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The Luck of the Vails: A Novel written by E. F. Benson who was an English novelist, biographer, memoirist, archaeologist and short story writer. This book was published in 1901. And now republish in ebook format. We believe this work is culturally important in its original archival form. While we strive to adequately clean and digitally enhance the original work, there are occasionally instances where imperfections such as missing pages, poor pictures or errant marks may have been introduced due to either the quality of the original work. Despite these occasional imperfections, we have brought it back into print as part of our ongoing global book preservation commitment, providing customers with access to the best possible historical reprints. We appreciate your understanding of these occasional imperfections, and sincerely hope you enjoy reading this book.
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The Luck of the Vails
E. F. Benson
CHAPTER I. THE SHADOWS DANCE
CHAPTER II. THE COMING OF THE LUCK
CHAPTER III. THE SPELL BEGINS TO WORK
CHAPTER IV. THE STORY OF MR. FRANCIS
CHAPTER V. A POINT IN CASUISTRY
CHAPTER VI. THE POINT SOLVED—THE MEETING
CHAPTER VII. THE POINT IN CASUISTRY SOLVES ITSELF
CHAPTER VIII. THE SECOND RETURN TO VAIL
CHAPTER IX. CARDIAC
CHAPTER X. MR. FRANCIS IS BETTER
CHAPTER XI. MR. FRANCIS SEES HIS DOCTOR
CHAPTER XII. THE MEETING IN THE WOOD
CHAPTER XIII. HARRY ASKS A QUESTION
CHAPTER XIV. LADY OXTED'S IDEA
CHAPTER XV. FROST
CHAPTER XVI. FIRE
CHAPTER XVII. A BIRD OF NIGHT
CHAPTER XVIII. RAIN
CHAPTER XIX. GEOFFREY LEAVES VAIL
CHAPTER XX. DR. ARMYTAGE ARRIVES
CHAPTER XXI. GEOFFREY MEETS THE DOCTOR
CHAPTER XXII. LADY OXTED HAS A BAD NIGHT
CHAPTER XXIII. THE MEETING IN GROSVENOR SQUARE
CHAPTER XXIV. JIM GOES TO BED
CHAPTER XXV. MR. FRANCIS SLEEPS
The short winter's day was drawing to its close, and twilight, the steel and silver twilight of a windless frost, falling in throbs of clear dusk over an ice-bound land. The sun, brilliant but cold as an electric lamp, had not in all the hours of its shining been of strength sufficient to melt the rime congealed during the night before, and each blade of grass on the lawns, each spray and sprig on the bare hedgerows, had remained a spear of crystals minute and innumerable. The roofs of house and cottage sparkled and glimmered as with a soft internal lustre in the light of the moon, which had risen an hour before sunset, and the stillness of great cold, a thing more palpably motionless than even the stricken noonday of the south, gripped all in its vice. Silent, steadfast lights had sprung up and multiplied in the many-windowed village, but not a bird chirped nor dog barked. Labourers were home from the iron of the frozen fields, doors were shut, and the huge night was at hand.
This sequestered village of Vail lies in a wrinkle of the great Wiltshire downs, and is traversed by the Bath road. The big inn, the Vail Arms, seems to speak of the more prosperous days of coach and horn, but now its significance to the shrill greyhounds of the railway is of the smallest, and they pass for the most part without even a shriek of salute. About a mile beyond it to the outward-bound traveller stands the big house, screened by some ten furlongs of park, and entering the gate he will find himself in a noble company of secular trees, beech in the majority, and of stately growth. Shortly before the house becomes visible a spacious piece of meadow land succeeds to the park; thence the road, passing over a broad stone bridge which spans the chalk stream flowing from the sheet of water above, is bounded on either side by terraced lawns of ancient and close-napped turf, intersected at intervals by gravel walks, and turning sharply to the right, follows a long box hedge once cut into tall and fantastic shapes. But it seems long to have lacked the shears and pruning hand, for all precision of outline has been lost, and what were once the formal figures of bird and beast have swelled into monstrous masses of deformed shape, wrought, you would think, by the imagination of a night hag into things inhuman. Here, as seen in the dim light, a thin neck would bulge into some ghastliness of a head, hydrocephalous or tumoured with long-standing disease; here a bird with dwindled body and scarecrow wings stood on the legs of a colossus; here conjecture would vainly seek for a reconstruction.
The end of one of the wings of the house, which was built round three sides of a quadrangle, abutted on to this hedge so closely that a peacock with thick, bloated tail, peered into the gun-room window; in the centre of the gravel sweep rose a bronze Triton fountain bearded, like an old man, with long dependence of icicle. A bitter north wind had accompanied the early days of the frost, and this icy fringe had grown out sideways from the lip of the basin, blown aside even as it congealed. Flower beds, a ribbon of dark, untenanted earth, ran underneath the windows, which rose in three stories, small-paned and Jacobean. As dark fell, lights sprang out in the walls as the stars in the field of heaven, but to right and left of the front door there came through a row of windows, yet uncurtained, a redder and less constant gleam than the shining of oil or wax, now growing, now diminishing, leaping out at one moment to a great vividness, at the next suddenly dying down again, so that in the corners of the room there was a continual battle of shadows. Now, as the flames from the wood burning on the great open hearth grew dim, whole battalions of them would collect and gather again; with the kindling of some fresh stuff, they would be routed and disappear. This fitfulness of illumination played also strange tricks with the tapestries that hung on two of the four sides of the hall; figures started suddenly into being and were blotted out before the eye had clearly visualized them, and in the inconstancy of the light a nervous man might say to himself that stir and movement were going on among them; again they rode to hounds, or took the jesses off the hawk.
The present is the heir of all the achievement of former ages, and while this great house with its mile-long avenue, its tapestries, its pictures, its air of magnificent English stability, finely represented all that had gone before, all that was going on now was inclosed in the two large arm-chairs drawn close to this ideal fire, in each of which sat a young man. They talked, but in desultory fashion, with frequent but not awkward pauses of some length, for any social duty of keeping the conversation going was to them quite outside a practical call. They had been shooting all this superb, frosty day, and the return to warmth and indoors, though productive of profound content, does not conduce to loquacity.
"Yes, a bath would be a very good thing," said one; "but it is perhaps a question whether in the absolutely immediate future tea would not be a better!"
This was too strong a suggestion to be merely called a hint, and the other rose.
"Sorry, Geoffrey," he said, "I never ordered tea. I was thinking—no, I don't think I was thinking. Tea first, bath afterward," he added, meditatively.
Geoffrey Langham stroked an imperceptible mustache.
"That's what I was thinking," he said; "and I am glad to see you appreciate the importance of little things, Harry. Little things like tea and baths matter far the most."
"Anyhow they occur much the oftenest," said Lord Vail.
"I was beginning to be afraid tea wasn't going to occur at all," said Geoffrey.
Harry Vail appeared to consider this.
"You were wrong then," he said, "and you are on the way to become a sensuous voluptuary."
"On the way?" said Geoffrey. "I have arrived. Ah! And tea is following my excellent example."
The advent of lamps banished the mustering and dispersal of the leaping shadows and threw the two figures seated on either side of the tea table into strong light, and, taken together, into even stronger contrast. The birthright of a good digestion, you would say, had been given to each, and for no mess of pottage had either bartered the clear eye and firm leanness of perfect health; but apart from this, and a certain lithe youthfulness, it would have been hard at first sight even, when resemblances are more obvious than differences, to see a single point of likeness between the two. Geoffrey Langham, that sensuous voluptuary, seemed the seat and being of serene English cheerfulness, and his face, good-looking from its very pleasantness, contrasted strongly with that of the other, which was handsome in spite of a marked and grave reserve, that a stranger might easily have mistaken for sullenness. Indeed, many who might soon have ceased to be strangers had done so; and though Harry Vail had perhaps no enemies, he was in the forlorner condition of having very few friends. Indeed, had he been made to enumerate them, his list would have begun with Geoffrey, and it is doubtful whether it would not also have ended with him.
But these agreeable influences of tea and light seemed to produce a briskening effect on the two, and their talk, which, since they came in, had touched a subject only to dismiss it, settled down into a more marked channel.
"Yes, it is a queer sort of coming-of-age party for me," said Lord Vail, "and it really was good of you to come, Geoffrey. I wonder whether any one has ever come of age in so lonely a manner. I have only one relative in the world who can be called even distantly near. He comes this evening—oh, I told you that."
"Your uncle," said Geoffrey.
"Great-uncle, to be accurate. He is my grandfather's youngest brother, and, what is so odd, he is my heir. One always thinks of heirs as being younger than one's self."
"Cut him off with a shilling," said Geoffrey.
"Well, there isn't much more in any case, except this great barrack of a house. What there is, however, goes to him. And it can hardly be expected that he will marry and have children now."
"How old is he?" asked Geoffrey.
"Something over seventy."
"And after him?"
"The Lord knows! Anybody; the first person you meet if you walk down Piccadilly perhaps; perhaps you, perhaps the prime minister. Honestly, I haven't any idea."
"Marry then, at once," said Geoffrey, "and disappoint the man in the street, and the prime minister, your uncle, and me."
Harry Vail got up and stood with his back to the fire, stretching out his long-fingered hands to the blaze behind him.
"What advice!" he said. "You might as well advise me to have a Greek nose. Some people have it, some do not; it is fate."
"Marriage is a remarkably common fate," remarked Geoffrey, "commoner than a Greek nose. I have seen many married people without it."
"It is commoner for certain sorts of people," said Harry; "but you know I——" and he stopped.
"Well?" asked the other.
"I am not of those sorts—the sorts who go smiling through the world and are smiled on in return. It was always the same with me. I am not truculent, or savage, or sulky, I believe, but somehow I remain friendless. I should be a hermit if there were any nowadays."
"Liver!" said Geoffrey decidedly. "The fellow of twenty-one who says that sort of thing about himself has got liver. 'Self-Analysis, or the Sedentary Life,' a tract by Geoffrey Langham. Here endeth the gospel."
"I don't think about my character, as a rule," he said. "I don't lead a sedentary life, and I haven't got liver. But if one is a recluse it is as well to recognise the fact. I haven't got any real friends like everybody else."
"Thank you," said Geoffrey; "don't apologize."
"I shall if I like; indeed, I think I will. No one but a friend would have come down here."
"Oh, I don't know about that," said the other; "I would stay with people I positively loathed for shooting no worse than we had to-day. In the matter of friends, what you said was inane. You might have heaps of friends if you chose. But you don't find friends by going into a room alone and locking the door behind you."
"Ah! I do that, do I?" said Harry, with a certain eager interest in his tone.
"Just a shade. You might have heaps of friends."
"That may be, or may not. It is certain that I have not. Oh, well, this is unprofitable. Take a cigarette from the recluse."
They smoked in silence a minute or two.
"Your uncle?" asked Geoffrey; "he comes to-night, you said."
"Yes; I expect him before dinner. You've never seen him?"
"Never. What is he like?"
Harry pointed to a picture that hung above the fireplace.
"Like that," he said—"exactly like that."
Geoffrey looked at it a moment, shading his eyes from the lamp.
"Fancy-dress ball, I suppose?" he said.
"No; the costume of the period," said Harry. "It is not my uncle at all, but an ancestor of sorts. The picture is by Holbein, but, oddly enough, it is the very image of Uncle Francis."
"Francis Vail, second baron," spelled out Geoffrey, from the faded lettering on the frame.
"Yes, his name was Francis, too."
"What is that great cup he is holding?" asked the other.
"Ah! I wondered whether you would notice that. I will show it you this evening. At least, I am certain that what I have found is it."
"It looks rather a neat thing," said Geoffrey. "But I can't say as much for the second baron, Harry. He seems to me a wicked old man."
"There is no doubt that he was. Among other charming deeds, he almost certainly killed his own father. He was smothered in debt, came down here to try to get his father to pay up for him, and met with a pretty round refusal, it appears. That night the house was broken into, and the old man was found murdered in his bed. The burglar seems to have been a curious man; he took nothing—not a teaspoon."
"Good Lord! I am glad I'm not of ancestral family. Which is the room, the room?"
"The one at the end of the passage upstairs. Shall I tell them to move your things there?"
"That is true hospitality," said Geoffrey; "but I won't bother you. Do either of them walk?"
"Francis does. So if you meet that gentleman about, and find he is unsubstantial, you will know that you have seen a ghost."
"And if substantial, it will only be your uncle."
"Exactly; so you needn't faint immediately."
Geoffrey got up and examined the picture with more attention.
"If your uncle is like that," he said, "I'm not so sure that I wouldn't sooner meet the ghost."
"I'm afraid it is too late to put him off now," said Harry; "and, unless there is a railway accident, you will certainly meet him at dinner. But I don't understand your objection to my poor old ancestor's portrait. I have always wondered that such an awful old wretch could be made to look so charming."
"There is hell in his eyes!" said Geoffrey.
Harry left his chair and leaned on the chimney-piece also, looking up at the picture.
"Certainly, if you think he looks wicked," he said, "you will see no resemblance between him and my uncle. Uncle Francis is a genial, pink-faced old fellow, with benevolent white hair. When I used to come down here, years ago, before my father's death, for the holidays, he always used to be awfully good to me. But he has been abroad the last three years, and I haven't seen him. But I remember him as the most charming old man."
"Then, in essentials, he is not like that portrait," said Geoffrey, turning away. "Well, I'm for the bath."
"After you. Turn on the hot water when you're out, Geoff."
Harry did not immediately sit down again when his friend left him, but continued for a little while to look at the second baron, trying to see in it what Geoffrey had seen, what he himself had always failed to see. He moved from where he stood to where Geoffrey had been standing, still looking at it, when suddenly, no doubt by some curious play of light on the canvas, there flitted across the face for a moment some expression indefinably sinister. It was there but for a flash, and vanished again, and by no change in his point of view could he recapture it. Soon he gave up the attempt, and, with only an idle and fleeting wonder at the illusion, he sat down, took up a book and yawned over a page that conveyed nothing to him. Then frankly and honestly he shut it up, and lay comfortably back in his chair, looking at the fire. He must even have dropped into a doze, for, apparently without transition, in the strange unformulated fashion of dreams, he thought that his uncle had come, dressed (andthis did not seem remarkable) in the fashion of the Holbein portrait, and having greeted him with his well-remembered, hearty manner, had sat down in the other of the two arm-chairs; and, though unconscious of having gone to sleep, he certainly came to himself with a start, to find the chair opposite untenanted, and the sound of his own name ringing in his ears. Immediately afterward it was repeated, and, looking up to the gallery that ran across one side of the hall and communicated with certain of the bedrooms, he saw Geoffrey leaning over in his dressing-gown.
"Bath's ready," he said; "and the portrait is looking at you."
"Thanks. I've been to sleep, I think. Did you call me more than once, Geoff?"
"No; the other time it was the second baron."
Harry was still a little startled.
"You really only called once?" he asked again.
"Yes; only once. Why?"
"Nothing. Halloo! I hear wheels. That must be my uncle. Turn the hot water off, there's a good chap. I must just see him before I come upstairs."
The dining room at Vail was of the same antique spaciousness as the hall, and, as there on the lounger, so here on the diner, looked down a spacious company of ancestors. For so small a party it had been thought by the butler that conviviality would be given a better chance if, on this frosty night, he laid them a small table within range of the fire rather than that the three should be cut off, as it were, on a polar island in the centre of that vast sea of floor. And, indeed, though naturally a modest man, Templeton felt a strong self-approval at the success of his kind thought, for, from the moment of sitting down, a cheerful merriness had held the table, rising sometimes into loud hilarity, and never sinking into the content of growing repletion, which is held in England to be the proper equivalent for joviality. But if it was Templeton in part who was responsible for so desirable an atmosphere, there was credit to be given to at least one of the diners.
Pleasant and pink was Mr. Francis's face; his hair, though silver, still crisp and vigorous, his mouth a perpetual smile. In absolute repose even a sunshine lingered there, as in a bottle of well-matured wine, and its repose left it but to give place to laughter. All dinner through he had been the mouthpiece of delightful anecdote, of observations shrewd but always kindly, rising sometimes almost to the dry levels of wit, and never failing in that genial humour without which all conversation, not directed to a definite end, becomes intolerable. Though talking much, he was no usurper of the inalienable right of the others to wag the tongue; and though his own wagged to vibration, he was never tedious. Even in the matter of riddles, introduced by Geoffrey, he had a contribution or two to make, of so extravagant a sort that this ordinarily dismal mode of entertainment was for the moment rendered delightful. He unbent to the level of the young men, to the futility of most disconnected conversation, without ever seeming to unbend; you would have said that his narrow, clerically opening shirt, with its large cravat and massive gold studs, covered the heart of a boy, that the brains of a clever youth lay beneath that silver hair, prematurely white, indeed, yet not from grief or the conduct of a world long unkind. In person he was somewhat short, "without the inches of a Vail," as he himself said, and pleasantly inclined to stoutness, but to the stoutness which may come early to a healthy appetite and a serene digestion, for it was not accompanied either by pallid flabbiness or colour unduly high, and by the artificial light scarcely a wrinkle could be scrutinized on his beaming face. His dress was precise and scrupulous, yet with a certain antique touch about it, as of one who had been something of a buck in the sixties; his linen far more than clean and fresh, and of a snowiness which certainly implied special injunction to the washerwoman. His trouser pockets were cut, we may elegantly say, not at the side of those indispensable coverings, but toward the front of the bow window, and there dangled from the lip of one a fob of heavy gold seals. His watch chain he wore round his neck, and at the bottom of his waistcoat pocket there reposed, you may be sure, a yellow-faced watch, large and loud-ticking—an unerring timekeeper.
They had now approached the end of dinner; decanters glowed on the table, and a silver cigarette box, waiting untouched, at Mr. Francis's request, till the more serious business of wine was off the palate, stood by Harry's dessert plate. Already, even in this second hour of their acquaintance, the three felt like old friends, and as the wine was on its first round, the two young men were bent eagerly forward to hear the conclusion of a most exciting little personal anecdote told them by Mr. Francis. He had to perfection that great essential of the narrator—intense interest and appreciation of what he was himself saying, and the climax afforded him the most obvious satisfaction. In his right hand he held his first glass of untasted port, and, after an interval accorded to laughter, he suddenly rose.
"And," he said, "comes the pleasantest moment of our delightful evening. Harry, my dear boy, here is long life and happiness to you, from the most sincere of your well-wishers. And for myself I pray that a very old man may some time dance your children on his knee. God bless you, my dearest fellow!"
He drank the brimming glass honestly to the last drop, and held out his hand to the young man with a long and hearty grasp. Then, with quick tact, seeing the embarrassment of remark-making in Harry's face, he sat down again, and without pause enticed the subject off the boards.
"How well I remember your dear father coming of age!" he said. "Dear me, it must be forty years ago, nearly twice as long a time as you have lived; there's a puzzle for Mr. Langham, like the one he gave me to do. It was this very port, I should say, in which we drank his health. The yellow seal, is it not, Harry? Yes, yes; your grandfather laid it down in the year forty-five, and we used to drink it only on very great occasions, for he would say to me that it was a gift he had put in entail for his grandchildren, and was not for us. And so it has turned out! He was very fond of port, too, was dear old Dennis; it was not a gift that cost him nothing. You would scarcely remember your grandfather, Harry?"
"I just remember him, Uncle Francis," said the lad, "but only as a very old man. I don't think he liked children for whenever he saw me he would have no more than a word or two to say, and then he would send for you."
"Yes, yes, so he would, so he would," said Mr. Francis; "and we used to have great games together, did we not, Harry? Games, did I say? Indeed, we seemed to be real red Indians in the wilderness, and Crusaders, with paper lances. Dear me! I could play such games still. Hide-and-seek, too, a grand business. It requires, as poor Antrobus used to say, all the strategy of a general directing a campaign, combined with the unflinching courage of the private who has to go straight forward, expecting artillery to open on him every minute. Yes, and the old man felt it, too; I have seen him playing it with his grandchildren when he was prime minister, and, upon my word, he was more earnest about it than the young people!"
Coffee had come in, and after a few minutes the three passed out into the hall. At the door, however, Harry paused, and stayed behind in the dining room. Mr. Francis took Geoffrey's arm in his affectionate way and the two strolled into the hall.
"It has been so pleasant to me to meet you, my dear boy," he was saying; "for years ago I knew some of your people well. No, I do not think I ever knew your father. But, you must know, I am bad at surnames: one only calls the tradespeople Mr. So-and-so, and I shall call you Geoffrey. You are Harry's best friend; I have a claim upon you. Fine hall, is it not? And the pictures—well, they are a wonderful set. There is nothing like them for completeness in England, if one excepts the royal collections; and, indeed, I think there is less rubbish here."
The portraits were lit by small shaded lamps which stood beneath each, so that the whole light was thrown on to the picture and the beholder left undazzled. Mr. Francis had strolled up to the fireplace, still retaining Geoffrey's arm, and together they looked at the picture of Francis, second baron.
"A wonderful example of Holbein," said Mr. Francis; "I do not know a finer. They tried hard to get it for the exhibition a few years ago, but it couldn't leave Vail. I should have been quite uncomfortable at the thought of it out of the house. Now, some people have told me—Ah! I see you have noticed it, too."
"Surely there is an extraordinary likeness between you and it," said Geoffrey. "Harry just pointed to it when I asked him what you were like."
Mr. Francis's eyes pored on the picture with a sort of fascination.
"A wonderful bit of painting," he said. "And how clearly you see not only the man's body, but his soul! That is the true art of the portrait painter."
"But not always pleasant for the sitter," remarked Geoffrey.
"I am not so sure. You imply, no doubt, that it was not pleasant for this old fellow."
"I should not think his soul was much to be proud of," said Geoffrey.
"You mean he looks wicked?" said Mr. Francis, still intent on the canvas. "Well, God forgive him! I am afraid he must have been. But that being so, I suspect he was as much in love with his own soul as a good man is for he does not look to me a weak man—one who is forever falling and repenting. There is less of Macbeth and more of his good lady in old Francis. Infirm of purpose? No, no, I think not!"
He turned abruptly away from the picture, and broke out into a laugh.
"He was a wicked old man, we are afraid," he said, "and I am exactly like him."
"Ah! That is not fair," cried Geoffrey.
"My dear boy, I was only chaffing. And here is Harry; what has he got?"
Harry had come after them as they spoke thus together, carrying in his hand a square leather case. The thing seemed to be of some weight.
"I wanted to show you and Geoff what I have found, Uncle Francis," he said. "I thought perhaps you could tell me about it. It was in one of the attics—of all places in the world—hidden, it seemed, behind some old pictures. Templeton and I found it."
Mr. Francis whisked round with even more than his accustomed vivacity of movement at Harry's words.
"Yes, yes," he said, with some impatience. "Open it, then, my dear boy, open it!"
An old lock of curious work secured the leather strap which fastened the case, but this dangled loose from it, attached to its hasp.
"We could find no key for it," explained Harry, "and had to break it open."
As he spoke, he drew from the case an object swathed in wash leather, but the outline was clearly visible beneath its wrappings.
"Ah! it is so," said Mr. Francis, below his breath, and as Harry unfolded the covering they all stood silent. This done, he held up to the light what it contained. It was a large golden goblet with two handles, of a size perhaps to hold a couple of quarts of liquor, and even by lamplight it was a thing that dazzled the eye and made the mouth to water. But solid gold as it was, and of chaste and exquisite workmanship, there was scarce an inch of it that was not worth more than the whole value of the gold and the craft bestowed thereon, so thickly was it incrusted with large and precious stones. Just below the lip of the cup ran a ring of rubies of notable size and wonderful depth of colour; and below, at a little interval, six emerald stars, all clear-set in the body of the cup. The lower part was chased with acanthus leaves, each outlined in pearls, and up the fluted stem climbed lordly sapphires. Sapphires again traced the rim of the foot, and in each handle was clear-set a row of diamonds—no chips and dust, but liquid eyes and lobes of light. Halfway down the bowl of the cup, between the emerald stars and the points of the acanthus leaves, ran a plain panel of gold on which was engraved, in small, early English characters, some text that encircled the whole.
Harry was standing close under the lamp as he took off the covering, and remained there a moment, holding in his hand the gorgeous jewel, and looking at it with a curiously fixed attention, unconscious of the others. Then he handed it to his uncle.
"Tell me about it; what is it, Uncle Francis?" he asked; and involuntarily, as the old man took it, he glanced at the picture of Francis, second baron, who in the portrait held, beyond a doubt, the same treasure that they were now examining.
Mr. Francis did not at once reply, but handled the cup for a little while in silence, with awe and solemnity in his attitude and expression. As he turned it this way and that in his grasp, jewel after jewel caught the light and shone refracted in points of brilliant colour on his face. The burnished band on which was engraved the circling of the text cut a yellow line of reflection across his nose and cheeks, which remained steady, but over the rest of his face gleams of living colour shone and passed; and now as a ruby, now an emerald, sent their direct rays into his eyes, they would seem lit inside by a gleam of red or green. At length he looked up.
"Hear what the thing says of itself," he said. "I will read it you."
Then, turning the cup till he had found the beginning of the text, he read slowly, the cup revolving to the words:
"When the Luck of the Vails is lost,Fear not fire nor rain nor frost;When the Luck is found again,Fear both fire and frost and rain."
"Very pretty," said Geoffrey, with a critical air, but Mr. Francis made no reply. His eyes were still fixed on the jewel.
"But what is it?" asked Harry.
"This? The cup?" he said. "It is what I have read to you. It is the Luck of the Vails."
Geoffrey laughed. "You've got it, Harry, anyhow," he said, "for weal or woe. How does it run? Fear fire and frost and rain. Take care of yourself, old man, and don't smoke in bed, and don't skate over deep water."
Mr. Francis turned to him quickly, with a sudden recovery of his briskness.
"You and I would risk all that, would we not, Geoffrey," he said, "to have found such a beautiful thing?—Yes, Harry, I see you have noticed it. There it is in old Francis's hand in the picture. Where else should it be if not there? Whether he made it or not I can't tell you, but that is its first appearance, as far as we know."
Still holding it, he looked at the portrait, then stretched it out to Harry.
"There, take it," he said quickly.
"But tell us all about it," said Harry. "What happened to it afterward? How is it I never heard of it?"
"Your father would never speak of it," said Mr. Francis; "nor your grandfather either. Your father never saw it, and your grandfather only once, when he was quite a little boy. Neither could bear to speak of it when it was lost. And so it was in the attic all the time!"
Harry's eyes were sparkling; a sudden animation seemed to possess him.
"Tell us from the beginning," he said.
He was already wrapping the goblet up again, and Mr. Francis looked greedily at it till the last jewel had been hidden in the wash leather.
"Well, it is a strange story, and a short one," he said, "for so little is known of it. It has appeared and disappeared several times since Holbein painted it there, as unaccountably as it has appeared again now. In the attic all the time!" he exclaimed again.
"But the legend; what does the legend mean?" asked Harry.
"I have no idea. Perhaps it is some old rhyme, perhaps it is a mere conceit of the goldsmith. But, be that as it may, those of your house who have possessed the Luck always seemed to think that it brought them luck. It was in old Francis's time, you know, that coal was found on your Derbyshire estate, which so enriched him for a while. In his son's time certainly the Luck disappeared, for we have a letter of his about it, and as certainly the field of coal came to an end. It appeared again some eighty years later, and again disappeared; and then the grandfather of your grandfather found it. He, you know, married the wealthy Barbara Devereux, and it was he who showed the Luck to your grandfather. Then it was lost for the last time, and with it all his money, in the South-Sea Bubble."
Harry looked a shade disappointed at this bald narrative.
"Is that all?" he asked. "Where do the fire, and frost, and rain come in?"
Mr. Francis laughed.
"Well, oddly enough, old Francis was burned to death in his bed, and Mark Vail was drowned. Harry Vail, the last holder of it, was frozen to death in his travelling carriage crossing the St. Gothard. But a man must die somehow; is it not so? Poor, wicked old Francis, he thought to bring a curse on the house, if it was indeed he who made the Luck, but how futile, how futile! Did he think that the elements were in league with some occult power of magic and darkness that he possessed? Ah! no; beneficent Nature is not controlled by such a hand. He knows that well maybe now, and perhaps therein is his chastisement, for, indeed, he was a man of devilish mind."
Mr. Francis was by choice an early riser, and next morning, before either of the young men were awake, he had been splashing and gasping in his cold tub, had felt with the keenest enjoyment the genial afterglow produced on his braced and invigorated skin by the application of the rough towel, and was now out on the terrace, pacing briskly along the dry gravel walk on this adorable winter morning, waiting cheerfully for his desired breakfast. Now and then he would break into a nimble trot for fifty paces, or even give a little skip in the air as a child does, from the sheer exhilaration of his pulses. His thoughts, too, must have been as sparkling as the morning itself, as brisk and cheery as his own physical economy, for from time to time he would troll out a bar or two of some lusty song, or stop to chirrup with pursed lips to the stiff, half-frozen birds, and his pleasant, close-shaven face was continually wreathed in smiles. Here was one at least in whom old age had brought no spell of freezing to laggard blood, no dulling of that zest of life which is so often and so erroneously considered as an attribute of youth only; life was still immensely enjoyable, and all things were delightful to his sympathetic eye.
Such a buoyancy of spirits is a most engaging thing, provided only it be natural and unforced. But too often the old, who remain young, have the aspect as of grizzly kittens; their spirits are but a parody of youthfulness, their antics broken-winded and spasmodic. In a moment they fall from the heights of irresponsible gaiety to an equally unwarrantable churlishness; they maintain no level way; their tempers are those of jerking marionettes, a performance of jointed dolls.
But how different was the joyousness of Mr. Francis! Nothing could be more native to him than his morning exhilaration. Authentic was the merriment that sparkled in his light-blue eyes, authentic the lightness of his foot as it tripped along the gravel walk; and none could doubt that his fine spirits were effortless and unaffected.
To reach so ripe an age as that to which Mr. Francis had attained means, even to those whose life has lain in the pleasantest lines, to have had to bear certain trials, sorrows, misunderstandings, necessarily incident to the mere passage of years. To bear these bravely and without bitterness is the part of any robust nature; to bear them with unabated cheerfulness and without any loss of the zest for life is a rarer gift; and the silver-haired old gentleman who paced so gaily up and down the terraced walks, while he waited for young men to have their fill of sleep and make a tardy appearance, was a figure not without galantry. Here were no impatient gestures; he was hungry, but the time of waiting would not be shortened by fretfulness, nor had he any inclination to so unamiable a failing, and for nearly half an hour he pursued his cheery walk up and down. At length the welcome booming of the gong sounded distantly, and he tripped toward the house.
Harry was down, the clock pointing to an indulgent half past nine, but the youthful moroseness of morning sat on his brow. To so old a traveller through life as his uncle, the ways of weaning this were manifold, and he broke into speech.
"Splendid morning, my dear boy," he said; "and the ice, they tell me, bears. What will you do? What shall we do? Are you shooting to-day, or skating? And will you like to take a tramp round the old place with me, as you suggested last night?"
Harry was examining dishes on the side-table with a supercilious air.
"Very cold, is it not?" he said. "We were thinking of shooting. Do you shoot, Uncle Francis?"
"I will shoot with pleasure, if you will let me," he said. "Yes, it is cold—too cold for pottering about, as you say. Fish cakes, eggs and bacon, cold game. Yes, I'll begin with a fish cake. What a hungry place Vail is! I am famished, literally famished. And where is Geoffrey?"
"Geoffrey was going to his bath when I came down," said Harry. "It is to be hoped he will be more nearly awake after it. He had one eye open only when I saw him."
"Fine gift to be able to sleep like that," said Mr. Francis; "I heard you two boys go up to bed last night, and sat an hour reading after that. But I awoke at eight, as I always do, and got up."
Harry's morose mood was on the thaw.
"And have you been waiting for us since then, Uncle Francis?" he said. "Really, I am awfully sorry. We'll have breakfast earlier to-morrow. It was stupid of me."
"Not a bit, not a bit, Harry. I like a bit of a walk before breakfast. Wonderful thing for the circulation after your bath. Ah, here's Geoffrey.—Good-morning, my dear boy!"
"We'll shoot, to-day, Geoff, as we settled," said Harry. "Uncle Francis will come with us. Wake up, you pig."
"How's the Luck?" he said. "Lord! I had such a nightmare, Harry! You, and the Luck, and Mr. Vail, and the picture of the wicked baron all mixed up together somehow. I forget how it went."
"Very remarkable!" said Harry. "I dreamed of the Luck, too, now you mention it. We must have dreamed the same thing, Geoff, because I also have forgotten how it went."
"And I," said Mr. Francis, "dreamed about nothing at all, very pleasantly, all night. And what a morning I awoke to! Just the day for a good tramp in the woods. Dear me, Harry, what a simpleton your dear father used to think me! 'What are you going to do?' he would ask me, and I would only want a pocketful of cartridges, a snack of cold lunch, and leave to prowl about by myself without a keeper, no trouble to anybody."
"Yes, that's good fun," said Geoffrey. "Now it's a rabbit, or over the stubble a partridge. Then a bit of cover, and you put up a pheasant. Let's have a go-as-you-please day, Harry."
"The poetry of shooting," said Mr. Francis. "Cold partridge for any one but me? No? You lads have no appetites!"
The keeper had been given his orders the day before, and very soon after breakfast the three shooters were ready to start. They went out by a garden door which gave on a flight of some dozen stone steps leading to the lawn; Mr. Francis, leading the way, nearly fell on the topmost of them, for they were masked with ice, and half turned as he recovered himself, to give a word of warning to the others. But he was too late, and Harry, who followed him, not looking to his feet, but speaking to Geoffrey over his shoulder at the same moment almost, had slipped on the treacherous stone and fallen sprawling, dropping his gun, and clutching ineffectually at the railing to save himself. Mr. Francis gave one exclamation of startled dismay, and ran to his assistance.
"My dear fellow," he cried, "I hope you are not hurt?"
Harry lay still a moment, his mouth twisted with pain; then, taking hold of the railing, pulled himself to his feet, and stood with bowed head, gripping hard on the banister.
"All sideways on my ankle," he said.—"Just see if my gun's all right, Geoff.—Yes, I've twisted it, I'm afraid." He paused another moment, faint and dizzy, with a feeling of empty sickness, and then hobbled up the steps again.
"An awful wrench," he said. "Just give me your arm, Uncle Francis, will you? I can hardly put my foot to the ground."
Leaning on him, he limped back into the hall and dragged off his boot.
"Yes, it feels pretty bad," he said; "I came with my whole weight on to it. I shall be as lame as a tree."
Mr. Francis was on his knees, and in a moment had stripped off Harry's stocking with quick, deft fingers.
"What bad luck! what awfully bad luck!" he said. "Put a cold-water compress on it at once, my dear boy. It is already swelling!"
Harry lifted his leg on to a chair opposite.
"It's just a sprain," he said. "Go out, Uncle Francis, you and Geoffrey. I'll put a bandage on."
Templeton had answered Mr. Francis's ringing of the bell, and was dismissed again with orders for cold water and linen.
"Not till I have seen you comfortable, my dear fellow," said Mr. Francis. "Dear me, what bad luck! Does it hurt you, Harry?"
"No, no, it is nothing," said the boy rather impatiently, irritated both by the pain and the fussing. "Do go out, Uncle Francis, with Geoffrey, and leave me. The men are waiting by the home cover. I can look after myself perfectly."
Mr. Francis still seemed half loath to leave him, and, had he followed his inclinations, he would have instituted himself as sick-nurse, to change the bandage or read to him. But it was the part of wisdom to humour the patient, who quite distinctly wished to be left alone; and as even the most solicitous affection could not find grounds for anxiety in the sprain, with a few more sympathetic words, he followed Geoffrey, who was chafing to be gone. The latter, indeed, might have appeared somewhat cold and unsympathetic in contrast with Mr. Francis and his repeated lamentations; but his "Bad luck, Harry!" and Harry's grunt in reply, had something of telegraphic brevity, not misunderstood.
In spite of his protestations that he was no more than an indifferent shot, it soon appeared that Mr. Francis was more than a decently capable performer with the gun, and his keenness and accuracy as a sportsman were charmingly combined with the knowledge and observation of a naturalist. He pointed out to his companion several rare and infrequent birds which they saw during the morning, and implored the keeper that they might not be shot for curiosities.
"Half the time I am shooting," he said to Geoffrey, "I am of a divided mind. Is it not a shame to kill these beautiful and innocent things? I often wonder—ah!" up went his gun, and a high pheasant was torn from the sky, leaving a few light neck feathers floating there.
"And even while the words are in my mouth, I go and contradict my sentiments," he said, ejecting the smoking cartridge. "What a bundle of incongruous opposites is a man!"
They shot for not more than a couple of hours after lunch, for the sun set early, and Mr. Francis confessed to a certain unreasonable desire to get home quickly and see how Harry had fared.
"Indeed, I was half minded to stay with him in spite of his wish," he said, "for the hours will have been lonely to him. But he is like all the Vails—self-reliant, and beholden to no one."
They were crossing the last meadow before they should again reach the garden, and, even as he spoke, a hare got up from its form in the tussocky grass not more than ten yards from them and scuttled noiselessly, head down, across the field. Geoffrey had already taken the cartridges from his barrel, and Mr. Francis raised his gun to his shoulder, hesitated a moment, and then fired. He hit the beast just as it gained the fence of the cover from which they had come; they saw it bowled over, and drag on a pace or two into cover; then suddenly, from where it had disappeared, there came a screaming horribly human. Mr. Francis paused, then turned quite pale, and Geoffrey, seeing his stricken face, imagined he thought that he had wounded a beater.
"It is only the hare," he said; "the men were all out two minutes ago."
Mr. Francis turned to him.
"Only the hare!" he cried; "yes, only the hare! How dreadful, how dreadful! I have wounded it," and he started off running to where the beast had been last seen, and disappeared in the cover.
Geoffrey sent a couple of beaters to assist in the search, but himself went on to the house, wondering a little at the inconsistency which would allow a man to shoot at a hare running straight away in a bad light, and yet send him hot foot after it when wounded. Yet the inconsistency was pleasing; keenness was responsible for the doubtful shot, an indubitable horror of causing an animal pain prompted the pursuit of it. He found Harry lying up, his ankle somewhat severely sprained, but it no longer pained him, and he asked after his uncle.
"Just at the last moment he shot a hare, wounding it," he said, "and ran back to try to recover it. He will be in at once, I should think."
But half an hour passed, yet still he did not come, and Harry was already wondering what could have happened, when he appeared, all smiles again.
"Dear lad, have you had a very tedious day?" he asked. "The thought of you has been constantly in my mind. I should have been in half an hour ago with Geoffrey, but I wounded a hare, and had to go and look for it. Thank God, I found it. The poor beast was quite dead. But it screamed: it was terrible, terrible!"
There was a good piano, by Bechstein, standing in the hall, and that evening, after dinner, as Harry lay on the sofa nursing his injury, while his uncle sitting by him recalled a hundred little reminiscences of his own young years which he had spent here, Geoffrey, who was an accurate performer of simple tunes, played idly and softly to himself, listening half to his own music, half to the talk of the others. Now he would indicate some graceful, inevitable fragment of Bach, now a verse of some chevalier song, all with a tinkling, elementary technic, but with a certain facility of finger and decided aptitude for the right notes. By degrees, as this went on, a kind of restlessness gained on Mr. Francis; he would break off in the middle of a story to hum a bar of the tune Geoffrey was playing, beating time to it with a waving hand, or turn round in his chair to say over his shoulder: "A graceful melody, my dear boy; please play us that again."
But before long this restlessness grew more emphatic, and at last he jumped nimbly out of his chair.
"I must fetch my flute," he exclaimed, "I must positively fetch my flute. I play but indifferently, as you will hear, but it is such a pleasure to me! What a charming instrument is the flute, so pastoral; the nearest thing we know to the song of birds! Be indulgent, my dear Geoffrey, to the whim of an old fellow, and play some easyaccompaniments for me. I have a quantity of little pieces for the flute by Corelli and Baptiste."
He hurried to the door, and they heard his step quickly crossing the gallery above. In a few moments he reappeared again, a little out of breath, but with a beaming face. He fitted his flute together with affectionate alacrity, turned to the piano, and opened a volume of easy minuets and sarabands.
"There, this one," he said; "it is a breath of heaven, a real breath of heaven. You have two bars of introduction. Ah! a shade slower, my dear boy; it is an antique measure, you must remember. Graceful, leisurely. Yes, that is exactly right."
He knew the music by heart, and when once they were fairly started, turned from the piano toward Harry. His cheerful, ruddy face composed itself into an expression of beatific content, his eyes were half closed, the eyebrows a little raised, and his body swayed gently to the rhythm of the tune. The formal delicacy of the composition enthralled him; perhaps it brought with it the aroma of his youth, the minuets he had danced fifty years ago, perhaps it was only the sweet and certain development of the melody which so moved him. At the end, in any case, he could not quite command his voice, and he patted Geoffrey gently on the shoulder by way of thanks.
"The next," he said; "we can not pass by the next. The two are complete only together."
They played then some half dozen little pieces, ending with a quick ripple of a gavotte, to put them in good spirits again, so said Mr. Francis; and at the last he lovingly packed up his flute again and left it on the piano, saying that they must be very indulgent to him and let him play again.
Two or three days after this, Harry was sufficiently recovered to be able to go out again, though still limpingly, and it was arranged that they should shoot certain of the covers near the house which might be expected to furnish them with a good day's sport, and at the same time would entail but little walking. The frost had, twenty-four hours ago, completely broken before a warm and violent wind from the southwest, and the dead leaves which had lain in glued and compacted heaps were once more driven about in scurrying multitudes. The sky was low and ominous, a rack of torn and flying cloud, and scudding showers fell ever and again. But the sport was excellent, and they little heeded the angry fretfulness of the heavens.
Their beats took them at no time far from the house, and they returned there for lunch, but by this time the weather had grown so vastly more inclement that Mr. Francis cried off the resumption of the day; but Harry, eager for out-of-doors after his two days' imprisonment, persuaded Geoffrey to come out again. The rain was a steady downpour in the slackened wind, but his argument that they were not made of paper carried weight.
They returned, drenched indeed, but with a satisfactory report of themselves and the birds, to find Mr. Francis performing very contentedly on his flute before the hall fire. But he jumped up briskly as they appeared.
"Dear boys, how wet you are!" he cried. "Of course, you will change your clothes at once, will you not? And I should recommend a glass of hot whisky and water. Shall I ring the bell? I told Templeton to see that there was abundance of hot water for your baths."
This incessant solicitude of his uncle, however clearly arising from affection, was on the way to get on Harry's nerves and arouse opposition. At any rate, the suggestion that he should guard against a chill predisposed him not to be in any hurry to go upstairs.
"Oh, tea first," he said, not meaning it; "one can change afterward.—Are you going now, Geoff? Ring the bell as you pass, will you?"
A positive cloud dimmed the brightness of Mr. Francis's face.
"Dear boy, you are being horribly imprudent," he said; "do let me persuade you to change at once."
This drove determination home. Harry was unpleasantly conscious of the clinging flabbiness of soaking clothes, but had their touch shaken him with an ague it would not have moved him from his chair. He intended to do that which he chose to do.
"Oh, I'm all right, Uncle Francis," he said. "I never catch cold."
Tea came, and Harry ate and drank with studied leisure, and conversed politely to his uncle. Already he felt the premonitory prickling of the skin which precedes a chill, but it was nearly half an hour before he lounged upstairs. He did not intend to be fussed over and treated like a child; the advice to go and change had been so obviously sensible that it should never have been offered, and to the contrariness of youth was impossible to accept. Thus the well-meant but ill-timed counsel drove him into an opposite.
Again, after dinner, the evening was melodious with the breathings of Mr. Francis's flute, but the childlike pleasure which the performer had taken before in his own performance was sensibly dimmed. He played with a wandering attention and an uncertain finger, without the gusto of the artist, and his eye ever rested anxiously on Harry, who had more than once complained of the cold, and now sat huddled up by a mountainous fire, bright-eyed and with a burning skin, which seemed to him to cover an interior of ice. At last Mr. Francis could stand it no longer, and laying down his flute came across to where he sat, and with an extraordinary amenity of voice, yet firmly——
"I insist on your going to bed, Harry," he said. "You have caught a chill; it is idle to deny it. Dear lad, do not be so foolish. I have troubled and worried you, I am afraid, with my fussy care for you, and I am very sorry for it. But do not make a bad matter worse, and do not punish me, I ask you, as well as yourself, for my ill-timed suggestions. I have apologized; be generous."
Harry got up. It was impossible that a mere superficial boyish obstinacy, of which he was already ashamed, should stand out against this, and besides he felt really unwell.
"Yes, I am afraid I have caught a chill," he said. "It was foolish of me not to change as you advised me when I came in. It was even more foolish of me to have been annoyed at your excellent suggestion that I should."
Mr. Francis's face brightened.
"Now get to bed at once, my dear boy," he said, "and I have no doubt you will be all right in the morning. You have plenty of blankets? Good-night."
But Harry was by no means all right in the morning, and it seemed that for his uncle the joy of life was dead. There was no brisk early walk for him to-day. Vail was no longer a hungry place, and his breakfast was but the parody of a meal. Unreasonably, he blamed himself for his nephew's indisposition, and the morning passed for him in blank turnings over of the leaves of undecipherable books, in reiterated visits to the kitchen with suggestions as to a suitable invalid diet, and disconnected laments to Geoffrey over this untoward occurrence.
"Ah! This will teach a foolish old man to hold his tongue," he said. "It will teach him, also, that old fellows can not understand the young. How excellent were my intentions, but how worse than impotent, how disastrous! It is a cold job to grow old, Geoffrey; it is even colder to grow old and still feel young. Poor Harry simply thought me a meddling old fogy when I wanted him to take precautions against catching a chill, and I ought to have known that he would think me so. I forget my white hairs. How are you, my dear boy, this morning? I hope you have not a chill, too? I am anxious and unsettled to-day."
"Oh, Harry was an ass," said the other. "But there's nothing at all to be anxious about. He has a chill, rather a sharp one, and, with greater Wisdom than he showed yesterday, he stops in bed. Is that Punch there? Thank you very much."
Mr. Francis walked to the window, lit a cigarette, and threw it away, barely tasted.
"I wonder if Harry would like me to read to him," he said.
Geoffrey looked up with an arrested smile.
"I think I should leave him quite alone," he said. "I've just been up to him. He's as cross as a bear, and wouldn't speak to me. So I came away."
"But that is so unlike him!" said Mr. Francis. "He must be ill, he must be really ill."
Geoffrey began to understand Harry's feelings the day before.
"If I were you I wouldn't fuss either him or myself," he said. "People don't die of a cold in the head."
"Shall I send for the doctor?" asked Mr. Francis. "We might tell Harry that he happened to call about some case of distress in the village, and wished to consult him about it. Then we could get his opinion. I think, under the circumstances, one might venture on so small an equivocation."
Geoffrey closed his Punch.
"I shouldn't do anything of the kind if I were you," he said. "What an abominable morning! I'll play some accompaniments for you, if you like."
"Thank you, my dear boy," said Mr. Francis, "but I haven't the heart to play this morning. Besides, Harry might be dozing; we should run the risk of disturbing him."
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