My story begins on the morning of December 18, 18— , while sitting at breakfast. Let it be understood before we go further that I was a bachelor living in lodgings. I had been left an orphan just before I came of age, and was thus cast upon the world at a time when it is extremely dangerous for young men to be alone. Especially was it so in my case, owing to the fact that at twenty-one I inherited a considerable fortune. One thing saved me from ruin, viz. a passionate love for literature, which led me to make it my profession. I had at the time of my story been following the bent of my inclinations for two years with a fair amount of success, and was regarded by those who knew me as a lucky fellow. That is all I think I need say concerning myself prior to the time when my story opens, except to tell my name; but that will drop out very soon. I had not made very great inroads into the omelette my landlady had prepared for me when I heard the postman’s knock, and soon after a servant entered with a letter. One only. I had expected at least half-a-dozen, but only one lay on the tray before me.
“Are you sure this is all, Jane?” I asked.
“Quite sure, sir,” said Jane, smiling, and then with a curtsey she took her leave.
The envelope was addressed in a bold hand-writing to—
Justin M. Blake, Esq.,
“Surely I know the writing,” I mused, and then began to look at the postmarks as if a letter were something of very uncommon occurrence. I could make nothing of the illegible smear in the corner, however, and so opened it, and read as follows:—
Dear old Justin Martyr,
I suppose you have about forgotten your old schoolfellow, Tom Temple, and it’s natural you should; but he has not forgotten you. You see, you have risen to fame, and I have remained in obscurity. Ah well, such is the fate of that community called ‘country gentlemen.’ But this is not what I want to write about, and I am going straight to the real object of this letter.
We— that is, mother, the girls, and myself— are contemplating a real jolly Christmas. We are inviting a few friends to spend Christmas and New Year with us, and we wish you to make one of the number. Will you come and spend a fortnight or so at Temple Hall? Of course it is rather quiet here, but we are going to do our best to make it more lively than usual. The weather looks frosty, and that promises skating. We have a few good horses, so that we can have some rides across the country. There is also plenty of shooting, hunting, etc., etc. Altogether, if you will come and help us; we can promise a fairly good bill of fare. What do you say? You must excuse me for writing in this unconventional strain, but I can’t write otherwise to my old schoolfellow.
We shall all be really disappointed if you say ‘no,’ so write at once and tell us you will come, also when we may expect you. All the news when we meet.
Your sincere friend,
P.S.— I might say that most of the guests will arrive on Christmas Eve.
“Just the very thing,” I exclaimed. “I had been wondering what to do and where to go this Christmas time, and this invitation comes in splendidly.”
Tom Temple lived in Yorkshire, at a fine old country house some distance from the metropolis of that county, and was a really good fellow. As for his mother and sisters, I knew but little about them, but I judged from the letters his mother wrote him when at school, that she must be a true, kind-hearted, motherly woman.
I accordingly turned to my desk, wrote to Tom, telling him to expect me on the 24th inst., and then, without finishing my breakfast, endeavoured to go on with my work. It was very difficult, however. My thoughts were ever running away to Yorkshire, and on the pleasant time I hoped to spend. Between the lines on my paper I was ever seeing the old baronial hall that was Tom Temple’s home, and the people who had been invited to spend the festive season there. Presently I began to chide myself for my foolishness. Why should the thoughts of a Christmas holiday so unfit me, a staid old bachelor of thirty, for my usual work? Nevertheless it did, so I put on my overcoat, and went away in the direction of Hyde Park in order, if possible, to dispel my fancies. I did dispel them, and shortly afterwards returned to my lodgings, and did a good morning’s work.
Nothing of importance happened between the 18th and the 24th, and early in the afternoon of the latter date I found my way to St. Pancras Station, and booked for the station nearest Tom Temple’s home. Although it was Christmas Eve, I found an empty first-class carriage, and soon comfortably ensconced myself therein. I don’t know why, but we English people generally try to get an empty carriage, and feel annoyed when some one comes in to share our possession. I, like the rest of my countrymen are apt to do in such a case, began to hope I might retain the entire use of the carriage, at least to Leeds, when the door opened, and a porter brought a number of wraps and shawls, evidently the property of a lady.
“Bother it!” I mentally exclaimed, “and so I suppose I am to have some fidgety old women for my travelling companions.”
The reader will imagine from this that I was not a lady’s man. At any rate, such was the case. I had lived my thirty years without ever being in love; indeed, I had from principle avoided the society of ladies, that is, when they were of the flirtable or marriageable kind.
No sooner had the porter laid the articles mentioned on a corner seat, the one farthest away from me, than their owner entered, and my irritation vanished. It was a young lady under the ordinary size, and, from what I could see of her, possessed of more than ordinary beauty. Her skin was dark and clear, her eyes very dark, her mouth pleasant yet decided, her chin square and determined. This latter feature would in the eyes of many destroy her pretensions to beauty, but I, who liked persons with a will of their own, admired the firm resoluteness the feature indicated.
She took no notice of me, but quietly arranged her belongings as if she were accustomed to take care of herself. She had only just sat down, when she was followed by another lady, who appeared, from the sign of recognition that passed between them, an acquaintance.
Evidently, however, the younger lady was not delighted at the advent of the elder. A look of annoyance swept across her face, as if she could have very comfortably excused her presence. I did not wonder at it. This second comer was a woman of about fifty-five years of age. She had yellow wrinkled skin, a square upright forehead, shaggy grey eyebrows, beneath which, in two cavernous sockets, were two black beady-looking eyes. Her mouth was large and coarse, and, to make that feature still more objectionable, two large teeth, like two fangs, stuck out at a considerable angle from her upper jaw and rested on the lower lip. Altogether the face was repulsive. Added to this, she was tall and bony, and would have passed anywhere for one of the witches of olden time.
“I have altered my mind, Gertrude, and am going with you.” This was said in a harsh, thick voice.
“I see you are here, Miss Staggles,” said the younger lady very coolly.
“I did not intend coming at first, but your aunt, poor silly thing, said you would not take your maid with you, and so I thought it would be a sin for a young girl like you to travel alone to Yorkshire on a day like this.”
“Yorkshire?” I thought. “Is that old woman to be in this carriage with me for five or six long hours? I’ll get out.”
I was too late; at that moment the guard’s whistle blew, and the train moved slowly out of the station. At all events, I had to remain until the train stopped, so I composed myself as well as I could, and resolved to make the best of it. Neither of them paid the slightest attention to me. The elder lady sat bolt upright opposite the younger, and began to harangue her.
“Don’t you know it was very foolish of you to think of coming alone?”
“No,” said the younger lady; “I’m tired of having a maid dogging my every footstep, as if I were a child and unable to do for myself.”
“Nevertheless, Gertrude, you should have brought her; no young lady should travel alone. However, you will have a chaperon, so the deficiency will be more than remedied;” and there was grim satisfaction in the woman’s voice.
There was no satisfaction in the young lady’s face, however, and she turned with what I thought an angry look towards the scrawny duenna, who had claimed guardianship over her, and said——
“But, Miss Staggles, you are in a false position. You have received no invitation.”
“No, I have not; but your aunt had one, poor silly creature, and so, for duty’s sake, I am breaking the rules of etiquette. Those fine people you are about to visit did not think it worth their while to invite your aunt’s late husband’s step-sister— perhaps because she is poor; but she has a soul above formalities, and so determined to come and take care of her niece.”
The young lady made no reply.
“You will be thankful, Gertrude Forrest, some day that I do care for you,” Miss Staggles continued, “although I never expect to get any reward for my kindness.”
By this time the train was going rapidly, and so loud was the roar it made that I heard only the growling of Miss Staggles’ voice without distinguishing any words. Indeed, I was very glad I could not. It was by no means pleasant to have to sit and listen to her hoarse voice, so I pulled down the laps of my travelling cap over my ears and, closing my eyes, began to think who Gertrude Forrest was, and where she was going.
I did not change carriages as I intended. Miss Staggles got tired after awhile, and so there was relief in that quarter, while my seat was most comfortable, and I did not want to be disturbed. Hour after hour passed by, until night came on; then the wind blew colder, and I began to wonder how soon the journey would end, when the collector came to take all the tickets from the Leeds passengers. Shortly after we arrived at the Midland station, for which I was truly thankful. I did not wait there long; a train stood at another platform, which stopped at a station some two miles from Tom Temple’s home. By this time there was every evidence of the holiday season. The train was crowded, and I was glad to get in at all, unmindful of comfort.
What had become of my two travelling companions I was not aware, but concluded that they would be staying at Leeds, as they had given up their tickets at the collecting station. I cannot but admit, however, that I was somewhat anxious as to the destination of Gertrude Forrest, for certainly she had made an impression upon me I was not likely to forget. Still I gave up the idea of ever seeing her again, and tried to think of the visit I was about to pay.
Arrived at the station, I saw Tom Temple, who gave me a hearty welcome, after which he said, “Justin, my boy, do you want to be introduced to some ladies at present?”
“A thousand times no,” I replied. “Let’s wait till we get to Temple Hall.”
“Then, in that case, you will have to go home in a cab. I retained one for you, knowing your dislike to the fair sex; for, of course, they will have to go in the carriage, and I must go with them. Stay, though. I’ll go and speak to them, and get them all safe in the carriage, and then, as there will be barely room for me, I’ll come back and ride home with you.”
He rushed away as he spoke, and in a few minutes came back again. “I am sorry those ladies had to be made rather uncomfortable, but guests have been arriving all the day, and thus things are a bit upset. There are five people in yon carriage; three came from the north, and two from the south. The northern train has been in nearly half-an-hour, so the three had to wait for the two. Well, I think I’ve made them comfortable, so I don’t mind so much.”
“You’re a capital host, Tom,” I said.
“Am I, Justin? Well, I hope I am to you, for I have been really longing for you to come, and I want you to have a jolly time.”
“I’m sure I shall,” I replied.
“Well, I hope so; only you don’t care for ladies’ society, and I’m afraid I shall have to be away from you a good bit.”
“Naturally you will, old fellow. You see, you are master of the hall, and will have to look after the comfort of all the guests.”
“Oh, as to that, mother will do all that’s necessary; but I— that is— ” and Tom stopped.
“Any particular guest, Tom?” I asked.
“Yes, there is, Justin. I don’t mind telling you, but I’m in love, and I want to settle the matter this Christmas. She’s an angel of a girl, and I’m in hopes that— Well, I don’t believe she hates me.”
“Good, Tom. And her name?”
“Her name,” said Tom slowly, “is Edith Gray.”
I gave a sigh of relief. I could not help it— why I could not tell; and yet I trembled lest he should mention another name.
We reached Temple Hall in due time, where I was kindly welcomed by Mrs. Temple and her two daughters. The former was just the kind of lady I had pictured her, while the daughters gave promise of following in the footsteps of their kind-hearted mother.
Tom took me to my room, and then, looking at his watch, said, “Make haste, old fellow. Dinner has been postponed on account of you late arrivals, but it will be ready in half-an-hour.”
I was not long over my toilet, and soon after hearing the first dinner bell I wended my way to the drawing-room, wondering who and what kind of people I should meet, but was not prepared for the surprises that awaited me.