exceedingly.
"It's according to my custom when particular warmed up by any agitation, sir," he offered by way of apology. "And really, I am throwed into that state of amaze by finding you brought acquainted with Phoebe, that I--that I think I will, if you'll excuse me, take another rounder." Which he did, seeming to be greatly restored by it.
They were now both standing by the side of her couch, and she was working at her lace-pillow. "Your daughter tells me," said Barbox Brothers, still in a half-reluctant shamefaced way, "that she never sits up."
"No, sir, nor never has done. You see, her mother (who died when she was a year and two months old) was subject to very bad fits, and as she had never mentioned to me that she WAS subject to fits, they couldn't be guarded against. Consequently, she dropped the baby when took, and this happened."
"It was very wrong of her," said Barbox Brothers with a knitted brow, "to marry you, making a secret of her infirmity.'
"Well, sir!" pleaded Lamps in behalf of the long-deceased. "You see, Phoebe and me, we have talked that over too. And Lord bless us! Such a number on us has our infirmities, what with fits, and what with misfits, of one sort and another, that if we confessed to 'em all before we got married, most of us might never get married."
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Short Stories -- by Charles Dickens