My Lady Bountiful - Fred M. White - ebook

My Lady Bountiful ebook

Fred M White

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Fred M. White wrote a story about a real feminine and beautiful lady. For example, his story begins so: when a tall figure in black velvet and diamonds and lace appeared at the head of the staircase. Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram was tall and dark, and, although she was almost seventy years old, there was no gray hair on her smooth head. Her features were beautiful and arrogant, as befits Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram of Caradoc; her eyes were restless and changeable. She pledged her income to the last penny. „My Lady Bountiful,” as she was generally called.

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Liczba stron: 217

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Contents

Chapter I. The Setting Of The Gem

Chapter II. Post Prandial

Chapter III. The Coming Guest

Chapter IV. "Rare, Pale Margaret."

Chapter V. The Yew Walk

Chapter VI. Next To The Throne

Chapter VII. "No Bigger Than A Man's Hand."

Chapter VIII. The "Dirk Buts'" Triptych

Chapter IX. Lady Disdain

Chapter X. The Journalistic Instinct

Chapter XI. The Warwick Cup

Chapter XII. "There's A Divinity Doth Hedge A King."

Chapter XIII. Exodus

Chapter XIV Arcadian

Chapter XV. The Dower Chest

Chapter XVI. A Discovery

Chapter XVII. Vive Le Roi

Chapter XVIII. The Shadow On The Hearth

Chapter XIX. Absolution

I. THE SETTING OF THE GEM

The lantern clock in the great hall struck eight in the courtly, condescending way it had done any time since Karl Halz made him in Antwerp “in the yeare of oure Lord, 1619,” as the quaint date testified. Immediately–or it would have been immediately in an ordinary household–a tall footman advanced and struck a score of times on the big ship’s bell that hung under the aforesaid timepiece. As most visitors to Caradoc knew, this bell was from the Spanish galleon Santa Maria, the Admiral’s flagship in the ill-fated Armada.

Everything was leisurely, courtly, high shouldered at Caradoc. The lingering impressiveness of the bell ceremony was reminiscent of mouldy ceremony. The Right Honourable Charles Merrion, Secretary for Foreign Affairs, remarked that it suggested the funeral of some very important but exceedingly disagreeable personage, followed by dinner in a chastened mood, but not so chastened as to render one indifferent to the lack of cayenne in the savoury.

The clanging had not died away when a tall figure in black velvet and diamonds and lace appeared at the head of the staircase. Leaning on the arm of a footman, she came leisurely down into the hall, where the oak pillars and the armour and the tapestry had been any time for the last three hundred years. Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram never forgot the fact that there had been a Caradoc House standing in the same spot since the days of Edward the Confessor.

The aforesaid Secretary for Foreign Affairs was standing with his back to the wood fire on the wide hearth in the drawing-room as his hostess entered. The footman bowed her into an armchair, and placed a table with a reading-lamp at her elbow. The quaint, old-world room, all black oak from floor to rafters, was lighted by candles in silver sconces. To the mind of the right honourable gentleman the funeral suggestion and sarcophagus effect was thus heightened.

“I had hoped to see you earlier, Charles,” Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram said. There was just the shade of reproach in her voice. The Minister inclined his head meekly. Even a Foreign Secretary has calls upon his time. “But you look worried, Charles.”

The speaker was calm enough. She was tall and dark, and whilst owning pleasantly enough to nearly seventy years of age, there was not a grey hair on her smooth head. Her features were handsome and haughty, as befitted Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram, of Caradoc; her eyes were restless and changeable.

The dominant note on her features was pride. But then there had been Wolframs at Caradoc for over a thousand years. No doubt existed on this head. The pedigree of the Wolframs was written in history.

Time was when the late Christopher Eldred-Wolfram had been an important figure in politics. As a holder of office his wife had of necessity seen something of the world. But she had never cared for it; she had never for one moment forgotten Caradoc and the pedigree of a thousand years. The death of her husband had relieved her of the necessity of being polite to comparatively new creations and society leaders, whose social edifice was firmly rooted in beer barrels and the like. For Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram had been related to her husband, and the aegis of the pedigree was as a halo about her head.

For seventeen years now she had never moved from Caradoc. On the face of it, hers seemed to be a lonely life. She had openly proclaimed the fact that there were not two families in the county worth knowing, and the county had resented the ultimatum accordingly.

Everything was merged into the glory of the Eldred-Wolframs. The queen regnant seemed to forget that she had no more than a life interest in the estate. She spent her money freely, regally; if her tenants were unfortunate, and could not pay their rents, they had only to come hat in hand to the throne and say so, and there was an end of the matter. It was an open secret that Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram had mortgaged her income to the last penny, but the glory of the house was as bright as the crests in the great mullioned windows. There was the costly racing stud that never raced in the stables, there was a small army of servants and footmen and gardeners. There were no finer peaches and grapes in the county, and yet every tradesman was paid to the day. It was all very strange, but there it was.

If “My Lady Bountiful,” as she was generally called, condescended to take advice from anybody, that fortunate individual was the Right Honourable Charles Merrion. Old Lord Saltoun declared openly that Maria Wolfram would have so far forgotten herself as to marry him–despite the fact that his pedigree failed to go beyond a Speaker of the House of Commons circa Charles II.–only that family claims came first. Be that as it may, Merrion was one of the only men who ever passed the lodge gates of Caradoc.

“I met the boat,” Merrion explained.

“You have seen the girl?” Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram asked, after a long pause.

“As I wrote to you, the young lady was to have come down with me this afternoon. At the last moment she decided to mote as far as Castleford with the Wiltshires.”

Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram gasped. Merrion had never seen that stately lady gasp before, and he was properly impressed.

“My unhappy sister and her family!” she said. “Charles, how did the girl get entangled with those deplorable people? And she not landed more than four-and-twenty hours from Australia!”

“The explanation is fairly simple,” Merrion replied. “The Wiltshires have been round the world in their yacht. Very naturally they looked up your brother in Australia some little time before he died, poor fellow. Hence the acquaintanceship. One of the Wiltshire boys came back with Miss Kathleen Wolfram on the Comus, and there you are.”

The listener closed her eyes with pious resignation. All the same, it was a dreadful blow. The idea of a child of her brother’s on terms of friendship with the Wiltshires! Of course, the Wiltshires were popular figures in what passed in these degenerate days for society. But Major Wiltshires sire had made his money out of a horrid East End brewery.

“I parted with my sister in sorrow more than anger,” she said. “When she married John Wiltshire there was an end of all intercourse. It was in vain that I implored her to remember that, as the widow of Jasper Eldred, her boy would one day be head of the family. When I die, Reginald Eldred will reign here. Lucy pointed out the fact that she was horribly poor and that she liked John Wiltshire. I pointed out that if she married him the boy Reginald would have all his principles sapped in an atmosphere of beer.”

“He is a splendid young fellow,” Merrion said warmly.

“Well, he is one of the family, after all. We must try and make my poor boy’s daughter properly appreciate her position. But to come down close to Caradoc in a motor! And with the Wiltshires! My dear Charles, the mere idea of it makes me feel quite faint!”

Merrion nodded with the polite sympathy of the statesman who always keeps a large stock of that kind of thing on hand. As a matter of fact, he was thinking that his hostess was a little sillier and more childishly proud than usual. Perhaps the loss of her only brother a few months ago in Australia had made a difference. Charles Eldred had always been delicate, so delicate that he could not live in England, hence the fact that he had migrated to Australia and married years ago. It was the only child of this brother that Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram was so impatiently waiting.

“I had a telegram just now,” Merrion explained. “The motor broke down on the road. Miss Kathleen says she shall drive over from Castleford. Probably she will get here before we have finished dinner.”

“Perhaps the mistake has not been hers,” Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram said magnanimously. “The atmosphere of Caradoc will not be without its influence. But you have not yet told me what the child is like. Of course, she is tall and dark, like all our family. I selected my poor brother’s wife for him, so there is no cause for uneasiness on that score. She is refined and haughty; she is a true descendant of an ancient race, in fact. At the same time, I trust she is not too haughty.”

Merrion bent down and replaced a log of wood on the fire. His clean-shaven lips trembled as if at the recollection of some subtle humour.

“Well, no,” he said thoughtfully, with his fine eyes still on the refractory log. “I don’t fancy Kathleen will be a martyr to that infirmity.”

II. POST PRANDIAL

The sonorous clang of the ship’s bell filled the house sedately. A magnificent butler announced dinner as if it had been some dark yet sacred rite. He bowed to Merrion, and hoped severely that he was well, though his manner conveyed but a poor opinion of the latter’s statesmanlike qualities. The ‘Times’ had been down upon the Foreign Secretary lately, and the ‘Times’ invariably had the cachet of Mr. Cedric’s approval. In lighter mood he trifled with the ‘Morning Post,’ but that was only when he unbent in the servants’ hall.

“We are not dining in state to-night, Maria?” Merrion asked as he proffered his arm.

“The Saxon parlour,” Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram explained. “The dining-hall is draughty, I admit. Only ourselves and my nieces.”

The big bell was still humming as the two passed along. At the foot of the stairs two girls in white stood. They were pretty girls, and it required no great stretch of imagination to say that they were high-spirited girls naturally. But their plain muslin dresses were painfully severe, as was their brushed back hair tied with ribbons. There was a painful suggestion of the genteel pensioner about them, something, almost monastic, but at the same time redolent of the better class of girls’ home usually patronised by the bishop’s wife. One felt that their proper policy was to come in with the dessert.

Still, the bishop’s wife, represented in this case by Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram, kissed the charity twins in the warmest possible manner, much as if they had just come home from the holidays. Mr. Cedric looked on in a fatherly and approving manner.

“Now shake hands with Mr. Merrion,” Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram said. “My dear children, how nice you look. My nieces do me credit Charles.”

Merrion muttered something polite and mellow in the mouth. He had a deal of humour for a statesman, and he was profoundly sorry for the twins, Edna and Phillipa. Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram collected authentic specimens of her distinguished family as other people collect old Chelsea and Bow china, and once the mark on the articles was passed they were taken to her kindly heart in future. The existing specimens had been unearthed five years before, as also was the vicar of Caradoc, who had originally been usher of a school in Cornwall.

The twins followed behind meekly and dutifully. The Saxon parlour was adorned entirely with old weapons and suite of leather armour. The oak walls were rough from the adze, as they had been shapen centuries before. What light there was in daytime came from slits in the walls. Dinner was served on a round oak gate-legged table at which Richard of the Lion Heart had frequently partaken of meat. There were candles in silver branches with climbing ferns gracefully twisted about them, and for flowers nothing more ornate than white wood violets, dewy and fragrant.

“None of the vulgar class of flowers here,” Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram said as she sipped her soup. “For instance, nothing like the outrageous violets that you are wearing, Charles.”

“Do my Neapolitans offend your eye?” Merrion asked.

“And my senses, Charles. They are redolent of the vulgar ostentation of the age. The true fragrance of the blossom has been sacrificed to the size. They suggest casinos and music halls and things of that kind. They also suggest––”

Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram broke off to critically examine a speck of dust on a slim pink forefinger. There was pollution in the touch. Whence had it the presumption to come?

“Cedric, come here,” the soiled hostess commanded. “Lift up my soup plate. It is within the region of possibility that it has not been properly polished!”

Cedric was profoundly regretful. The candles seemed to take on a funeral gloom. On the fair white damask was a circular film of plate powder. Cedric contemplated it with grey hairs borne down with sorrow. The iron had entered his soul. The twins laid down their forks, mildly overcome. There was a decorous silence.

“It seems a most extraordinary occurrence, Madam,” Cedric whispered.

“It is an extraordinary occurrence,” Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram murmured. “I make no charge. It may be a pure accident. Of that you are the best judge. As a favour, may I ask that it does not occur again?”

“I don’t think it could occur twice in this household, Madam,” Cedric said with conviction.

Mrs. Eldred-Wolfram waved her plate aside. Cedric bowed before the humiliation–all the more keen in the presence of so poor a statesman as Merrion. The latter was wiping his lips gravely, and hiding them at the same time. His eyes lighted on the faces of the twins. Veritably it was a night of surprises. For Edna winked with almost professional dexterity at Phillipa, and the latter flashed it back again with telegraphic ease. It was so sudden, so spontaneous, and so grave, that Merrion with difficulty preserved his decorum.

“Did you speak to me, Phillipa?” he asked.

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