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“Dear heart, Miss Ruth, my dear, now don’t ye be a-going yet, and me that hasn’t set eyes on ye this month and more—and as hardly hears a body speak from morning till night.”
“Come, come, Mrs. Eccles, I am always finding people sitting here. I expect to see the latch go every minute.”
“Well, and if they do; and some folks are always a-dropping in, and a-setting theirselves down, and a clack-clacking till a body can’t get a bit of peace! And the things they say! Eh? Miss Ruth, the things I have heard folks say, a setting as it might be there, in poor Eccles his old chair by the chimley, as the Lord took him in.”
To the uninitiated, Mrs. Eccles’s allusion might have seemed to refer to photography. But Ruth knew better; a visitation from the Lord being synonymous in Slumberleigh Parish with a fall from a ladder, a stroke of paralysis, or the midnight cart-wheel that disabled Brown when returning late from the Blue Dragon “not quite hisself.”
“Lor’!” resumed Mrs. Eccles, with an extensive sigh, “there’s a deal of talk in the village now,” glancing inquisitively at the visitor, “about him as succeeds to old Mr. Dare; but I never listen to their tales.”
They made a pleasant contrast to each other, the neat old woman, with her shrewd spectacled eyes and active, hard-worked fingers, and the young girl, tranquil, graceful, sitting in the shadow, with her slender ungloved hands in her lap.
They were not sitting in the front parlor, because Ruth was an old acquaintance; but Mrs. Eccles had a front parlor—a front parlor with the bottled-up smell in it peculiar to front parlors; a parlor with a real mahogany table, on which photograph albums and a few select volumes were symmetrically arranged round an inkstand, nestling in a very choice wool-work mat; a parlor with wax-flowers under glass shades on the mantle-piece, and an avalanche of paper roses and mixed paper herbs in the fireplace.
Ruth knew that sacred apartment well. She knew the name of each of the books; she had expressed a proper admiration for the wax-flowers; she had heard, though she might have forgotten, for she was but young, the price of the “real Brussels” carpet, and so she might safely be permitted to sit in the kitchen, and watch Mrs. Eccles darning her son’s socks.
I am almost afraid Ruth liked the kitchen best, with its tiled floor and patch of afternoon sun; with its tall clock in the corner, its line of straining geraniums in the low window-shelf, and its high mantle-piece crowned by two china dogs with red lozenges on them, holding baskets in their mouths.
“Yes, a deal of talk there is, but nobody rightly seems to know anything for certain,” continued Mrs. Eccles, spreading out her hand in the heel of a fresh sock, and pouncing on a modest hole. “Ye see, we never gave a thought to him, with that great hearty Mr. George, his eldest brother, to succeed when the old gentleman went. And such a fine figure of a man in his clothes as poor Mr. George used to be, and such a favorite with his old uncle. And then to be took like that, horseback riding at polar, only six weeks after the old gentleman. But I can’t hear as anybody’s set eyes on his half-brother as comes in for the property now. He never came to Vandon in his uncle’s lifetime. They say old Mr. Dare couldn’t bide the French madam as his brother took when his first wife died—a foreigner, with black curls; it wasn’t likely. He was always partial to Mr. George, and he took him up when his father died; but he never would have anything to say to this younger one, bein’ nothin’ in the world, so folks say, but half a French, and black, like his mother. I wonder now—” began Mrs. Eccles, tentatively, with her usual love of information.
“I wonder, now,” interposed Ruth, quietly, “how the rheumatism is getting on? I saw you were in church on Sunday evening.”
“Yes, my dear,” began Mrs. Eccles, readily diverted to a subject of such interest as herself. “Yes, I always come to the evening service now, though I won’t deny as the rheumatics are very pinching at times. But, dear Lord! I never come up to the stalls near the chancel, so you ain’t likely to see me. To see them Harrises always a-goin’ up to the very top, it does go agen me. 1 don’t say as it’s everybody as ought to take the lowest place. The Lord knows I’m not proud, but I won’t go into them chairs down by the font myself; but to see them Harrises, that to my certain knowledge hasn’t a bite of butcher’s meat in their heads but onst a week, a-settin’ theirselves up—”
“Now, Mrs. Eccles, you know perfectly well all the seats are free in the evening.”
“And so they may be, Miss Ruth, my dear—and don’t ye be a-getting up yet—and good Christians, I’m sure, the quality are to abide it. And it did my heart good to hear the Honorable John preaching as he did in his new surplice (as Widder Pegg always puts too much blue in the surplices to my thinking), all about rich and poor, and one with another. A beautiful sermon it was; but I wouldn’t come up like they Harrises. There’s things as is suitable, and there’s things as is not. No, I keep to my own place; and I had to turn out old Bessie Pugh this very last Sunday night, as I found a-cocked up there, tho’ I was not a matter of five minutes late. Bessie Pugh always was one to take upon herself, and, as I often says to her, when I hear her a-goin’ on about free grace and the like, ‘Bessie,’ I says, ‘if I was a widder on the parish, and not so much as a pig to fat up for Christmas, and coming to church reg’lar on Loaf Sunday, which it’s not that I ain’t sorry for ye, but I wouldn’t take upon myself, if I was you, to talk of things as I’d better leave to them as is beholden to nobody and pays their rent reg’lar. I’ve no patience—But eh, dear Miss Ruth! look at that gentleman going down the road, and the dog too. Why, ye haven’t so much as got up! He’s gone. He was a foreigner, and no mistake. Why, good Lord! there he is coming back again. He’s seen me through the winder. Mercy on us! he’s opening the gate; he’s coming to the door!”
As she spoke, a shadow passed before the window, and some one knocked.
Mrs. Eccles hastily thrust her darning-needle into the front of her bodice, the general rendezvous of the pins and needles of the establishment, and proceeded to open the door and plant herself in front of it.
Ruth caught a glimpse of an erect light gray figure in the sunshine, surmounted by a brown face, and the lightest of light gray hats. Close behind stood a black poodle of a dignified and self-engrossed deportment, wearing its body half shaved, but breaking out in ruffles round its paws, and a tuft at the end of a stiffly undemonstrative tail.
“The key of the church is kep’ at Jones’s, by the pump,” said Mrs. Eccles, in the brusque manner peculiar to the freeborn Briton when brought in contact with a foreigner.
“Thank you, madam,” was the reply, in the most courteous of tones, and the gray hat was off in a moment, showing a very dark, cropped head, “but I do not look for the church. I only ask for the way to the house of the pastor, Mr. Alwynn.”
Mrs. Eccles gave full and comprehensive directions in a very high key, accompanied by much gesticulation, and then the gray hat was replaced, and the gray figure, followed by the black poodle, marched down the little garden path again, and disappeared from view.
Mrs. Eccles drew a long breath, and turned to her visitor again.
“Well, my dear, and did ye ever see the like of that? And his head, Miss Ruth! Did ye take note of his head? Not so much as a shadder of a parting. All the same all the way over; and asking the way to the rectory. Why, you ain’t never going yet? Well, good-bye, my dear, and God bless ye! And now,” soliloquized Mrs. Eccles, as Ruth finally escaped, “I may as well run across to Jones’s, and see if they know anything about the gentleman, and if he’s put up at the inn.”
It was a glorious July afternoon, but it was hot. The roads were white, and the tall hedge-rows gray with dust. A wagon-load of late hay, with a swarm of children just out from school careering round it, was coming up the road in a dim cloud of dust. Ruth, who had been undecided which way to take, beat a hasty retreat towards the church-yard, deciding that, if she must hesitate, to do so among cool tombstones in the shade. She glanced up at the church clock, as she selected her tombstone under one of the many yew-trees in the old church-yard. Half-past four, and already an inner voice was suggesting tea! To miss five o’clock tea on a thirsty afternoon like this was not to be thought of for a moment. She had no intention of going back to tea at Atherstone, where she was staying with her cousins, Mr. and Mrs. Danvers. Two alternatives remained. Should she go to Slumberleigh Hall, close by, and see the Thursbys, who she knew had all returned from London yesterday, or should she go across the fields to Slumberleigh Rectory, and have tea with Uncle John and Aunt Fanny?
She knew that Sir Charles Danvers, Ralph Danvers’s elder brother, was expected at Atherstone that afternoon. His aunt, Lady Mary Cunningham, was also staying there, partly with a view of meeting him. Ralph Danvers had not seen his brother, nor Lady Mary her nephew, for some time, and, judging by the interest they seemed to feel in his visit, Ruth had determined not to interrupt a family meeting, in which she imagined she might be de trop.
“My fine tact,” she thought, “will enable them to have a quiet talk among themselves till nearly dinner-time. But I must not neglect myself any longer. The Hall is the nearer, and the drive is shady; but, to put against that, Mabel will insist on showing me her new gowns, and Mrs. Thursby will make her usual remarks about Aunt Fanny. No; in spite of that burning expanse of glebe, I will go to tea at the rectory. I have not seen Uncle John for a week, and—who knows?—perhaps Aunt Fanny may be out.”
So the gloves were put on, the crisp white dress shaken out, the parasol put up, and Ruth took the narrow church path across the fields up to Slumberleigh Rectory.
For many years since the death of her parents, Ruth Deyncourt had lived with her grandmother, a wealthy, witty, and wise old lady, whose house had been considered one of the pleasantest in London by those to whom pleasant houses are open.
Lady Deyncourt, a beauty in her youth, a beauty in middle life, a beauty in her old age, had seen and known all the marked men of the last two generations, and had reminiscences to tell which increased in point and flavor, like old wine, the longer they were kept. She had frequented as a girl the Misses Berrys’ drawing-room, and people were wont to say that hers was the nearest approach to a salon which remained after the Misses Berry disappeared. She had married a grave politician, a rising man, whom she had pushed into a knighthood, and at one time into the ministry. If he had died before he could make her the wife of a premier, the disappointment had not been without its alleviations. She had never possessed much talent for domestic life, and, the yoke once removed, she had not felt the least inclination to take it upon herself again. As a widow, her way through life was one long triumphal procession. She had daughters—dull, tall, serious girls, with whom she had nothing in common, whom she educated well, brought out, laced in, and then married, one after another, relinquishing the last with the utmost cheerfulness, and refusing the condolences of friends on her lonely position with her usual frankness.
But her son, her only son, she had loved. He was like her, and understood her, and was at ease with her, as her daughters had never been. The trouble of her life was the death of her son. She got over it, as she got over everything; but when several years afterwards his widow, with whom, it is hardly necessary to say, she was not on speaking terms, suddenly died (being a faint-hearted, feeble creature), Lady Deyncourt immediately took possession of her grandchildren—a boy and two girls—and proceeded as far as in her lay to ruin the boy for life.
“A woman,” she was apt to remark in after years, “is not intended by nature to manage any man except her husband. I am a warning to the mothers, aunts, and grandmothers, particularly the grandmothers, of the future. A husband is a sufficient field for the employment of a woman’s whole energies. I went beyond my sphere, and I am punished.”
And when Raymond Deyncourt finally disappeared in America for the last time, having been fished up therefrom on several occasions, each time in worse case than the last, she excommunicated him, and cheerfully altered her will, dividing the sixty thousand pounds she had it in her power to leave, between her two granddaughters, and letting the fact become known, with the result that Anna was married by the end of her second season; and if at the end of five seasons Ruth was still unmarried, she had, as Lady Deyncourt took care to inform people, no one to thank for it but herself.
But in reality, now that Anna was provided for, Lady Deyncourt was in no hurry to part with Ruth. She liked her as much as it was possible for her to like any one—indeed, I think she even loved her in a way. She had taken but small notice of her while she was in the school-room, for she cared little about girls as a rule; but as she grew up tall, erect, with the pale, stately beauty of a lily, Lady Deyncourt’s heart went out to her. None of her own daughters had been so distinguished-looking, so ornamental. Ruth’s clothes always looked well on her, and she had a knack of entertaining people, and much taste in the arrangement of flowers. Though she had inherited the Deyncourt earnestness of character, together with their dark serious eyes, and a certain annoying rigidity as to right and wrong, these defects were counterbalanced by flashes of brightness and humor which reminded Lady Deyncourt of herself in her own brilliant youth, and inclined her to be lenient, when in her daughters’ cases she would have been sarcastic. The old woman and the young one had been great friends, and not the less so, perhaps, because of a tacit understanding which existed between them that certain subjects should be avoided, upon which, each instinctively felt, they were not likely to agree. And if the shrewd old woman of the world ever suspected the existence of a strength of will and depth of character in Ruth such as had, in her own early life, been a source of annoyance and perplexity to herself in her dealings with her husband, she was skilful enough to ignore any traces of it that showed themselves in her granddaughter, and thus avoided those collisions of will, the result of which she felt might have been doubtful.
And so Ruth had lived a life full of varied interests, and among interesting people, and had been waked up suddenly in a gray and frosted dawn to find that chapter of her life closed. Lady Deyncourt, who never thought of travelling without her maid and footman, suddenly went on a long journey alone one wild January morning, starting, without any previous preparation, for a land in which she had never professed much interest heretofore. It seemed a pity that she should have to die when she had so thoroughly acquired the art of living, with little trouble to herself, and much pleasure to others; but so it was.
And then, in Ruth’s confused remembrance of what followed, all the world seemed to have turned to black and gray. There was no color anywhere, where all had been color before. Miles of black cloth and crape seemed to extend before her; black horses came and stamped black hoof-marks in the snow before the door. Endless arrangements had to be made, endless letters to be written. Something was carried heavily down-stairs, all in black, scoring the wall at the turn on the stairs in a way which would have annoyed Lady Deyncourt exceedingly if she had been there to see it, but she had left several days before it happened. The last pale shadow of the kind, gay little grandmother was gone from the great front bedroom up-stairs. Mr. Alwynn, one of Ruth’s uncles, came up from the country and went to the funeral, and took Ruth away afterwards. Her own sister Anna was abroad with her husband, her brother Raymond had not been heard of for years. As she drove away from the house, and looked up at the windows with wide tearless eyes, she suddenly realized that this departure was final, that there would be no coming back, no home left for her in the familiar rooms where she and another had lived so long together.
Mr. Alwynn was by her side in the carriage, patting her cold hands and telling her not to cry, which she felt no inclination to do; and then, seeing the blank pallor in her face, he suddenly found himself fumbling for his own pocket-handkerchief.
On this particular July afternoon Mr. Alwynn, or, as his parishioners called him, “The Honorable John,” was sitting in his arm-chair in the little drawing-room of Slumberleigh Rectory. Mrs. Honorable John was pouring out tea; and here, once and for all, let it be known that meals, particularly five o’clock tea, will occupy a large place in this chronicle, not because of any importance especially attaching to them, but because in the country, at least in Slumberleigh, the day is not divided by hours but by the meals that take place therein, and to write of Slumberleigh and its inhabitants with disregard to their divisions of time is “impossible, and cannot be done.”
So I repeat, boldly, Mr. and Mrs. Alwynn were at tea. They were alone together, for they had no children, and Ruth Deyncourt, who had been living with them since her grandmother’s death in the winter, was now staying with her cousin, Mrs. Ralph Danvers, at Atherstone, a couple of miles away.
If it had occasionally crossed Mr. Alwynn’s mind during the last few months that he would have liked to have a daughter like Ruth, he had kept the sentiment to himself, as he did most sentiments in the company of his wife, who, while she complained of his habit of silence, made up for it nobly herself at all times and in all places. It had often been the subject of vague wonder among his friends, and even at times to Mr. Alwynn himself, how he had come to marry “Fanny, my love.” Mr. Alwynn dearly loved peace and quiet, but these dwelt not under the same roof with Mrs. Alwynn. Nay, I even believe, if the truth were known, he liked order and tidiness, judging by the exact arrangement of his own study, and the rueful glances he sometimes cast at the litter of wools and letters on the newspaper-table, and the gay garden hats and goloshes, hidden, but not concealed, under the drawing-room sofa. Conversation about the dearness of butchers’ meat and the enormities of servants palled upon him, I think, after a time, but he had taken his wife’s style of conversation for better for worse when he took her gayly dressed self under those ominous conditions, and he never showed impatience. He loved his wife, but 1 think it grieved him when smart-colored glass vases were strewn among the cherished bits of old china and enamel which his soul loved. He did not like chromo-lithographs, or the framed photographs which Mrs. Alwynn called her “momentums of travel,” among his rare old prints, either. He bore them, but after their arrival in company with large and inappropriate nails, and especially after the cut-glass candlesticks appeared on the drawing-room chimney-piece, he ceased to make his little occasional purchases of old china and old silver. The curiosity shops knew him no more, or if he still at times brought home some treasure in his hat-box, on his return from Convocation, it was unpacked and examined in private, and a little place was made for it among the old Chelsea figures on the bookcase in his study, which had stood, ever since he had inherited them from his father, on the drawing-room mantle-piece, but had been silently removed when a pair of comic china elephants playing on violins had appeared in their midst.
Mr. Alwynn sighed a little when he looked at them this afternoon, and shook his head; for had he not brought back in his empty soup-tin an old earthen-ware cow of Dutch extraction, which he had long coveted on the shelf of a parishioner? He had bought it very dear, for when in all his life had he ever bought anything cheap? And now, as he was tenderly wiping a suspicion of beef-tea off it, he wondered, as he looked round his study, where he could put it. Not among the old Oriental china, where bits of Wedgwood had already elbowed in for want of room elsewhere. Among his Lowestoft cups and saucers? Never! He would rather not have it than see it there. He had a vision of a certain bracket, discarded from the hall, and put aside by his careful hands in the lowest drawer of the cupboard by the window, in which he kept little stores of nails and string and brown paper, among which “Fanny, my love” performed fearful ravages when minded to tie up a parcel.
Mr. Alwynn nailed up the bracket under an old etching and placed the cow thereon, and, after contemplating it over his spectacles, went into the drawing-room to tea with his wife.
Mrs. Alwynn was a stout, florid, good-humored-looking woman, with a battered fringe, considerably younger than her husband in appearance, and with a tendency to bright colors in dress.
“Barnes is very poorly, my dear,” said Mr. Alwynn, patiently fishing out one of the lumps of sugar which his wife had put in his tea. He took one lump, but she took two herself, and consequently always gave him two. “1 should say a little strong soup would—”
At this juncture the front door-bell rang, and a moment afterwards “Mr. Dare” was announced.
The erect, light gray figure which had awakened the curiosity of Mrs. Eccles came in close behind the servant. Mrs. Alwynn received a deep bow in return for her look of astonishment; and then, with an eager exclamation, the visitor had seized both Mr. Alwynn’s hands, regardless of the neatly folded slice of bread and butter in one of them, and was shaking them cordially.
Mr. Alwynn looked for a moment as astonished as his wife, and the blank, deprecating glance he cast at his visitor showed that he was at a loss.
The latter let go his hands and spread his own out with a sudden gesture.
“Ah, you do not know me,” he said, speaking rapidly; “it is twenty years ago, and you have forgotten. You do not remember Alfred Dare, the little boy whom you saw last in sailing costume, the little boy for whom you cut the whistles, the son of your old friend, Henry Dare?”
“Good gracious!” ejaculated Mr. Alwynn, with a sudden flash of memory. “Henry’s other son. I remember now. It is Alfred, and I remember the whistles too. You have your mother’s eyes. And, of course, you have come to Vandon now that your poor brother—We have all been wondering when you would turn up. My dear boy, I remember you perfectly now; but it is a long time ago, and you have changed very much.”
“Between eight years and twenty-eight there is a great step,” replied Dare, with a brilliant smile. “How could I expect that you should remember all at once? But you are not changed. I knew you the first moment. It is the same kind, good face which I remember well.”
Mr. Alwynn blushed a faint blush, which any word of praise could always call up; and then, reminded of the presence of Mrs. Alwynn by a short cough, which that lady always had in readiness wherewith to recall him to a sense of duty, he turned to her and introduced Dare.
Dare made another beautiful bow; and while he accepted a cup of tea from Mrs. Alwynn, Mr. Alwynn had time to look attentively at him with his mild gray eyes. He was a slight, active-looking young man of middle height, decidedly un-English in appearance and manner, with dark roving eyes, mustaches very much twirled up, and a lean brown face, that was exceedingly handsome in a style to which Mr. Alwynn was not accustomed.
And this was Henry Dare’s second son, the son by his French wife, who had been brought up abroad, of whom no one had ever heard or cared to hear, who had now succeeded, by his half-brother’s sudden death, to Vandon, a property adjoining Slumberleigh.
The eager foreign face was becoming familiar to Mr. Alwynn. Dare was like his mother; but he sat exactly as Mr. Alwynn had seen his father sit many a time in that very chair. The attitude was the same. Ah, but that flourish of the brown hands! How unlike anything Henry would have done! And those sudden movements! He was roused by Dare turning quickly to him again.
“I am telling Mrs. Alwynn of my journey here,” he began; “of how I miss my train; of how I miss my carriage, sent to meet me from the inn; of how I walk on foot up the long hills; and when I get there they think I am no longer coming. I arrived only last night at Vandon. To-day I walk over to see my old friend at Slumberleigh.”
Dare leaned forward, laying the tips of his fingers lightly against his breast.
“You seem to have had a good deal of walking,” said Mr. Alwynn, rather taken aback, but anxious to be cordial; “but, at any rate, you will not walk back. You must stay the night, now you are here; mustn’t he, Fanny?”
Dare was delighted—beaming. Then his face became overcast. His eyebrows went up. He shook his head. Mr. and Mrs. Alwynn were most kind, but—he became more and more dejected—a bag, a simple valise—
It could be sent for.
Ah! Mr. Alwynn was too good. He revived again. He showed his even white teeth. He was about to resume his tea, when suddenly a tall white figure came lightly in through the open French window, and a clear voice began:
“Oh, Uncle John, there is such a heathen of a black poodle making excavations in the flower-beds! Do—”
Ruth stopped suddenly as her eyes fell upon the stranger. Dare rose instinctively.
“This is Mr. Dare, Ruth,” said Mr. Alwynn. “He has just arrived at Vandon.”
Ruth bowed. Dare surpassed himself, and was silent. All his smiles and flow of small-talk had suddenly deserted him. He began patting his dog, which had followed Ruth in-doors, and a moment of constraint fell upon the little party.
“She is shy,” said Dare to himself. “She is adorably shy.”
Ruth’s quiet, self-possessed voice dispelled that pleasing illusion.
“I have had a very exhausting afternoon with Mrs. Eccles, Aunt Fanny, and I have come to you for a cup of tea before I go back to Atherstone.”
“Why did you walk so far this hot afternoon, my dear? and how are Mrs. Danvers and Lady Mary? and is any one else staying there? and, my dear, are the dolls finished?”
“They are,” said Ruth. “They are all outrageously fashionable. Even Molly is satisfied. There is to be a school-feast here to-morrow,” she added, turning to Dare, who appeared bewildered at the turn the conversation was taking. “All our energies for the last fortnight have been brought to bear on dolls. We have been dressing dolls morning, noon, and night.”
“When is it to be, this school-feast?” said Dare, eagerly. “I will buy one—three dolls!”
After a lengthy explanation from Mrs. Alwynn as to the nature of a school-feast as distinct from a bazaar, Ruth rose to go, and Mr. Alwynn offered to accompany her part of the way.
“And so that is the new Mr. Dare about whom we have all been speculating,” she said, as they strolled across the fields together. “He is not like his half-brother.”
“No; he seems to be entirely a Frenchman. You see, he was educated abroad, and that makes a great difference. He was a very nice little boy twenty years ago. I hope he will turn out well, and do his duty by the place.”
The neighboring property of Vandon, with its tumble-down cottages, its neglected people, and hard agent, were often in Mr. Alwynn’s thoughts.
“Oh, Uncle John, he will, he must! You must help him and advise,” said Ruth, eagerly. “He ought to stay and live on the place, and look into things for himself.”
“I am afraid he will be poor,” said Mr. Alwynn, meditatively.
“Anyhow, he will be richer than he was before,” urged Ruth, “and it is his duty to do something for his own people.”
When Ruth had said it was a duty, she imagined, like many another young soul before her, that nothing remained to be said, having yet to learn how much beside often remained to be done.
“We shall see,” said Mr. Alwynn, who had seen something of his fellow-creatures; and they walked on together in silence.
The person whose duty Ruth had been discussing so freely looked after the two retreating figures till they disappeared, and then turned to Mrs. Alwynn.
“You and Mr. Alwynn also go to the school-feast to-morrow?”
Mrs. Alwynn, a little nettled, explained that of course she went, that it was her own school-feast, that Mrs. Thursby, at the Hall, had nothing to do with it. (Dare did not know who Mrs. Thursby was, but he listened with great attention.) She, Mrs. Alwynn, gave it herself. Her own cook, who had been with her five years, made the cakes, and her own donkey-cart conveyed the same to the field where the repast was held.
“Miss Deyncourt, will she be there?” asked Dare.
Mrs. Alwynn explained that all the neighborhood, including the Thursbys, would be there; that she made a point of asking the Thursbys.
“I also will come,” said Dare, gravely.
Atherstone was a rambling, old-fashioned, black-and-white house, half covered with ivy, standing in a rambling, old-fashioned garden—a charming garden, with clipped yews, and grass paths, and straggling flowers and herbs growing up in unexpected places. In front of the house, facing the drawing-room windows, was a bowling-green, across which, at this time of the afternoon, the house had laid a cool green shadow.
Two ladies were sitting under its shelter, each with her work.
It was hot still, but the shadows were deepening and lengthening. Away in the sun hay was being made and carried, with crackings of whips and distant voices. Beyond the hay-fields lay the silver band of the river, and beyond again the spire of Slumberleigh Church, and a glimpse among the trees of Slumberleigh Hall.
“Ralph has started in the dog-cart to meet Charles. They ought to be here in half an hour, if the train is punctual,” said Mrs. Ralph.
She was a graceful woman, with a placid, gentle face. She might be thirty, but she looked younger. With her pleasant home and her pleasant husband, and her child to be mildly anxious about, she might well look young. She looked particularly so now as she sat in her fresh cotton draperies, winding wool with cool, white hands.
The handiwork of some women has a hard, masculine look. If they sew, it is with thick cotton in some coarse material; if they knit, it is with cricket-balls of wool, which they manipulate into wiry stockings and comforters. Evelyn’s wools, on the contrary, were always soft, fleecy, liable to weak-minded tangles, and so turning, after long periods of time, into little feminine futilities for which it was difficult to divine any possible use.
Lady Mary Cunningham, her husband’s aunt, made no immediate reply to her small remark. Evelyn Danvers was not a little afraid of that lady, and, in truth, Lady Mary, with her thin face and commanding manner, was a very imposing person. Though past seventy, she sat erect in her chair, her stick by her side, some elaborate embroidery in her delicate old ringed hands. Her pale, colorless eyes were as keen as ever. Her white hair was covered by a wonderful lace cap, which no one had ever succeeded in imitating, that fell in soft lappets and graceful folds round the severe, dignified face. Molly, Evelyn’s little daughter, stood in great awe of Lady Mary, who had such a splendid stick with a silver crook of her very own, and who made remarks in French in Molly’s presence which that young lady could not understand, and felt that it was not intended she should. She even regarded with a certain veneration the cap itself, which she had once met in equivocal circumstances, journeying with a plait of white hair towards Lady Mary’s rooms.
It was the first time since their marriage, of which she had not approved, that Lady Mary had paid a visit to Ralph and Evelyn at Atherstone. Lady Mary had tried to marry Ralph, in days gone by, to a woman who—but it was an old story and better forgotten. Ralph had married his first cousin when he had married Evelyn, and Lady Mary had strenuously objected to the match, and had even gone so far as to threaten to alter certain clauses in her will, which she had made in favor of Ralph, her younger nephew, at a time when she was at daggers drawn with her eldest nephew, Charles, now Sir Charles Danvers. But that was an old story, too, and better forgotten.
When Charles succeeded his father some three years ago, and when, after eight years, Molly had still remained an only child, and one of the wrong kind, of no intrinsic value to the family, Lady Mary decided that by-gones should be by-gones, and became formally reconciled to Charles, with whom she had already found it exceedingly inconvenient, and consequently unchristian, not to be on speaking terms. As long as he was the scapegrace son of Sir George Danvers her Christian principles remained in abeyance; but when he suddenly succeeded to the baronetcy and Stoke Moreton, the air of which suited her so well, and, moreover, to that convenient pied à terre, the house in Belgrave Square, she allowed feelings, which she said she had hitherto repressed with difficulty, their full scope, expressed a Christian hope that, now that he had come to this estate, Charles would put away Bohemian things, and instantly set to work to find a suitable wife for him.
At first Lady Mary felt that the task which she had imposed upon herself would (D.V.) be light indeed. Charles received her overtures with the same courteous demeanor which had been the chief sting of their former warfare. He paid his creditors, no one knew how, for his father had left nothing to him unentailed; and once out of money difficulties, he seemed in no hurry to plunge into them again. If he had not as yet thoroughly taken up the life of an English country gentleman, for want of that necessary adjunct which Lady Mary was so anxious to supply, at least he lived in England and in good society. In short, Lady Mary was fond of telling her friends Charles had entirely reformed, hinting, at the same time, that she had been the humble instrument, in the hands of an all-wise Providence, which had turned him back into the way in which the English aristocracy should walk, and from which he had deviated so long. But one thing remained—to marry him. Every one said Charles must marry. Lady Mary did not say it, but with her whole soul she meant it. What she intended to do, she, as a rule, performed—occasionally at the expense of those who were little able to afford it, but still the thing was (always, of course, by the co-operation of Providence) done. Ralph certainly had proved an exception to the rule. He had married Evelyn against Lady Mary’s will, and consequently without the blessing of Providence. After that, of course, she had never expected there would be a son, and with each year her anxiety to see Charles safely married had increased. He had seemed so amenable that at first she could hardly believe that the steed which she had led to waters of such divers merit would refuse to drink from any of them. If rank had no charm for him, which apparently it had not, she would try beauty. When beauty failed, even beauty with money in its hand, Lady Mary hesitated, and then fell back on goodness. But either the goodness was not good enough, or, as Lady Mary feared, it was not sufficiently High Church to be really genuine: even goodness failed. For three years she had strained every nerve, and at the end of them she was no nearer the object in view than when she began.
An inconvenient death of a sister, with whom she had long since quarrelled about church matters (and who had now gone where her folly in differing from Lady Mary would be fully, if painfully, brought home to her), had prevented Lady Mary continuing her designs this year in London. But if thwarted in one direction, she knew how to throw her energies into another. The first words she uttered indicated what that direction was.
Evelyn’s little remark about the dog-cart, which had gone to meet Charles, had so long remained without any response that she was about to coin another of the same stamp, when Lady Mary suddenly said, with a decision that was intended to carry conviction to the heart of her companion:
“It is an exceedingly suitable thing.”
Evelyn evidently understood what it was that was so suitable, but she made no reply.
“A few years ago,” continued Lady Mary, “I should have looked higher. I should have thought Charles might have done better, but—”
“He never could do better than—than—” said Evelyn, with a little mild flutter. “There is no one in the world more—”
“Yes, yes, my dear—of course we all know that,” returned the elder lady. “She is much too good for him, and all the rest of it. A few years ago, I was saying, I might not have regarded it quite in the light I do now. Charles, with his distinguished appearance and his position, might have married anybody. But time passes, and I am becoming seriously anxious about him; I am, indeed. He is eight-and-thirty. In two years he will be forty; and at forty you never know what a man may not do. It is a critical age, even when they are married. Until he is forty, a man may be led under Providence into forming a connection with a woman of suitable age and family. After that age he will never look at any girl out of her teens, and either perpetrates a folly or does not marry at all. If the Danvers family is not to become extinct, or to be dragged down by a mésalliance, measures must be taken at once.”
Evelyn winced at the allusion to the extinction of the Danvers family, of which Charles and Ralph were the only representatives. She felt keenly having failed to give Ralph a son, and the sudden smart of the old hurt added a touch of sharpness to her usually gentle voice as she said, “1 cannot see what has been left undone.”
“No, my dear,” said Lady Mary, more suavely, “you have fallen in with my views most sensibly. I only hope Ralph—”
“Ralph knows nothing about it.”
“Quite right. It is very much better he should not. Men never can be made to look at things in their proper light. They have no power of seeing an inch in front of them. Even Charles, who is less dense than most men, has never been allowed to form an idea of the plans which from time to time I have made for him. Nothing sets a man more against a marriage than the idea that it has been put in his way. They like to think it is all their own doing, and that the whole universe will be taken by surprise when the engagement is given out. Charles is no exception to the rule. Our duty is to provide a wife for him, and then allow him to think his own extraordinary cleverness found her for himself. How old is this cousin of yours, Miss Deyncourt?”
“Exceedingly suitable. Young, and yet not too young. She is not beautiful, but she is decidedly handsome, and very high-bred-looking, which is better than beauty. I know all about her family; good blood on both sides; no worsted thread. I forget if there is any money.”
This was a pious fraud on Lady Mary’s part, as she was, of course, aware of the exact sum.
“Lady Deyncourt left her thirty thousand pounds,” said Evelyn, unwillingly. She hated herself for the part she was taking in her aunt’s plans, although she had been so unable to support her feeble opposition by any show of reason that it had long since melted away before the consuming fire of Lady Mary’s determined authority.
“Twelve hundred a year,” said that lady. “I fear Lady Deyncourt was far, very far, from the truth, but she seems to have made an equitable will. I am glad Miss Deyncourt is not entirely without means; and she has probably something of her own as well. The more I see of that girl the more convinced I am that she is the very wife for Charles. There is no objection to the match in any way, unless it lies in that disreputable brother, who seems to have entirely disappeared. Now, Evelyn, mark my words. You invited her here at my wish, after I saw her with that dreadful Alwynn woman at the flower-show. You will never regret it. I am seventy-five years of age, and 1 have seen something of men and women. Those two will suit.”
“Here comes the dog-cart,” said Evelyn, with evident relief.
“Where is Miss Deyncourt?”
“She went off to Slumberleigh some time ago. She said she was going to the rectory, I believe.”
“It is just as well. Ah! here is Charles.”
A tall, distinguished-looking man in a light overcoat came slowly round the corner of the house as she spoke, and joined them on the lawn. Evelyn went to meet him with, evident affection, which met with as evident a return, and he then exchanged a more formal greeting with his aunt.
“Come and sit down here,” said Evelyn, pulling forward a garden-chair. “How hot and tired you look!”
“I am tired to death, Evelyn. I went to London in May a comparatively young man. Aunt Mary said I ought to go, and so, of course, I went. I have come back not only sadder and wiser—that I would try to bear—but visibly aged.”
He took off his hat as he spoke, and wearily pushed back the hair from his forehead. Lady Mary looked at him over her spectacles with grave scrutiny. She had not seen her nephew for many months, and she was not pleased with what she saw. His face looked thin and worn, and she even feared she could detect a gray hair or two in the light hair and mustache. His tired, sarcastic eyes met hers.
“I was afraid you would think I had gone off,” he said, half shutting his eyes in the manner habitual to him. “I fear I took your exhortations too much to heart, and overworked myself in the good cause.”
“A season is always an exhausting thing,” said Lady Mary; “and I dare say London is very hot now.”
“Hot! It’s more than hot. It is a solemn warning to evil-doers; a foretaste of a future state.”
“I suppose everybody has left town by this time?” continued Lady Mary, who often found it necessary even now to ignore parts of her nephew’s conversation.
“By everybody I know you mean one family. Yes, they are gone. Left London to-day. Consequently, I also conveyed my remains out of town, feeling that I had done my duty.”
“Where is Ralph?” asked Evelyn, rising, dimly conscious that Charles and his aunt were conversing in an unknown tongue, and feeling herself de trop.
“I left him in the shrubbery. A stoat crossed the road before the horse’s nose as we drove up, and Ralph, who seems to have been specially invented by Providence for the destruction of small vermin, was in attendance on it in a moment. I had seen something of the kind before, so I came on.”
Evelyn laid down her work, and went across the lawn, and round the corner of the house, in the direction of the shrubbery, from which the voice of her lord and master “rose in snatches,” as he plunged in and out among the laurels.
“And how is Lord Hope-Acton?” continued Lady Mary, with an air of elaborate unconcern. “I used to know him in old days as one of the best waltzers in London. I remember him very slim and elegant-looking; but I suppose he is quite elderly now, and has lost his figure? or so some one was saying.”
“Not lost, but gone before, I should say, to judge by appearances,” said Charles, meditatively, gazing up into the blue of the summer sky.
The mixed impiety and indelicacy of her nephew’s remark caused a sudden twitch to the High Church embroidery in Lady Mary’s hand; but she went on a moment later in her usual tone:
“And Lady Hope-Acton. Is she in stronger health?”
“I believe she was fairly well; not robust, you know, but, like other fond mothers with daughters out, ‘faint yet pursuing.’”
Lady Mary bit her lip; but long experience had taught her that it was wiser to refrain from reproof, even when it was so urgently needed.
“And their daughter, Lady Grace. How beautiful she is! Was she looking as lovely as usual?”
“More so,” replied Charles, with conviction. “Her nose is even straighter, her eyelashes even longer than they were last summer. I do not hesitate to say that her complexion is—all that her fancy paints it.”
“You are so fond of joking, Charles, that I don’t know when you are serious. And you saw a good deal of her?”
“Of course I did. I leaned on the railings in the Row, and watched her riding with Lord Hope-Acton, whose personal appearance you feel such an interest in. At the meeting of the four-in-hands, was not she on the box-seat beside me? At Henley, were we not in the same boat? At Hurlingham, did we not watch polo together, and together drink our tea? At Lord’s, did not I tear her new muslin garment in helping her up one of those poultry-ladders on the Torringtons’ drag? Have 1 not taken her in to dinner five several times? Have I not danced with her at balls innumerable? Have I not, in fact, seen as much of her as—of several others?”
“Oh, Charles!” said Lady Mary, “I wish you would talk seriously for one moment, and not in that light way. Have you spoken?”
“In a light way, I should say I had spoken a good deal; but seriously, no. I have never ventured to be serious.”
“But you will be. After all this, you will ask her?”
“Aunt Mary,” replied Charles, with gentle reproach, “a certain delicacy should be observed in probing the exact state of a man’s young affections. At five-and-thirty (I know I am five-and-thirty, because you have told people so for the last three years) there exists a certain reticence in the youthful heart which declines to lay bare its inmost feelings even for an aunt to—we won’t say peck at, but speculate upon. I have told you all I know. I have done what I was bidden to do, up to a certain point. I am now here to recruit, and restore my wasted energies, and possibly to heal (observe, I say possibly) my wounded affections in the intimacy of my family circle. That reminds me that that little ungrateful imp Molly has not yet made the slightest demonstration of joy at my arrival. Where is she?” and without waiting for an answer, which he was well aware would not be forthcoming, Charles rose and strolled towards the house with his hands behind his back.
“Molly!” he called, “Molly!” standing bareheaded in the sunshine, under a certain latticed window, the iron bars of which suggested a nursery within.
There was a sudden answering cackle of delight, and a little brown head was thrust out amid the ivy.
“Come down this very moment, you little hard-hearted person, and embrace your old uncle.”
“I’m comin’, Uncle Charles, I’m comin’;” and the brown head disappeared, and a few seconds later a white frock and two slim black legs rushed round the corner, and Molly precipitated herself against the waistcoat of “Uncle Charles.”
“What do you mean by not coming down and paying your respects sooner?” he said, when the first enthusiasm of his reception was over, looking down at Molly with a great kindness in the keen light eyes which had looked so apathetic and sarcastic a moment before.
As he spoke, Ralph Danvers, a square, ruddy man in gray knickerbockers, came triumphantly round from the shrubbery, holding by its tail a minute corpse with out-stretched arms and legs.
“Got him!” he said, smiling, and wiping his brow with honest pride. “See, Charles? See, Molly? Got him!”
“Don’t bring it here, Ralph, please. We are going to have tea,” came Evelyn’s gentle voice from the lawn; and Ralph and the terrier Vic retired to hang the body of the slain upon a fir-tree on the back premises, the recognized long home of stoats and weasels at Atherstone.
Molly, in the presence of Lady Mary and the stick with the silver crook, was always more or less depressed and shy. She felt the pale cold eye of that lady was upon her, as indeed it generally was, if she moved or spoke. She did not therefore join in the conversation as freely as was her wont in the family circle, but sat on the grass by her uncle, watching him with adoring eyes, trying to work the signet ring off his big little finger, which in the memory of man—of Molly, I mean—had never been known to work off, while she gave him the benefit of small pieces of local and personal news in a half whisper from time to time as they occurred to her.
“Cousin Ruth is staying here, Uncle Charles.”
“Indeed,” said Charles, absently.
His eyes had wandered to Evelyn taking Ralph his cup of tea, and giving him a look with it which he returned—the quiet, grave look of mutual confidence which sometimes passes between married people, and which for the moment makes the single state seem very single indeed.
Molly saw that he had not heard, and that she must try some more exciting topic in order to rivet his attention.
“There was a mouse at prayers yesterday, Uncle Charles.”
Uncle Charles was attending again now.
Molly gave an exact account of the great event, and of how “Nanny” had gathered her skirts round her, and how James had laughed, only father did not see him, and how—There was a great deal more, and the story ended tragically for the mouse, whose final demise under a shovel, when prayers were over, Molly described in graphic detail.
“And how are the guinea-pigs?” asked Charles, putting down his cup.
“Come and see them,” whispered Molly, insinuating her small hand delightedly into his big one; and they went off together, each happy in the society of the other. Charles was introduced to the guinea-pigs, which had multiplied exceedingly since he had presented them, the one named after him being even then engaged in rearing a large family.
Then, after Molly had copiously watered her garden, and Charles’s unsuspecting boots at the same time, objects of interest still remained to be seen and admired; confidences had to be exchanged; inner pockets in Charles’s waistcoat to be explored; and it was not till the dressing-bell and the shrill voice of “Nanny” from an upper window recalled them, that the friends returned towards the house.
As they turned to go in-doors Charles saw a tall white figure skimming across the stretches of low sunshine and long shadow in the field beyond the garden, and making swiftly for the garden gate.
“Oh, Molly! Molly!” he said, in a tone of sudden consternation, squeezing the little brown hand in his. ”Who is that?”
Molly looked at him astonished. A moment ago Uncle Charles had been talking merrily, and now he looked quite sad.
“It’s only Ruth,” she said, reassuringly.
“Who is Ruth?”
“Cousin Ruth,” replied Molly. “I told you she was here.”
“She’s not staying here?”
“Yes, she is. She is rather nice, only she says the guinea-pigs smell nasty, which isn’t true. She will be late,”—with evident concern—“if she is going to be laced up; and I know she is, because I saw it on her bed. She doesn’t see us yet. Let us go and meet her.”
“Run along, then,” said Charles, in a lone of deep dejection, loosing Molly’s hand. “I think I’ll go in-doors.”
“I’ve done Uncle Charles a button-hole, and put it in his water-bottle,” said Molly, in an important affairé whisper, as she came into Ruth’s room a few minutes before dinner, where Ruth and her maid were struggling with a black-lace dress. “Mrs. Jones, you must be very quick. Why do you have pins in your mouth, Mrs. Jones? James has got his coat on, and he is going to ring the bell in one minute. I told him you had only just got your hair done; but he said he could not help that. Uncle Charles,”—peeping through the door—“is going down now, and he’s got on a beautiful white waistcoat. He’s brought that nice Mr. Brown with him that unpacks his things and plays on the concertina. Ah! there’s the bell;” and Molly hurried down to give a description of the exact stage at which Ruth’s toilet had arrived, which Ruth cut short by appearing hard upon her heels.
“It is a shame to come in-doors now, isn’t it?” said Charles, as he was introduced and took her in to dinner in the wake of Lady Mary and Ralph. “Just the first cool time of the day.”
“Is it?” said Ruth, still rather pink with her late exertions. “When I heard the dressing-bell ring across the fields, and the last gate would not open, and I found the railings through which I precipitated myself had been newly painted, I own I thought it had never been so hot all day.”
“How trying it is to be forgotten!” said Charles, after a pause. “We have met before, Miss Deyncourt; but I see you don’t remember me. I gave you time to recollect me by throwing out that little remark about the weather, but it was no good.”
Ruth glanced at him and looked puzzled.
“I am afraid I don’t,” she said at last. “I have seen you playing polo once or twice, and driving your four-in-hand; but I thought I only knew you by sight. When did we meet before?”