It is time to say a few words as to what my father was like. Intensely selfish, and hating trouble, he was also extremely sociable, jovially disposed, easily amused, and endowed with an enviable facility for shaking off whatever was disagreeable. He seemed to consider everything unpleasant, dull, sad, or gloomy, as a sort of poisonous external application which must be got rid of promptly, lest it should get absorbed into the system. Consequently he never allowed anything to make a deeper impression on him than he could help. And in order to escape at once from the depressing influences of his wife's death he resolved to go abroad immediately after the funeral, and stay away for a good long time, wandering from place to place where his fancy took him, so as to distract his mind from all possibility of melancholy by a complete change of scene and life.
As he did not see the use of keeping up an establishment in England during his absence, he determined to let Castle Manor. Then came the question of what was to be done with me under these circumstances? His relations assured him that the best plan would be to send me to school somewhere till he should again be settled in his own home. After reflecting for a day on this suggestion, he considerably astonished those who had made it by announcing that he meant to take me abroad with him. Such a determination was certainly surprising on the part of one who could not endure trouble, and had no affection for me. But the fact was that since his marriage he had got so much accustomed to the feeling that there was some one belonging to him always within reach, that he did not now like to live quite alone again; and therefore he thought he might as well have me handy as a last resource to fall back upon for company when none other should be attainable. Wherever he went, therefore, there I went also; and for that reason we were supposed by many people to be wholly wrapped up in one another, and a touching example of parental and filial attachment. I accidentally overheard some remarks to that effect made one day by a couple of compatriots staying at the same hotel as ourselves at Naples; and, child as I was, I remember that I laughed cynically to think how wide of the truth they were, and what fools people were to be so ready to judge from appearances. For though he chose to have me living under the same roof as himself, yet he never had any wish for my society if he could pick up any one else to talk to, and walk, ride, drive, or make expeditions with; and as his sociability and geniality made it easy to him to make acquaintance and fraternise with strangers, he was not often dependent upon me for companionship; so that I was left very much to myself, and spent the greater part of the time in solitude, or with my attendant who was a sort of cross between nursery-governess and maid.
We moved about from place to place for two or three years, rarely staying long anywhere, and not once returning to England. This roving existence had a great charm for me, notwithstanding its frequent loneliness, and was infinitely more to my taste than would have been the orthodox schoolroom routine that falls to the lot of most girls between the ages of twelve and fifteen. Doubtless, too, it had a good deal of influence on the formation of my character; for the perpetual motion and change of scene in which I delighted could hardly fail to foster my inborn restlessness and love of adventure, as well as to develop whatever natural tendencies I possessed towards self-reliance, independence, and intolerance of restraint.
Meanwhile my education, as may be supposed, pursued a somewhat erratic course, and my standard of attainments would, I fear, have by no means been considered satisfactory by Mrs. Grundy. A life passed in hotels, pensions, and lodgings is unfavourable to regular studies; and, besides that, there was no one, after my mother's death, who cared sufficiently about my intellectual or moral progress to take the trouble of insisting on lessons being persevered with, whether I liked them or not. Consequently I learnt anything that took my fancy, and left alone everything else. On some out-of-the-way subjects I was better informed than the majority of my contemporaries; but then, on the other hand, I was ignorant of much that every schoolgirl is expected to know. My ideas, for instance, as to religious matters were extremely vague. I was but slightly acquainted with the contents of either the Bible or Prayer Book; never thought of religion as a thing with which I, personally, had to do; had not a notion of what constituted the differences between one form of religious belief and another; and never attended any place of worship except when some grand function was to come off. All I cared for in such a place was to listen to the music, and stare at the lights, vestments, decorations, ceremonial, and crowd; therefore I only went on great festivals, or when some especially prized relic was to be exhibited, or other unusual attraction offered; and, of course, I became more familiar with the interior of Roman Catholic churches and chapels than any other.
What accomplishments I possessed were such as would have qualified me well enough for a courier, and I think that I could have earned my livelihood in that line of business without much difficulty after I had been abroad for a while. I could speak several languages fluently, besides having a smattering of a few more, and of two or three patois; I was well up in the relative values of foreign coins, and capable of making a bargain even with such slippery individuals as drivers, jobmasters, laquais-de-place, or boatmen. Besides that, I was so thoroughly at home in railway stations that I could find my way about in any hitherto-unvisited one almost by instinct; I could usually tell, to within a few minutes, the exact time when any rapide or grande-vitesse was due to start from Paris for Spain, Germany, Italy, or the Mediterranean; when it ought to reach its destination; and at about what hour it would be at the more important towns on its route; and I had quite mastered the intricacies of the English and Foreign Bradshaw, Livret-Chaix, and works of a similarly perplexing kind, so as to be able to discover easily whatever information they could afford. My expertness in this way was chiefly owing to a happy thought that came into my head at Bayonne one day when I happened to be left alone for the afternoon with nothing to do, and no book whatever available except a railway guide. The prospect till night was not an exhilarating one, and I was disconsolately wondering how to get through the time, when it suddenly occurred to me that I would play at being about to start for St. Petersburg, or some other remote place, and obliged to look out the best and fastest way of getting there. I set to work accordingly with the railway guide, and became so engrossed in the game I had invented that I forgot all about the passage of time, and was quite astonished to find how quickly the afternoon slipped away whilst I was settling various journeys to my satisfaction. Such an easily-attainable means of amusement was a glorious discovery to me, and one which I commend to the notice of other travellers as a resource for wet weather and dull moments. Henceforth I had no dread of lacking amusement, provided I had a time-table; and many a long hour have I beguiled in planning skeleton tours to all kinds of places—poring over the times of arrival and departure of trains, diligences, steamers, and other public conveyances, and weighing in my own mind the prices and comparative merits of various routes with every bit as much care and attention as though the imaginary journey under consideration were a reality, and I were the sole person responsible to make arrangements for it. This employment had for me something of the same sort of fascination that working out a problem in algebra has for some people—indeed I do not think the two things are greatly unlike each other in their natures.
Besides the accomplishments I have mentioned, I had also some ideas as to foreign cookery, which I picked up here and there on our travels—chiefly on the rare occasions when we were in lodgings anywhere. I do not think I ever met any mistress of a lodging-house abroad who did not pride herself particularly upon her cooking of some one dish (sometimes more than that, but at least one), and who was not willing to initiate into its mysteries any lodger who evinced a proper appreciation of its excellence. There was an old woman at Genoa, I remember, at whose house we stayed for some weeks, who knew several delicious ways of dressing macaroni and vegetables, and who not only allowed me to watch her whilst she cooked, and gave me her favourite recipes, but even stretched her good nature so far as to let me try my own hand in the kitchen till I could join practice to theory, and produce a tolerably successful result for my labours. She was a kindly, motherly old soul, who was impressed with the notion that there was something peculiarly forlorn and provocative of pity in my condition; she generally called me poverina (to my amusement), and took me under her protection from an early stage of our acquaintance.
"See, Signorina," she said to me on the second morning of our occupying her apartments, "you will no doubt wish to buy velvet here—as all the English do—and many other things also. But be guided by me, and go not to buy alone, or you will most certainly be cheated. No! when you see the thing that you desire, come to me—take me to where it is—point it out to me quietly. Then will I go forward as though to buy it for myself, and so shall you procure it at a reasonable price. You who understand not the modes of our merchants, would pay nearly, or perhaps even altogether—for there is no saying how far the folly of an English person may go!—the amount that they demand for their goods. But as for me!—ah! I know how to arrange these people, and you shall see what I will do! I dare to flatter myself that there is not a man or woman in the whole of Genoa who can get the better of me in a bargain!"
Experience soon showed me that this was no idle vaunt. Though—to her great disappointment—I declined to buy any velvet, yet I gladly availed myself of her services for other purchases, and never in my life, either before or since, have I met with any one who was her match in bargaining. She never bought anything at a shop or stall without having taken a final farewell and departed from it at least twice, and then suffered herself to be brought back by the persuasions of the owner; I think she regarded this going away and returning as quite a necessary part of the negotiation, without which it could not possibly come to a proper conclusion. At all events her efforts were invariably successful, and she forced shopkeepers, market-people, and sellers of every sort with whom she had dealings, to accept reductions of price which seemed to me almost incredible. Meanwhile I, in whose behalf she was exerting herself, used merely to assist as a passive spectator, feeling that my knowledge of mankind was being enlarged, and that I was gaining a valuable insight into the amount of dishonesty and cunning that was latent in human beings in general, and Italians in particular. This was especially my feeling when, as more than once happened, I perceived that my friend herself was not altogether exempt from the failings of her country-people; and that, relying on my knowledge of Italian being less than it really was, she was making a little profit at my expense out of the transaction she was conducting for me. This was a fresh revelation of the depravity of human nature, and impressed upon my youthful mind the folly of trusting absolutely to any professions of friendship, however genuine they might appear. But, after all, it was not to be expected that she would take a great deal of trouble for a stranger gratuitously and out of pure love; besides that, she allowed no one except herself to cheat me, so that in the end my pocket was saved, notwithstanding the commissions that she managed adroitly to retain for her own benefit; and as, furthermore, I derived much instruction from her in the art of bargaining, I saw that on the whole I was a gainer by her help, and had nothing to complain of. So I let her act for me as before, chuckling inwardly at her vehement denunciations of the roguery that surrounded us, and not telling her of what I had discovered regarding her own.
I remember but little of most of the innumerable people with whom my father was continually making acquaintance; they seemed to me to come and go in endless succession, having to do with us only for a few days or hours, and then vanishing into space, with about as much likelihood of our ever seeing them again as though we had all been so many dead leaves whirled away by gales from opposite directions. But there was one of these stray acquaintances who made more impression on me than the rest, and whom I mention here because of the relations which she and I were destined to have together in the future—little as we then suspected it.
Kitty Mervyn, the individual in question, was a girl of about a year older than myself, clever, vivacious, and agreeable, and promising to be very good-looking by the time she should be seventeen. She and I were cousins in some far-off degree, because her father, Lord Mervyn, was a cousin many times removed of my grandfather, Lord Gilbert. The cousinship, however, was so remote that we did not know of each other's existence; and my father and the Mervyns had never happened to meet until they arrived one evening at the hotel at which we were staying at Lugano. Then the distant connection served as an introduction between us; and as the next day was a dreary wet Sunday, the feeling of ennui and desire to kill time that was common to us all, led to our seeing more of one another than we should probably have done otherwise. Kitty and I paired off together naturally, as being nearly of the same age. As far as I can recollect, we spent most of the day in watching and laughing at the performances of some embryo bicyclists, who were too enthusiastic to be deterred by either rain or frequent tumbles, and who went on grinding perseveringly on their bicycles up and down a bit of road in sight of our windows which was their practice-ground. We did not find it very lively, certainly; but then there was nothing else to do, unless we had struck up a romantic friendship and exchanged sentimental confidences—as some girls thus situated would have done—and neither she nor I were at all disposed for that sort of thing. Our intercourse lasted only for that one day, as next morning the Mervyns departed south, whilst we went to Como. But in the short time I had been with Kitty she had somehow made a stronger impression than usual on my unimpressionable mind, and the recollection of her lingered in my memory longer than that of any one else whom we met. Her good looks attracted me; her cleverness and liveliness made her very good company. Notwithstanding an incipient haughtiness about her, which might develop as she grew older, perhaps, she seemed at present to have a decided capacity for being what I called jolly; and, altogether, she had given me the idea of being remarkably likeable. I was sorry that the chances of travel made us separate so soon, and wondered if she was at all inclined to return the liking which I had taken to her. But she passed out of my head after a while; and it was only now and then that I recollected her existence, and thought how pleasant it would be if we happened to meet again some day.