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E. F. Benson
The little red-roofed town of Hayes lies in a furrow of the broad-backed Wiltshire Downs; it was once an important posting station, and you may still see there an eighteenth century inn, much too large for the present requirements of the place, and telling of the days when, three times a week, the coach from London used to pull up at its hospitable door, and wait there half-an-hour while its passengers dined. The inn is called the Grampound Arms, and you will find that inside the church many marble Grampounds recline on their tombs, or raise hands of prayer, while outside in the churchyard, weeping cherubs, with reversed torches, record other pious and later memories of the same family.
But almost opposite the Grampound Arms you will notice a much newer inn, where commercial gentlemen make merry, called the Aston Arms, and on reference to monumental evidence, you would also find that cherubs are shedding similar pious tears for a Sir James Aston, Bart., and his wife, and, thirty years later, for James Aston, first Lord Hayes, and his wife. But for the Astons, no marble knights keep watch on Gothic tombs.
The river Kennet, in its green wanderings, has already passed, before it reaches Hayes, two houses, one close down by the river, the other rather higher up and on the opposite bank. The smaller and older of the two is the residence of Mr. Grampound, the larger and newer of Lord Hayes. These trifling facts, which almost all the inhabitants of Hayes could tell you, will sufficiently indicate the mutual position of the two families in the latter half of the nineteenth century.
Grampound House was a pretty, ivy-grown old place, with a lawn stretching southwards almost to the bank of the river, and shaded by a great cedar tree, redolent of ancestors and as monumental in its way as the marble, sleeping figures in the church. It was useful, however, as well as being ancestral, and at this moment Mrs. Grampound and her brother were having tea under it.
It was a still, hot day at the beginning of August, and through the broad, fan-like branches, stray sunbeams danced and twinkled, making little cores of light on the silver. Down one side of the lawn ran a terrace of grey stone, bordered by a broad gravel walk, and over the terrace pale monthly roses climbed and blossomed. Most of the windows in the house were darkened and eclipsed by Venetian blinds, to keep out the sun which still lingered on the face of it; and Mr. Martin, also—Mrs. Grampound's brother—was in a state of eclipse for the time being, for he wore a broad-brimmed Panama hat, which concealed the upper part of his face, while a large harlequin tea-cup prevented any detailed examination of his mouth. Mrs. Grampound sat opposite him in a low, basket chair, and appeared to be thinking. It is a privilege peculiar to owners of very fine, dark grey eyes, to appear to be thinking whenever they are not talking.
Mr. Martin finished his tea, and lit a cigarette.
"They've begun cutting the corn," he said; "it's very early."
Mrs. Grampound did not answer, and her brother, considering that he had made his sacrifice on the altar of conversation, relapsed into silence again.
Perhaps the obvious inference that the summer had been hot reminded her that the day was also hot, for in a minute or two she said,—
"Dear Eva! What a stifling journey she will have. She comes back to-night; she ought to be here by now."
"Where has she been staying?"
"At the Brabizons. Lord Hayes was there. He comes home at the end of the week; his mother arrived yesterday."
"The old witch," murmured Mr. Martin.
"Yes, but very old," said she, whose mind was apparently performing obligato variations on the theme of the conversation. "Haven't you noticed—"
She broke off, and presumably continued the obligato variations.
Mr. Martin showed no indications of having noticed anything at all, and the faint sounds of the summer evening pursued their whisperings unchecked until the distant rumble of carriage wheels began to overscore the dim noises, and came to a long pause, after a big crescendo, before the front door.
"That will be Eva," said her mother, filling up the teapot; "they will tell her we are here."
A few minutes afterwards, the drawing-room window was opened from inside, and a girl began to descend the little flying staircase.
Apparently she was in no hurry, for she stooped to stroke a kitten that was investigating the nature of blind cord with an almost fanatical enthusiasm. The kitten was quite as eager to investigate the nature of the human hand, and flew at Eva's outstretched fingers, all teeth and claws.
"You little brute!" she remarked, shaking it off. "Your claws want cutting. Oh! you are rather nice. Come, Kitty."
But the kitten was indignant, and bounced down the stairs in front of her, sat down on the path at the bottom, and pretended to be unaware of her existence. Eva stopped to pluck a rose from a standard tree, and fastened it in her dress. Her foot was noiseless on the soft grass, and neither her uncle or mother heard her approaching.
"The brute scratched me," she repeated as she neared them; "its claws want cutting."
Mrs. Grampound was a little startled, and got up quickly.
"Oh, Eva, I didn't hear you coming. I was just saying it was time you were here. How are you, and have you had a nice time?"
"Yes, quite nice; but the Brabizons are rather stupid people. Still, I enjoyed myself. I didn't see you, Uncle Tom; anyhow, I can't kiss you with that hat on."
She touched the top of his Panama hat lightly with the tips of her fingers, and sat down in her mother's chair, who was pouring her out a cup of tea.
"We had a tiresome journey," she went on. "Why will people live in Lancashire? Is this your chair, mother?"
Mr. Martin got up.
"I'm going in," he said; "you can have mine. At least, I'm going for a ride. Is the tea good, Eva?—it has been made for some time—or shall I tell them to send you out some more?"
"It seems to me very bad," said Eva, sipping it. "Yes, I should like some more. Are you going for a ride? Perhaps I'll come."
"Yes, it's cooler now," said he. "Do come with me."
"Will you order my horse, then, if you are going in? Perhaps you'd better tell them to have it ready only, and not to bring it round. I won't come just yet, anyhow. If I'm not ready, start without me, and I daresay I'll follow you, if you tell me where you are going."
"I want to ride up to the Whitestones'—to see him."
"Very well, I daresay I shall follow you."
Mr. Martin stood looking rather like a servant receiving orders. Eva always managed to make other people assume subordinate positions.
"How long do you think you will be?" he asked.
"Perhaps half-an-hour. But don't wait for me."
Eva threw off her hat impatiently.
"I have been horribly hot and dusty all day," she said, "and there was nearly an accident; at least, there was a bit of an accident. We were standing in a siding for the express to pass, and we weren't far enough back or far enough forward or something, and it crashed through a bit of the last carriage. That is what made me so late. It is very stupid that people, whose only business is to see about trains, can't avoid that sort of thing."
"My darling Eva," said her mother, "were you in the train?"
"Yes; in the next carriage—I and Lord Hayes. He was dreadfully nervous all the rest of the way. That is so silly. It is inconceivable that two accidents should happen on the same day to the same train."
"I thought he wasn't coming back till the end of the week."
"Yes, but he changed his mind and came with me," said Eva. "The Brabizons were furious. I sha'n't go there again. Really, people are very vulgar. I owe him three-and-sixpence for lunch. He said he would call for it, if he might—he always asks leave—to-morrow morning."
Mrs. Grampound did not reply, but the obligato variations went on jubilantly. Eva was lying back in her chair, looking more bored than ever with this stupid world. Her mother's eyes surveyed the slender figure with much satisfaction. It really was a great thing to have such a daughter. And Lord Hayes had changed the day of his departure obviously in order to travel with Eva, and he was coming to call to-morrow morning in order to ask for three-and six!
Eva, quite unconscious of this commercial scrutiny, was swinging her hat to and fro, looking dreamily out over the green distances.
"On the whole, I sha'n't go for a ride," she said at length. "I think I'll sit here with you, if you've got nothing to do; I rather want to talk to you."
"Certainly, dear," said her mother; "but hadn't you better send word to the stables? Then they needn't get Starlight ready. I must go into the house to get my work, but I sha'n't be a moment. I wonder what you want to talk to me about."
"No," said Eva, "don't get your work. You can't talk when you are working. Besides, I daresay I shall go later. Leave it as it is."
"Dear Eva," said Mrs. Grampound, "I am so anxious to hear what you have to say. Shall I be pleased?"
"I don't know," said Eva, slowly. "Well, the fact is that Lord Hayes—well—will have something to say to me when he comes for the three-and-six. He would have said it at the Brabizons, only I didn't allow him, and he would have said it in the train, only I said I couldn't bear people who talked in the train. I may be wrong, but I don't think I am. I like him, you know, very much; he is not so foolish as most people. But I do not feel sure about it."
"My darling Eva," began her mother with solemn gladness.
"It's all rather sudden," Eva interrupted. "I want to wait a little first. Do you know, I think I shall be out to-morrow when he comes, or I might send him the three-and-six by post. He is not stupid; he would easily understand what I meant."
To say that this was the cherished dream of her mother's heart would almost be understating the fact, and now the cherished dream was perhaps going to be transformed into a most cherishable reality. Mrs. Grampound, if not knowing exactly how to deal with Eva, at least was conscious of her ignorance and was cautious.
"Yes, darling, it's very sudden," she said. "Don't do anything in a hurry—of course I know how heavy the responsibilities will seem to you, as they must to every young girl who goes out from the what's-its-name of home life, and all that sort of thing, to those very much wider spheres, but you will do your best, dear, I know. Eva, darling, I must kiss you."
Mrs. Grampound surged out of her chair, and bent over Eva to kiss her. Eva received the kiss with absolute passivity, but sorry, perhaps, a moment afterwards, for her want of responsiveness, bent forward and kissed her again.
"It wasn't exactly the responsibilities I was thinking of," she said; "it was"—she got up from her chair quickly, and stood quite still, looking down over the lawn to the reddening sunset—"it was that I am not quite sure about myself."
Mrs. Grampound seized hold of anything tangible which Eva's speech conveyed, and sympathised with it.
"Yes, darling, I know," she said. "Just wait a little, and think about it. I think your plan about not seeing him to-morrow is very wise. He will, probably, in any case, write to your father first. It is very faint praise to say that he is not so foolish as most people. A most brilliant and well-informed man! He was telling me, the other day, about a flower he has in his conservatory which ate flies or something of the sort, which seems to me most extraordinary. Such an admirable landlord, too. He has just built some new labourers' cottages in Hayes, and I declare I want to go and live in them myself. I feel sure he will write to your father, and, no doubt, he will talk to you about it."
"You would like it, then, would you?" said Eva. "Tell me exactly what you think?"
Mrs. Grampound had a very decided opinion about it, and she expressed herself fully.
"Darling, that is so sweet of you. Ah, how can I have but one opinion! It is a girl's duty to marry as well as she can. This is a brilliant match. I know so many mothers—good, conscientious mothers—who think only of their children's happiness, who would give anything to have Lord Hayes as their son-in-law. A mother's happiness lies in the happiness of her children. They are bone of her bone, and all that sort of thing. How can they but wish for and pray for their happiness! You see, Eva, you are quite poor; your father will leave you next to nothing. Riches are a great blessing, because they enable you to do so much good. Of course they are not everything, and if you wanted to marry that dreadful Lord Symonds, whom they tell such horrible stories about, I would fall down on my knees and beseech you not to mind about poverty, or anything else. Or if I thought you would not be happy, for it is your duty to be happy. But this is exceptional in every way. You get position, wealth, title and a good husband. No one can deny that the aristocracy is the best class to marry into; indeed, for you it is the only class, and you bring him nothing but the love he bears you, of course, and your beauty."
"Yes; he pays a long price for my beauty," said Eva, meditatively.
"My dear Eva, we are all given certain natural advantages—or, if they are withheld, you may be sure that is only a blessing in disguise—talents, beauty, and so on—and it is our clear duty to make the most of them. Beauty has been given you in a quite unusual degree, and it is your duty to let it find its proper use. Don't you remember the parable of the ten talents? We had it in church only last Sunday, and I remember at the time that I was thinking of you and Lord Hayes, which was quite a remarkable coincidence. And then the good you can do as Lady Hayes is infinitely greater than the good you can do as the wife of a poor man. You have to look at the practical side of things, too. Ah, dear me, if life was only love, how simple and delightful it would all be! This is a work-a-day world, and we are not sent here just to enjoy ourselves."
Eva did not seem to be listening very closely.
"Tell me about your own engagement," she said at length. "I don't know what exactly one is supposed to feel. I have many reasons for wanting to marry Lord Hayes. I like and respect him very much. I believe he is a very good man; he is always agreeable and considerate."
"That is the best and surest basis for love to rest on," broke in her mother, who was charmed to find Eva so sensible. "That is just what I have always said. Love must spring out of these things, darling, just as the leaves and foliage of a tree spring out of the solid wood. So many girls have such foolish sentimental notions, just as if they had just come away from a morning performance at the Adelphi. That is not love; it is just silly, schoolgirl sentimentality, which silly schoolgirls feel for tenor singers, and a silky moustache, and slim, weak-eyed young men. Real love is the flower of respect and admiration, and solid esteem. Aimer c'est tout comprendre; and to do that you must have no illusions—you must keep the lights dry—you must regard a man as he is, not as you think he is."
"Yes, I see," said Eva, slowly; "I daresay you are right. I certainly never felt any schoolgirl sentimentality for anyone. I think I shall go for a ride, mother; it is nice to get a breath of fresh air after a long journey."
Mrs. Grampound rose too, and drew her arm through Eva's.
"Yes, darling, it will do you good," she said. "And you can think about all this quietly. Your father is out still; he went down to the river just before you came, to see if he could get a trout or two. And Percy comes this evening. I will ring the bell in the drawing-room for your horse to come round, if you will go and get your habit on. Give me one more kiss, dear; it is so nice to have you home again."
Eva put her horse into a steady canter over the springy turf, and soon caught her uncle up, who was ambling quietly along on a grey pony. He was staying with his brother-in-law for a week or two, before going back to America, being a citizen of the United States. He rode for two reasons—indeed, he never did anything without a reason—both of which were excellent. Riding was a means of progressing from one place to another, and it was a sort of watch-key which wound up the mechanism of the body. He was rather hypochondriacal, and his doctor advised exercise, so he obeyed his doctor and rode. He did much more good than harm in this wicked world, but comparatively little of either.
His sister had married Mr. Grampound early in life. She had a considerable fortune left her by her father, by aid of which, as with a golden spade, she hope to bury her American extraction. This she had succeeded in doing, with very decent success, but her golden spade had, so to speak, been broken in the act of interment, for her husband had speculated rather wildly with her money, and had lost it. Mrs. Grampound cared very little for this; her golden spade had done its work. She had married into the English aristocracy, for the Grampounds, though their accounts at banks did not at all correspond to the magnificence of their origin, and though the family estates had been sold to the last possible acre, held, in the estimation of the world, that position which, though it takes only a generation or two of great wealth to raise, requires an infinite number of generations of poverty to demolish.
Eva found the society of her uncle very soothing on this particular afternoon. He very seldom disagreed with anybody, chiefly because he hated argument as a method of conversation, but his assent was not of that distressing order which is more irritating than a divergent view, for he always took the trouble to let it appear that he had devoted considerable thought to the question at issue, and had arrived at the same conclusions as his interlocutor.
It was nearly eight when they reached home, and the dusk was thickening into night. Mr. Grampound had just got in, when they dismounted at the door, and he greeted Eva in his usual dignified and slightly interested manner. The extreme finish of his face suggested that the number of Grampounds who had been turned out of the same mediæval mould, was very considerable.
Eva's father held the door open for her to pass into the inner hall, and Eva, going to the table to take a bedroom candle, noticed that there was a note lying there for him. She turned it over quickly, and saw a coronet and "Aston House" on the back. She handed it to her father, who took it and said,—
"From Lord Hayes. I thought he had not come home yet."
Eva was standing on the lowest step of the flight of stairs.
"Yes; he came home with me to-day," she said.
"Was he with you at the Brabizons?"
"Yes; we travelled together."
Eva went up to her room, not wishing to see the note opened in her presence. What it would contain she knew, or, at least, guessed. Five minutes later, Mr. Grampound also came upstairs and tapped at the door of his wife's room. She had not begun to dress, and he came in with the note in his hand. His cold, clean-shaven face showed a good deal of gentlemanly and quiet satisfaction.
"Of course there is only one answer," he said when she had finished reading it. "It is a splendid match for her."
"Eva spoke to me about it this afternoon," said his wife.
"She does not want to be hurried. She wants to have time to decide."
"There is no time like the present," observed Mr. Grampound.
"I hope you won't press her, Charles. You will get nothing by that. She wants to marry, I know; and I said a great many very sensible things to her this afternoon. She wants more than a quiet home-life can give her, and she likes Hayes."
"I must send some answer to him; and I certainly shall not tell him to keep away."
"Give her time. Say he may come in a week. There is no harm in waiting a little. Eva will not be forced into anything against her will."
"I shall speak to her to-night."
"Yes, do; but be careful. I must send you away now; it is time to dress. Percy has come."
Eva, meanwhile, was thinking over the talk she had had with her mother. Mrs. Grampound's affectionate consideration for her daughter's feelings, Eva knew quite well, might only be the velvet glove to an iron hand. But she was distinctly conscious that there was a great deal in what her mother had said. She had decided for herself that she was not going to fall in love with anyone; men seemed to her to be very little loveable. At the same time, she knew that, in her heart of hearts, she longed for the possibilities which a great marriage would give her. Perhaps then the world would open out; perhaps it was interesting after all. Her home-life bored her considerably. They were in the country nine months out of the twelve, living in a somewhat sparsely-populated district, and Eva was totally unable to make for herself active or engrossing occupation in the direction of district-visiting or Sunday schools, or those hundred and one ways in which "nice girls" are supposed to employ themselves. Her vitality was of that still, strong sort which can only be reached through the emotions, and is too indolent or too uninitiative to stir the emotions into creating interests for themselves. The vague imperative need of doing something never wound its horn to her. She could not throw herself into the first pursuit that offered, simply because she had to be doing something, and her emotional record was a blank. The pencil and paper were there, for she was two-and-twenty, but she had nothing to write. She was quite unable to transform her diversions into aims, a faculty which accounts completely for the busy lives some women lead.
Dinner was not till half-past eight, and, when Eva came down, the drawing-room was untenanted. The shaded lamp left the room in comparative dimness, but through the windows, which were open to let in the cool, evening air, the last glow of the sunset cast a red light on to the opposite wall. She stood at the window a moment and looked at the river, which lay like a string of crimson pools stretching west; and then, turning away impatiently, walked up and down the room, wondering where everyone was. That peaceful, sleeping landscape outside seemed to her an emblem of the quiet, deadly days that were to come. The slow to-morrow and to-morrow seemed suddenly impossible. The door was open to her—the door leading on all that the world had to offer. Perhaps it was all as uninteresting as this, but it would be something, at any rate, to know that—to be quite certain that life was dull to the core. Then she thought she could rest quiet, and, perhaps, would not mind so much. What vexed and irritated her, was to suspect that the world was interesting and not to find it so, and she was disposed to lay the blame of that on her own particular station in life. Yet—yet—she could hardly say she had an ideal, but there was that shrouded image called love, of which she only saw the dim outline. It would be a pity to smash it up before the coverings came off. It might be worth having, after all.
Her eye caught sight of a book on the table with a white vellum cover. Eva took it up. It was called The Crown of Womanhood, and something like a frown gathered on her face.
It was almost a relief when her mother entered rustling elaborately across the room, and snapping a bracelet on to her comely wrist.
"Ah! Eva, you are before me. Percy has come. I didn't expect him till to-morrow."
"I'm glad," said Eva listlessly.
"Such a lovely evening," continued Mrs. Grampound with a strong determination to be particularly neutral, and entirely unconscious of her talk with Eva before dinner. "Look at those exquisite tints, dear. The blue so tender as to be green," she quoted with a fine disregard of accuracy.
"Yes, it's beautiful," said Eva, not turning her head. "Ah! Percy, it's good to see you."
Eva got up and walked across to meet the newcomer. Percy was a favourite of hers, from the time he had teased her about her dolls onward.
"How long are you going to stop?" she continued. "Percy, stop here a long time; I want you."
"I can't," he said. "I'm going off to Scotland on the 12th, to the Davenports. I promised Reggie."
"Reggie? Reggie Davenport. He's a friend of mine. I'm very fond of him. Haven't you ever seen him. He falls in love about once a fortnight. He's very amusing."
"He must be rather a fool," said Eva.
"Oh, but he's a nice fool. Really, he is very nice. He's so dreadfully young."
"Well, you're not very old, my lord," said Eva.
"But Reggie is much the youngest person I ever saw. He'll never grow old."
"Ah! Well," said Eva. "I expect he's very happy."
The gong had sounded some minutes, when Mr. Martin shuffled in. He wore a somewhat irregular white tie and grey socks, and was followed almost immediately by Mr. Grampound.
Eva had already written a little note to Lord Hayes, and told her maid to enclose a three-and-six-penny postal order. She had also expressed a vague hope, so as not to block her avenues, that they would meet again soon. Her chief desire was to obtain a respite; the whole thing had been too sudden and she wished to think it over. Meantime, it was nice to see Percy again.
"What have you been doing with yourself?" she asked. "I notice that whenever young men go away in novels, they always fall in love before they get back, or get married, or make their fortunes or lose them. How many of these things have you done?"
"None of them," said Percy; "though I've been to Monte Carlo, I did not play there. It doesn't seem to me at all amusing."
"I suppose you haven't got the gambling instinct," said Eva; "that's a great defect. You know none of the joy of telling your cabman that you will give him a shilling extra if he catches a train. It's equivalent to saying, 'I bet you a shilling you don't;' only he doesn't pay if he loses, and you do. But that's immaterial. The joy lies in the struggle with time and space."
"Do you mean that you like to keep things in uncertainty as long as possible?" asked her father, looking at her.
Their eyes met, and they understood each other. Eva looked at him a moment, and then dropped her eyes.
"Yes; I'm sure I do."
"Even when you have all the data ready, do you like not deciding?"
"Oh! One never knows if one has all the data; something fresh may always turn up. For instance—"
"I was thinking just before dinner that I didn't know what in the world I should do with myself all the autumn, and now you see Percy's arrived. I shall play about with him."
"I go away in two days," said Percy.
"Oh! Well, I daresay something else will turn up. I am like Mr. Micawber."
"No, not all," said Mr. Grampound; "he was always doing his best to make things turn up."
Mrs. Grampound remarked that things were always turning up when you expected them least, and Percy hoped that his gun would turn up, because no one could remember where it was.
The evening was so warm that Eva and her mother sat outside on the terrace after dinner, waiting for the others to join them. Mr. Grampound never sat long over his wine, and in a few minutes the gentlemen followed them. Eva was rather restless, and strolled a little way down the gravel path, and, on turning, found that her father had left the others and was walking toward her.
"Come as far as the bottom of the lawn, Eva," he said; "I should like a little talk with you."
They went on in silence for some steps, and then her father said,—
"I heard from Lord Hayes to-day. Your mother told me that you could guess what it was about."
She picked up a tennis-ball that was lying on the edge of the grass.
"How wet it is!" she said. "Yes, I suppose I know what he wrote about."
"Your mother and I, naturally, have your happiness very much at heart," said he, "and we both agree that this is a very sure and clear chance of happiness for you. It is a great match, Eva."
Eva as a child had always rather feared her father and at this moment she found her childish fear rising again in her mind. Tall, silent, rather scornful-looking men may not always command affection, but they usually inspire respect. Her old fear for her father had grown into very strong respect, but she felt now that the converse transformation was very possible.
"You would wish me to marry him?" she asked.
"I wish you to consider it very carefully. I have seen a good deal of the world, so I also wish you to consider what I say to you about it. I have thought about it, and I have arrived at the very definite conclusion I have told you. I shall write to him to-night, and, with your consent, will tell him that he may come and ask you in person in a few days' time. You know my wishes on the subject, and your mother's. Meanwhile, dear Eva, I must congratulate you on the very good fortune which has come in your way."
He bent from his great height and kissed her.
"I don't wish to force you in any way," he said, "and I don't wish you to say anything to me to-night about it. Think it over by yourself. I needn't speak of his position and wealth, because, though, of course, they are advantages, you will rate them at their proper value. But I may tell you that I am a very poor man, and that I know what these things mean."
"I should not marry him for those reasons," said Eva.
"There is no need for you to tell me that," said he. "But it is right to tell you that I can leave you nothing. In the same way I hope that any foolish notions you may have got about love, from the trash you may have read in novels, will not stand in your way either. I will leave the matter in the hands of your own good sense."
His words had an unreasonable mastery over Eva, for her father never spoke idly. He was quite aware of the value of speech, but knew that it is enhanced by its rarity. "No one pays any attention to a jabbering fool," he had said once to his wife, à propos of a somewhat voluble woman who had been staying in the house, and of whose abilities he and his wife entertained very contrary opinions. Eva had seldom heard him express his philosophy of life at such length, and she fully appreciated the weight it was intended to convey.
Lord Hayes found Eva's note waiting for him when he came down to breakfast next morning, but its contents did not take away his appetite at all. He was quite as willing that she should think it over as her father or mother, and he had no desire to force her to refuse. He was fairly certain that at his time of life, for he was over forty, he was not going to fall in love in the ordinary sense of the word; that sense, in fact, which Eva had herself confessed she never felt likely to experience. He had had a succession of eligible helpmeets hurled at his head by ambitious mothers for many years, and in sufficient numbers to enable him to draw the conclusion that the majority of eligible helpmeets were very much like one another.
They had ready for him smiles of welcome, slightly diverting small-talk, pretty faces, and any number of disengaged waltzes; and after having basked in their welcoming smiles, submitted to their small-talk, looked at their pretty faces, and hopped decorously round in their disengaged waltzes, he always finished by stifling a yawn and making his exit. It would convey an entirely wrong impression to describe him as either a misanthrope or a cynic; the charms of marriageable maidenhood simply did not appeal to him. But though he was neither misanthrope nor cynic, a little vein of malevolence ran through his system, and he had more than half made up his mind that he would have none of these. He was quite rich enough to afford a wife who would bring him nothing but unpaid bills; and provided that wife brought him something which he had not yet found, he was willing to pay them all.
That he was going to marry some time had long been a commonplace to him, but the sight of his forty-fifth milestone had lent it a loud insistence which was becoming quite distracting. The thought had begun to haunt him; he saw it in the withered flowers of his orchid house, it stuck in the corners of his coat pockets, his garden syringe gurgled it at him with its expiring efforts to emit the last drop of water; even the toad which he kept in his greenhouse had the knowledge of it lurking in its sickly eye.
He was very seldom at Aston; but in one of his visits there, he had met Eva and had been considerably struck by her. She was introduced to him, and bowed without smiling. He had asked her whether she played lawn-tennis, and she said, without simpering, that she did. He asked her whether she enjoyed the season, and she replied, without affectation, that she had got so tired of it by the middle of June that she had gone down into the country. He remarked that London was the loser, and she reminded him that, therefore, by exactly the same amount, the country was the gainer. Her eyes wandered vaguely over the green distance, and once met his, without shrinking from or replying to his gaze. She was astonishingly beautiful, and appeared quite unconscious of her charms. She looked so radically indifferent to all that was going on round her, that he had said, "These country parties are rather a bore!" and she replied candidly that she quite agreed with him. In a word, he felt that he might go farther and fare worse, and that he was forty-five years old.
During the next few months, he had come across her not infrequently, both in the country and in London, and at the end of the season they had both met at the Brabizons, where two Miss Brabizons were alternately launched at his hand and heart—via brilliant execution on the piano and district-visiting—by their devoted mother, and Eva's calm neutrality was rendered particularly conspicuous by the contrast. His attentions to her grew more and more marked, and Mrs. Brabizon metaphorically threw up the sponge when he changed the day of his departure without ceremony, in order to travel with Eva, and declared that she couldn't conceive what he found in that girl.
His mother always breakfasted alone, and spent the morning by herself, usually out of doors. Lord Hayes was vaguely grateful for this arrangement. Mr. Martin, as we know, had described her as an old witch, and even to her own son she seemed rather a terrific person. She was tall, very well preserved, and a rigid Puritan. Her hobby—for the most unbending of our race have their hobby—was Jaeger clothing. She wore large grey boots with eight holes in them, a drab-coloured dress, and a head-gear that reminded the observer of a volunteer forage cap. This hobby she varied by a spasmodic interest in homœopathy, and she used to walk about the lanes like a mature Medea, gathering simples from the hedges, which she used to administer with appalling firmness to the village people; but, to do her justice, she always experimented with them first in propriâ personâ, and declared she felt a great deal better afterwards. For the practice of medicine-taking generally, she claimed that it fortified the constitution, and it must be confessed that her own constitution, at the age of sixty-five, appeared simply impregnable.
But in the morning her son was conscious of an agreeable relaxation. He was a neat, timid man, with a careful little manner, and he inherited from his mother a certain shrewdness that led him to grasp the practical issues of things with rapidity. For instance, on this present occasion, when he had finished his breakfast, he again read over Eva's letter, put it carefully away, and was quite content to wait.
Outside one of the dining-room windows opened a glass-covered passage leading into an orchid house, and he went down this passage with the heels of his patent leather shoes tapping on the tiles, and a large pair of scissors in his hand. Every morning he attended personally to the requirements of this orchid house; he snipped off dead sprays, he industriously blew tobacco smoke on small parasitic animals, and squirted them with soapy water, and this morning, being in a particularly good humour, he went so far as to tickle, with a wisp of hay, the back of the useful toad. That animal received his attentions with silent affability; it closed its eyes, and opened and shut its mouth like an old gentleman awaking from his after-dinner nap.
It was a warm morning, and when he had finished attending to the orchids he strolled round outside the house, back to the front door. The house stood high above the river, and commanded a good view of the green valley; and, in the distance, two miles away, the red-roofed village slanted upwards from the stream towards the downs. He stood looking out over the broad, pleasant fields for some moments, and his eyes wandered across the river to where the red front of Mr. Grampound's house, half hidden by the large cedar, stood, as if looking up to his. The flower-beds gleamed like jewels in the sunshine, and he could see two figures strolling quietly down the gravel path toward the river. One of them was a girl, tall, almost as tall as the man who walked by her side, and to whom she was apparently talking. Just as Lord Hayes looked, they stopped suddenly, and he saw her spread out her hands, which had been clasped in front of her, with a quick dramatic movement. The action struck him as slightly symbolical.
He was roused by the sound of crunched gravel, and, turning round, saw his mother walking towards him. She was in her hygienic dress, and had a small, tin botanical case slung over her shoulders. In her hand she held a pair of eminently useful scissors, the sort of scissors with which Atropos might sever the thread of life. Lord Hayes wore a slightly exotic look by her side.
"The under housemaid has fallen into a refreshing sleep," she announced, "and the action of the skin has set in. In fact, she will do very well now. And how are you, dear James, this morning?"
"I am very well," said he; "very well indeed, thank you, mother."
His mother looked at him with interest.
"You've got a touch of liver," she remarked truculently.
"No, I think not. I feel very well, thanks."
Lady Hayes snapped her scissors.
"I'm afraid the harvest will be very bad this year," she said. "There's been no rain, and no rain means no straw."
"Yes, the farmers are in a bad way," said Lord Hayes. "I shall have to make a reduction again."
"Well, dear," said his mother, "all I can say is that we shall probably be beggars. But porridge is wonderfully sustaining."
"We've still got a few acres in London," he remarked. "Really, in these depressed times, I don't know how a man could live without an acre or two there."
Old Lady Hayes laughed a hoarse, masculine laugh, and strode off, snapping her scissors again. Half-way across the lawn she stopped.
"The Grampounds are at home, I suppose," she said. "I want to see Mrs. Grampound some time."
"Oh, yes; I travelled with Miss Grampound yesterday. She said they were all at home."
"Ha! She is very handsome. But a modern young woman, I should think."
"She's not very ancient. She was staying with the Brabizons."
His mother frowned and continued her walk.
Lord Hayes always felt rather like a naughty child under his mother's eye. He did not at present feel quite equal to telling her what his relations with Eva were. Modernity was the one failing for which she had no sympathy, for it was a characteristic of which she did not possess the most rudimentary traces. To her it meant loss of dignity, Americanisms, contempt for orthodoxy, and general relaxation of all that is worthy in man. She preferred the vices of her own generation to the virtues of newer developments, and almost regretted the gradual extinction of the old three-bottle school, for they were, in her opinion, replaced by men who smoked while they were talking to women, while the corresponding women had given way to women who smoked themselves. For a man to drink port wine in company with other men was better, as being a more solid and respectable failing, than for him to talk to a woman with a cigarette between his lips.