A COUNTRY GENTLEMAN AND HIS FAMILY
AUTHOR OF 'THE WIZARD'S SON,' 'HESTER,' ETC.
MACMILLAN AND CO.
AND NEW YORK
All rights reserved
Printed (3 Vols. Crown 8vo) by R. & R. CLARK, 1886. Printed, Crown 8vo, 1 Vol., 1887.
A COUNTRY GENTLEMAN.
Theodore Warrender was still at Oxford when his father died. He was a youth who had come up from his school with the highest hopes of what he was to do at the university. It had indeed been laid out for him by an admiring tutor with anticipations which were almost certainties: "If you will only work as well as you have done these last two years!" These years had been spent in the dignified ranks of Sixth Form, where he had done almost everything that boy can do. It was expected that the School would have had a holiday when he and Brunson went up for the scholarships in their chosen college, and everybody calculated on the "double event." Brunson got the scholarship in question, but Warrender failed, which at first astonished everybody, but was afterwards more than accounted for by the fact that his fine and fastidious mind had been carried away by the AEschylus paper, which he made into an exhaustive analysis of the famous trilogy, to the neglect of other less inviting subjects. His tutor was thus almost more proud of him for having failed than if he had succeeded, and Sixth Form in general accepted Brunson's success apologetically as that of an "all-round" man, whose triumph did not mean so much. But if there is any place where the finer scholarship ought to tell, it should be in Oxford, and his school tutor, as has been said, laid out for him a sort of little map of what he was to do. There were the Hertford and the Ireland scholarships, almost as a matter of course; a first in moderations, but that went without saying; at least one of the Vice-Chancellor's prizes—probably the Newdigate, or some other unconsidered trifle of the kind; another first class in Greats; a fellowship. "If you don't do more than this I will be disappointed in you," the school tutor said.
The college tutors received Warrender with suppressed enthusiasm, with that excitement which the acquisition of a man who is likely to distinguish himself (and his college) naturally calls forth. It was not long before they took his measure and decided that his school tutor was right. He had it in him to bring glory and honour to their doors. They surrounded him with that genial warmth of incubation which brings a future first class tenderly to the top of the lists. Young Warrender was flattered, his heart was touched. He thought, with the credulity of youth, that the dons loved him for himself; that it was because of the attractions of his own noble nature that they vied with each other in breakfasting and dining him, in making him the companion of their refined and elevated pleasures. He thought, even, that the Rector—that name of fear—had at last found in himself the ideal which he had vainly sought in so many examples of lettered youth. He became vain, perhaps, but certainly a little self-willed, as was his nature, feeling himself to be on the top of the wave, and above those precautions for keeping himself there which had once seemed necessary. He did not, indeed, turn to any harm, for that was not in his nature; but feeling himself no longer a schoolboy, but a man, and the chosen friend of half the dons of his college, he turned aside with a fine contempt from the ordinary ways of fame-making, and betook himself to the pursuit of his own predilections in the way of learning. He had a fancy for out-of-the-way studies, for authors who don't pay, for eccentricities in literature; in short, for having his own way and reading what he chose. Signals of danger became gradually visible upon his path, and troubled consultations were held over him in the common room. "He is paying no attention to his books," remarked one; "he is reading at large whatever pleases him." Much was to be said for this principle, but still, alas, these gentlemen were all agreed that it does not pay.
"If he does not mind, he will get nothing but a pass," the Rector said, bending his brows. The learned society shrank, as if a sentence of death had been pronounced.
"Oh no, not so bad as that!" they cried, with one voice.
"What do you call so bad as that? Is not a third worse than that? Is not a second quite as bad?" said the majestic presiding voice. "In the gulf there are no names mentioned. We are not credited with a mistake. It will be better, if he does not stick to his books, that he should drop."
Young Warrender's special tutor made frantic efforts to arrest this doom. He pointed out to the young man the evil of his ways. "In one sense all my sympathies are with you," he said; "but, my dear fellow, if you don't read your books you may be as learned as ——, and as clear-sighted as ——" (the historian, being unlearned, does not know what names were here inserted), "but you will never get to the head of the lists, where we have hoped to see you."
"What does it matter?" said Warrender, in boyish splendour. "The lists are merely symbols. You know one's capabilities without that; and as for the opinion of the common mass, of what consequence is it to me?"
A cold perspiration came out on the tutor's brow. "It is of great consequence to—the college," he said. "My dear fellow, so long as we are merely mortal we can't despise symbols; and the Rector has set his heart on having so many first classes. He doesn't like to be disappointed. Come, after it's all over you will have plenty of time to read as you like."
"But why shouldn't I read as I like now?" said Warrender. He was very self-willed. He was apt to start off at a tangent if anybody interfered with him,—a youth full of fads and ways of his own, scorning the common path, caring nothing for results. And by what except by results is a college to be known and assert itself? The tutor whose hopes had been so high was in a state of depression for some time after. He even made an appeal to the school tutor, the enthusiast who had sent up this troublesome original with so many fine prognostications: who replied to the appeal, and descended one day upon the youth in his room, quite unexpectedly.
"Well, Theo, my fine fellow, how are you getting on? I hope you are keeping your eyes on the examination, and not neglecting your books."
"I am delighted to see you, sir," said the lad. "I was just thinking I should like to consult you upon"—and here he entered into a fine question of scholarship,—a most delicate question, which probably would be beyond the majority of readers, as it is of the writer. The face of the public-school man was a wonder to see. It was lighted up with pleasure, for he was an excellent scholar, yet clouded with alarm, for he knew the penalties of such behaviour in a "man" with an examination before him.
"My dear boy," he said, "in which of your books do you find any reference to that?"
"In none of them, I suppose," said the young scholar. "But, you don't think there is any sanctity in a set of prescribed books?"
"Oh no, no sanctity: but use," said the alarmed master. "Come, Theo, there's a good fellow, don't despise the tools we all must work with. It's your duty to the old place, you know, which all these newspaper fellows are throwing stones at whenever they have a chance: and it's your duty to your college. I know what you are worth, of course: but how can work be tested to the public eye except by the lists?"
"Why should I care for the public eye?" said the magnanimous young man. "We know that the lists don't mean everything. A headache might make the best scholar that ever was lose his place. A fellow that knows nothing might carry the day by a fluke. Don't you remember, sir, that time when Daws got the Lincoln because of that old examiner, who gave us all his own old fads in the papers? Every fellow that was any good was out of it, and Daws got the scholarship. I am sure you can't have forgotten that."
"Oh no, I have not forgotten it," said the master ruefully. "But that was only once in a way. Come, Theo, be reasonable. As long as you are in training, you know, you must keep in the beaten way. Think, my boy, of your school—and of me, if you care for my credit as a tutor."
"You know, sir, I care for you, and to please you," said Warrender, with feeling. "But as for your credit as a tutor, who can touch that? And even I am not unknown here," he added, with a little boyish pride. "Everybody who is of any importance knows that the Rector himself has always treated me quite as a friend. I don't think"—this with the ineffable simple self-assurance of youth, so happy in the discrimination of those who approve of it that the gratification scarcely feels like vanity—"that I shall be misunderstood here."
"Oh, the young ass!" said the master to himself, as he went away. "Oh, the young idiot! Poor dear Theo, what will be his feelings when he finds out that all they care for is the credit of the college?" But he was not so barbarous as to say this, and Warrender was left to find out by himself, by the lessening number of the breakfasts, by the absence of his name on the lists of the Rector's dinner-parties, by the gradual cooling of the incubating warmth, what had been the foundation of all the affection shown him. It was not for some time that he perceived the change which made itself slowly apparent, the gradual loss of interest in him who had been the object of so much interest. The nest was, so to speak, left cold, no father bird lending his aid to the development; his books were no longer forced on his consideration; his tutor no longer made anxious remarks. Like other silly younglings, the lad for a while rejoiced in his freedom, and believed that he had succeeded in making his pastors and teachers aware of a better way. And it was not till there flashed upon him the awful revelation that they were taking up Brunson, that he began to see the real state of affairs. Brunson was the all-round man whom Sixth Form despised,—a fellow who had little or no taste for the higher scholarship, but who always knew his books by heart, mastering everything that would "pay" with a determined practical faculty fertile of results. There is no one for whom the dilettante mind has a greater contempt; and when Warrender saw that Brunson figured at the Rector's dinner-parties as he himself had once done, that it was Brunson who went on the river with parties of young dons and walked out of college arm in arm with his tutor, the whole meaning of his own brief advancement burst upon him. Not for himself, as he had supposed in the youthful simplicity which he called vanity now, and characterised by strong adjectives; not in the least for him, Theo Warrender, scholar and gentleman, but for what he might bring to the college,—the honours, the scholarships, the credit to everybody concerned in producing a successful student. That he became angry, scornful, and Byronic on the spot need surprise nobody. Brunson! who never had come within a hundred miles of him or of his set at school; did not even understand the fine problems which the initiated love to discuss; was nothing but a plodding fellow, who stuck to his work, and cared no more for the real soul of Greek literature or philosophy than the scout did. Warrender laughed aloud,—that hollow laugh, which was once so grand an exponent of feeling, and which, though the Byronic mood has gone out of fashion, will never go out of fashion so long as there is youthful pride to be wounded, and patient merit has to accept the spurns of the unworthy. No, perhaps the adjective is mistaken, if Shakespeare ever was mistaken; not patient, but exasperated merit, conscious to the very finger points of its own deserts.
Warrender was well enough aware that he could, if he chose, make up the lost way and leave Brunson "nowhere" in the race for honours; but it was his first disenchantment, and he felt it deeply. Letters are dear and honours sweet, but our own beloved personality is dearer still; and there is no one who does not feel humbled and wounded when he finds out that he is esteemed, not for himself, but for what he can do,—and poor Theo was only twenty, and had been made much of all his life. He began to ask himself, too, whether his past popularity, the pleasant things that had been always said of him, the pleasant way in which his friendship had been sought, were perhaps all inspired by the same motive,—because he was likely to do credit to his belongings and friends. It is a fine thing to do credit to your belongings, to be the pride of your community, to be quoted to future generations as the hero of the past. This was what had occurred to him at school, and he had liked it immensely. Warrender had been a word to conjure withal, named by lower boys with awe, fondly cherished in the records of Sixth Form. But the glimmer in the Head Master's eye as he said good-bye, the little falter in his tutor's voice,—did these mean no more than an appreciation of his progress, and an anticipation of the honour and glory he was to bring them at the university, a name to fling in the teeth of the newspaper fellows next time they demanded what were the results of the famous public school system? This thought had a sort of maddening effect upon the fastidious, hot-headed, impatient young man. He flung his books into a corner of the room, and covered them over with a yellow cairn of railway novels. If that was all, there let them lie. He resolved that nothing would induce him to touch them more.
The result was—but why should we dwell upon the result? It sent a shiver through the college, where there were some faithful souls who still believed that Warrender could pick up even at the last moment, if he liked. It produced such a sensation in his old school as relaxed discipline entirely, and confounded masters and scholars in one dark discouragement. "Warrender has only got a —— in Mods." We decline to place any number where that blank is; it filled every division (except the lowest) with consternation and dismay. Warrender! who was as sure of a first as—why, there was nobody who was so sure as Warrender! The masters who were Cambridge men recovered their courage after a little, and said, "I told you so! That was a boy who ought to have gone to Cambridge, where individual characteristics are taken into consideration." Warrender's tutor took to his bed, and was not visible for a week, after which only the most unsympathetic, not to say brutal, of his colleagues would have mentioned before him Warrender's name. However, time reconciles all things, and after a while the catastrophe was forgotten and everything was as before.
But not to Warrender himself. He smiled, poor boy, a Byronic smile, with a curl of the upper lip such as suited the part, and saw himself abandoned by the authorities with what he felt to be a lofty disdain; and he relapsed into such studies as pleased him most, and set prescribed books and lectures at defiance. What was worst to bear was that other classes of "men" made up to him, after the men of distinction, those whom the dons considered the best men, had withdrawn and left him to pursue his own way. The men who loafed considered him their natural prey; the aesthetic men who wrote bad verses opened their arms, and were ready to welcome him as their own. And perhaps among these classes he might have found disinterested friendship, for nobody any longer sought Warrender on account of what he could do. But he did not make the trial, wrapping himself up in a Childe-Harold-like superiority to all those who would consort with him, now that he had lost his hold of those with whom only he desired to consort. His mother and sisters felt a little surprised, when they came up to Commemoration, to find that they were not overwhelmed by invitations from Theo's friends. Other ladies had not a spare moment: they were lost in a turmoil of breakfasts, luncheons, water-parties, concerts, flower-shows, and knew the interior of half the rooms in half the colleges. But with the Miss Warrenders this was not so. They were asked to luncheon by Brunson, indeed, and had tea in the rooms of a young Cavendish, who had been at school with Theo. But that was all, and it mortified the girls, who were not prepared to find themselves so much at a disadvantage. This was the only notice that was taken of his downfall at home, where there was no academical ambition, and where everybody was quite satisfied so long as he kept his health and did not get into any scrape. Perhaps this made him feel it all the more, that his disappointment and disenchantment were entirely shut up in his own bosom, and that he could not confide to any one the terrible disillusionment that had befallen him on the very threshold of his life. That the Rector should pass him with the slightest possible nod, and his tutor say "How d'ye do, Warrender?" without even a smile when they met, was nothing to anybody except himself. Arm in arm with Brunson, the don would give him that salutation. Brunson, who had got his first in Mods, and was going on placidly, admired of all, to another first in the final schools.
But if there was any one who understood Warrender's feelings it was this same Brunson, who was in his way an honest fellow, and understood the situation. "It is all pot-hunting, you know," this youth said. "They don't care for me any more than they care for Jenkinson. It's all for what I bring to the college, just as it was for what they expected you were going to bring to the college; only I understood it, and you didn't. I don't care for them any more than they do for me. Why, they might see, if they had any sense, that to work at you, who care for that sort of thing, would be far better than to bother me, who only care for what it will bring. If they had stuck to you they might have done a deal with you, Warrender: whereas I should have done just the same whether they took any notice of me or not."
"You mean to say I'm an empty-headed fool that could be cajoled into anything!" cried the other angrily.
"I mean nothing of the sort. I mean that I'm going to be a schoolmaster, and that first classes, etc., are my stock in trade. You don't suppose I work to please the Rector? And I know, and he knows, and you know, that I don't know a tenth part so much as you do. If they had held on at you, Theo, they might have got a great scholar out of you. But that's not what they want. They want so many firsts, and the Hertford, and the Ireland, and all the rest of it. It's all pot-hunting," Mr. Brunson said. But this did not lessen the effect of the disenchantment, the first disappointment of life. Poor Theo became prone to suspect everybody after that first proof that no one was above suspicion,—not even the greatly respected head of one of the first colleges in the world.
After that dreadful fiasco in the schools, Warrender continued to keep his terms very quietly; seeing very few people, making very few friends, reading after his own fashion with an obstinate indifference to all systems of study, and shutting his eyes persistently to the near approach of the final ordeal. Things were in this condition when he received a sudden telegram calling him home. "Come at once, or you will be too late," was the message. The Rector, to whom he rushed at once, looked at it coldly. He was not fond of giving an undergraduate leave in the middle of the term. "The college could have wished for a more definite message," he said. "Too late for what, Mr. Warrender?" "Too late to see my father alive, sir!" cried the young man; and as this had all the definiteness that the college required he was allowed to go. This was how his studies were broken up just as they approached their conclusion, although, as he had been so capricious and self-willed, nobody expected that in any circumstances it could have been a very satisfactory close.
The elder Mr. Warrender was a country gentleman of an undistinguished kind. The county gentry of England is a very comprehensive class. It includes the very best and most delightful of English men and English women, the truest nobility, the finest gentlemen; but it also includes a number of beings the most limited, dull, and commonplace that human experience knows. In some cases they are people who do well to be proud of the generation of gentlefolk through whom they trace their line, and who have transmitted to them not only the habit of command, but the habit of protection, and that easy grace of living which is not to be acquired at first hand; and there are some whose forefathers have handed down nothing but so many farms and fields, and various traditions, in which father and son follow each other, each smaller and more petty of soul than he that went before. The family at the Warren were of this class. They were acknowledged gentry, beyond all question, but their estates and means were small and their souls smaller. Their income never reached a higher level than about fifteen hundred a year. Their paternal home was a house of rather mean appearance, rebuilt on the ruins of the old one in the end of last century, and consequently as ugly as four square walls could be. The woods had grown up about it, and hid it almost entirely from sight, which was an advantage, perhaps, to the landscape, but not to those who were condemned to dwell in the house, which was without light and air and everything that was cheering. The name of the Warren was very well adapted to the place, which, except one corner of the old house which had stood fast when the rest was pulled down, might almost have been a burrow in the soft green earth, damp and warm and full of the mould of ages, though it was a mere new-comer in the world. Its furniture was almost entirely of the same date as the house, which means dingy carpets, curtains of harsh and unpliable stuff, and immense catafalques of mahogany in the shape of sideboards, arm-chairs, and beds. A four-poster of mahogany, with hangings of red moreen, as stiff as a board and much less soft,—that was the kind of furnishing; to be sure, it was full of feather-beds and pillows, warm blankets and fresh linen, which some people thought made amends.
The family consisted of Mr. and Mrs. Warrender, two daughters, and the son, with whom the reader has already made acquaintance. How he had found his way into such a nest was one of those problems which the prudent evolutionist scarcely cares to tackle. The others were in their natural place: the father a Warrender like the last dozen Warrenders who had gone before him, and the girls cast exactly in the mould of all the previous Minnies and Chattys of the family. They were all dull, blameless, and good—to a certain extent; perfectly satisfied to live in the Warren all the year long, to spend every evening of their lives round the same hearth, to do the same thing to-day as they had done yesterday and should do to-morrow. To be so easily contented, to accommodate one's self with such philosophy to one's circumstances,—what an advantage that is! But it required no philosophy on the part of the girls, who had not imagination enough to think of anything different, and who devoutly believed that nothing on earth was so virtuous, so dignified, so praiseworthy, as to keep the linen in order, and make your own underclothing, and sit round the fire at home. When any one would read aloud to them they wanted no better paradise; but they were not very exacting even in the matter of reading aloud. However exciting the book might be, they were quite willing that it should be put away at a quarter to ten, with a book-marker in it to keep the place. Once Chatty had been known to take it up clandestinely after prayers, to see whether the true murderer was found out; but Minnie waited quite decorously till eight o'clock next evening, which was the right hour for resuming the reading. Happy girls! They thus had in their limited little world quite a happy life, expecting nothing, growing no older from year to year. Minnie was twenty-five, Chatty twenty-three: they were good-looking enough in their quiet way, very neat and tidy, with brown hair so well brushed that it reflected the light. Theodore was the youngest, and he had been very welcome when he came; for otherwise the property would have gone to a distant heir of entail, which would not have been pleasant for any of the family. He had been a very quiet boy so long as he was at home, though not perhaps in the same manner of quietness as that of the girls; but since he was thirteen he had been away for the greater part of the years, appearing only in the holidays, when he was always reading for something or other,—so that nobody was aware how great was the difference between the fastidious young scholar and the rest of his belongings.
Mr. Warrender himself was not a scholar. He had got through life very well without ever being at the university. In his day it was not considered such a necessity as now. And he was not at all critical of his son. So long as the boy got into no scrapes he asked no more of him. He was quite complacent when Theo brought home his school prizes, and used to point them out to visitors. "This is for his Latin verses," he would say. "I don't know where the boy got a turn for poetry. I am sure it was not from me." The beautiful smooth binding and the school arms on the side gave him great gratification. He had a faint notion that as Theo brought home no prizes from Oxford he was not perhaps getting on so well; but naturally he knew nothing of his son's experiences with the Rector and the dons. And by that time he was ill and feverish, and far more taken up about his beef-tea than about anything else in the world. They did not make it half strong enough. If they only would make it strong he felt sure he would soon regain his strength. But how could a man pick up, who was allowed nothing but slops, when his beef-tea was like water? This was the matter that occupied him most, while his son was going through the ordeal above described,—there never was any taste in the beef-tea. Mr. Warrender thought the cook must make away with the meat; or else send the best of the infusion to some of her people in the village, and give it to him watered. When it was made over the fire in his room he said his wife had no skill; she let all the goodness evaporate. He never could be satisfied with his beef-tea; and so, grumbling and indignant, finding no savour in anything, but thoroughly convinced that this was "their" fault, and that they could make it better if they were to try, he dwindled and faded away.
It was a long illness; a family gets used to a long illness, and after a while accepts it as the natural course of events. And the doctor had assured them all that no sudden "change" was to be looked for. Nevertheless, there was a sudden change. It had become the routine of the house that each of the ladies should spend so many hours with papa. Mrs. Warrender was with him, of course, the greater part of the day, and went out and in to see if he was comfortable every hour or two during the night; but one of the girls always sat with him in the evening, bringing her needlework upstairs, and feeling that she was doing her duty in giving up the reading just when the book was at its most interesting point. It was after Chatty had fulfilled this duty, and everybody was serenely preparing to go to bed, that the change came. "How is he?" Mrs. Warrender had said, as they got out the Prayer-Book which was used at family prayers. "Just as usual, mamma: quite quiet and comfortable. I think he was asleep, for he took no notice when I bade him good-night," Chatty said; and then the servants came in, and the little rites were accomplished. Mrs. Warrender then went upstairs, and received the same report from her maid, who sat with the patient in the intervals when the ladies were at prayers. "Quite comfortable, ma'am, and I think he is asleep." Mrs. Warrender went to the bedside and drew back the curtain softly,—the red moreen curtain which was like a board suspended by the head of the bed,—and lo, while they all had been so calm, the change had come.
The girls thought their mother made a great deal more fuss than was necessary; for what could be done? It might be right to send for the doctor, who is an official whose presence is essential at the last act of life; but what was the good of sending a man on horseback into Highcombe, on the chance of the telegraph office being still open? Of course it was not open; and if it had been, Theo could not possibly leave Oxford till next morning. But then it was a well-known fact that mamma was excitable, and often did things without thought. He lingered all night, "just alive, and that is all," the doctor said. It was Chatty who sent for the rector, who came and read the prayers for the sick at the bedside, but agreed with Dr. Durant that it was of no use attempting to rouse the departing soul from the lethargy in which he lay. And before Theodore arrived all was over. He knew it before he entered the house by the sight of the drawn blinds, which received him with a blank whiteness of woe as soon as he caught sight of the windows. They had not sent to meet him at the station, thinking he would not come till the later train.
"Try and get mamma to lie down," Minnie said, as she kissed her brother. "She is going on exciting herself for nothing. I am sure everything was done that could be done, and we can do him no good by making ourselves more miserable now."
Minnie had cried in the early morning as much as was right and natural,—her eyes were still a little red; but she did not think it necessary to begin over again, as Chatty did, who had a tendency to overdo everything, like mamma. As for Theodore, he did not cry at all, but grew very pale, and did not say a word when he was taken into the chamber of death. The sight of that marble, or rather waxen, figure lying there had a greater effect upon his imagination than upon that of either of the girls, who perhaps had not got much imagination to be affected. He was overawed and silenced by that presence, which he had never met before so near. When his mother threw herself into his arms, with that excess of emotion which was peculiar to her, he held her close to him with a throb of answering feeling. The sensation of standing beside that which was not, although it was, his father, went through and through the being of the sensitive young man. Death is always most impressive in the case of a commonplace person, with whom we have no associations but the most ordinary ones of life. What had come to him?—to the mind which had been so much occupied with the quality of his beef-tea? Was it possible that he could have leaped all at once into the contemplation of the highest subjects, or must there not be something intermediate between the beef-tea and the Gloria in Excelsis? This was the thought, inappropriate, unnatural, as he felt it, which came into his mind as he stood by the bed upon which lay that which had been the master of the Warren yesterday, and now was "the body"; a solemn, inanimate thing arranged with dreadful neatness, presently to be taken away and hid out of sight of the living. Tears did not come even when he took his mother into his arms, but only a dumb awe not unmixed with horror, and even that sense of repulsion with which some minds regard the dead.
It was the height of summer, the time at which the Warren looked its best. The sunshine, which scarcely got near it in the darker part of the year, now penetrated the trees on every side, and rushed in as if for a wager, every ray trying how far it could reach into the depths of the shade. It poured full into the drawing-room by one window, so that Minnie was mindful at all times to draw down that blind, that the carpet might not be spoiled; and of course all the blinds were down now. It touched the front of the house in the afternoon, and blazed upon the lawn, making all the flowers wink. Inside, to people who had come out of the heat and scorching of other places more open to the influences of the skies, the coolness of the Warren in June was delightful. The windows stood open, the hum of bees came in, the birds made an unceasing chorus in the trees. Neither birds nor bees took the least notice of the fact that there was death in the house. They carried on their jubilation, their hum of business, their love-making and nursery talk, all the same, and made the house sound not like a house of mourning, but a house of rejoicing; all this harmonious noise being doubly audible in the increased stillness of the place, where Minnie thought it right to speak in a whisper, and Chatty was afraid to go beyond the example of her sister. Mrs. Warrender kept her room, except in the evening, when she would go out with Theo for a little air. Only in the grounds! no farther,—through the woods, which the moonlight pierced with arrows of silver, as far as the pond, which shone like a white mirror with all the great leaves of the water-lilies black upon its surface. But the girls thought that even this was too much. They could not think how she could feel able for it before the funeral. They sat with one shaded lamp and the shutters all closed, "reading a book," which was their severest estimate of gravity. That is to say, each had a book: one a volume of sermons, the other Paradise Lost, which had always been considered Sunday reading by the Warrenders, and came in very conveniently at this moment. They had been busy all day with the maid and the dressmaker from the village, getting their mourning ready. There were serious doubts in their minds how high the crape ought to come on their skirts, and whether a cuff of that material would be enough without other trimmings on the sleeves; but as it was very trying to the eyes to work at black in candlelight, they had laid it all aside out of sight, and so far as was possible out of thought, and composed themselves to read as a suitable occupation for the evening, less cheerful than either coloured or white needlework, and more appropriate. It was very difficult, especially for Minnie, upon whom the chief responsibility would rest, to put that question of the crape out of her thoughts; but she read on in a very determined manner, and it is to be hoped that she succeeded. She felt very deeply the impropriety of her mother's proceedings. She had never herself stirred out-of-doors since her father's death, and would not till after the funeral, should the interests of nations hang on it. She, at least, knew what her duty was, and would do it. Chatty was not so sure on this subject, but she had been more used to follow Minnie than to follow mamma, and she was loyal to her traditions. One window was open a little behind the half-closed shutters, and let in something of the sounds and odours of the night. Chatty was aware that the moon was at the full, and would have liked to stretch her young limbs with a run; but she dared not even think of such a thing in sight of Minnie's face.
"I wonder how long mamma means to stay. One would think she was enjoying it," Minnie said, with a little emphasis on the word. As she used it, it seemed the most reprehensible verb in the world.
"She likes to be with Theo," said Chatty; "and she is always such a one for the air."
"Likes!" said her sister. "Is this a time to think of what one likes, with poor dear papa in his coffin?"
"She never left him as long as he wanted her," said the apologetic sister.
"No, indeed, I should hope not; that would have been criminal. Poor dear mamma would never do anything really bad; but she does not mind if she does a thing that is unusual. It is very unusual to go out before the funeral; it is a thing that is never done, especially by the ladies of the house."
"Shall we be able to go out on Friday, Minnie?" Friday was the funeral day.
"It would be very bad taste, I think. Of course, if it does not prove too much for us, we ought to go to church to meet the procession. Often it is thought to be too much for the ladies of a family."
"I am sure it would not be too much for me. Oh, I shall go as far as we can go with him—to the grave, Minnie."
"You had better wait till you see whether it will not be too much for you," said the elder sister, while Chatty dried her eyes. Minnie's eyes had no need of drying. She had cried at the right time, but it was little more than levity to be always crying. It was nearly as bad as enjoying anything. She did not like extravagance of any kind.
And then they turned to their reading again, and felt that, whatever mamma might think herself at liberty to do, they, at least, were paying that respect to their father's memory which young women in a well-regulated household should always be the first to pay.
Meanwhile the mother and son took their walk. It was a very silent walk, without much outward trace of that enjoyment which Minnie had felt so cruelly out of place: but no doubt to both there was a certain pleasure in it. Mr. Warrender had now been lying in that silent state which the most insignificant person holds immediately after death, for three days, and there was still another to come before he could be laid away in the dark and noisome bed in the family vault, where all the Warrenders made their last assertion of superiority to common clay. This long and awful pause in the affairs of life was intolerable to the two people now walking softly through the paths of the little wood, where the moonbeams shone through the trees; to the son, because he was of an impatient nature, and could not endure the artificial gloom which was thus forced upon him. He had felt keenly all those natural sensations which the loss of a father calls forth: the breaking of an old tie, the oldest in the world; the breach of all the habits of his life; the absence of the familiar greeting, which had always been kind enough, if never enthusiastic; the general overturn and loss of the usual equilibrium in his little world. It was no blame to Theo if his feelings went little further than this. His father had been no active influence in his life. His love had been passive, expressing itself in few words, without sympathy in any of the young man's pursuits, or knowledge of them, or desire to know,—a dull affection because the boy belonged to him, and satisfaction in that he had never got into any scrapes or given any trouble. And the return which the son made was in the same kind. Theo had felt the natural pang of disruption very warmly at the moment; he had felt a great awe and wonder at sight of the mystery of that pale and solemn thing which had lately been so unmysterious and unsolemn. But even these pangs of natural sensation had fallen into a little ache and weariness of custom, and his fastidious soul grew tired of the bonds that kept him, or would have kept him, precisely at the same point of feeling for so many hours and days. This is not possible for any one, above all for a being of his temper, and he was restless beyond measure, and eager to get over this enforced pause, and emerge into the common life and daylight beyond. The drawn blinds somehow created a stifling atmosphere in his very soul.
Mrs. Warrender felt it was indecorous to begin to speak of plans and what was to be done afterwards, so long as her dead husband was still master of the oppressed and melancholy house; but her mind, as may be supposed, was occupied by them in the intervals of other thoughts. She was not of the Warrender breed, but a woman of lively feelings; and as soon as the partner of her life was out of her reach she had begun to torment herself with fears that she had not been so good to him as she ought. There was no truth, at least no fact, in this, for there could have been no better wife or more careful nurse. But yet, as every individual knows more of his or her self than all the rest of the world knows, Mrs. Warrender was aware that there were many things lacking in her conjugal devotion. She had not been the wife she knew how to be; in her heart she had never given herself credit for fulfilling her duty. Oh yes, she had fulfilled all her duties. She had been everything to him that he wanted, that he expected, that he was capable of understanding. But she knew very well that when all is said, that is not everything that can be said; and now that he was dead, and could no longer look in her face with lack-lustre eyes, wondering what the deuce the woman meant, she threw herself back upon her own standard, and knew that she had not come up to it. Even now she could not come up to it. Her heart ought to be desolate; life ought to hold nothing for her but perhaps resignation, perhaps despair. She ought to be beyond all feeling for what was to come. Yet she was not so. On the contrary, new ideas, new plans, had welled up into her mind,—how many, how few hours after she had laid down the charge, in which outwardly she had been so faithful, but inwardly so full of shortcomings? These plans filled her mind now as she went by her son's side through the mossy paths where, even in the height of summer, it was always a little cold. She could not speak of them, feeling a horror of herself, an ashamed sense that to betray the revulsion of her thoughts to her boy would be to put her down from her position in his respect for ever. Between these mutual reluctances to betray what was really in them the two went along very silently, as if they were counting their steps, their heads a little bowed down, the sound of their feet making far more commotion than was necessary in the stillness of the place. To be out-of-doors was something for both of them. They could breathe more freely, and if they could not talk could at least think, without the sense that they were impairing the natural homage of all things to the recently dead.
"Take care, Theo," she said, after a long interval of silence. "It is very damp here."
"Yes, there is a good deal of timber that ought to go." He caught his breath when he had said this, and she gave a slight shiver. They both would have spoken quite freely had the father been alive. "The house is damp, too," said he, taking courage.
"In winter, perhaps, a little, when there is much rain."
And then there was a long pause. When they came within sight of the pond, which glistened under the moonlight, reflecting all the trees in irregular masses, and showing here and there a big white water-lily bud couched upon a dark bank of leaves, he spoke again: "I don't think it can be very healthy, either, to have the pond so near the house."
"You have always had your health, all of you," she said.
"That is true; but not very much of it. We are a subdued sort of family, mother."
"That is because the Warrenders——" She stopped here, feeling the inappropriateness of what she was about to say. It very often happens that a wife has but little opinion of the race to which her husband belongs. She attributes the defects of her own children to that side instinctively. "It is character," she said, "not health."
"But all the same, if we had a little more air and a little less shade——"
He was becoming bolder as he went on.
"Theo," she said tremulously, "it is too soon to begin to talk of that."
And then there was a pause again. When they came to the edge of the pond, and stopped to look at the water-lilies, and at the white flood of the moonlight, and all the clustering masses of the trees that hung round as if to keep it hidden and sheltered, it was she who spoke: "Your father was very fond of this view. Almost the last time he was out we brought him here. He sat down for a long time, and was quite pleased. He cared for beautiful things much more than he ever said."
The thought that passed through Theo's mind was very rapid, that it might well be so, seeing nothing was ever said on the subject; but his remark was, "Very likely, mother," in a soft and soothing voice.
"I should be very sorry to see any—I mean I hope you will not make much alteration here."
"It is too soon," he said hastily, "to speak of that."
"Much too soon," she replied, with a quick sense of shame, taking her son's arm as they turned back. Even to turn back made the burden heavier, and dispelled the little advantage which they had got by the walk.
"There will be, I suppose, a great number of people—on Friday."
"Yes, I think a great number; everybody about."
"What a nuisance! People might have sense enough to know that at such a moment we don't want a lot of strange faces peering at us, finding out how we bear up."
"My dear, it would have pleased him to know everybody would be there."
"I suppose so," said Theo, in a tone which was half angry and half resigned.
"We will have to take a little thought how they are to go. Lord Markland must come first, after the relations."
"Why? They never took much notice of us, and my father never liked him. I don't see why he should come at all."
"Oh yes, he will come, and your dear father would have liked it. The Warrenders have always thought a great deal of such things."
"I am a Warrender, I hope, and I don't."
"Ah, Theo, you! But you are much more like my family," she said, with a little pressure of his arm.
This did not give him so much pleasure as it did her; for, after all, however near a man may be to his mother's family, he generally prefers his own, and the name which it is his to bear. They got back under the thick shadow of the trees when the conversation came to this point, and once more it was impressed upon both that the path was very damp, and that even in June it was difficult to get through without wet feet; but Mrs. Warrender had felt herself checked by her son's reply about the alterations, and Theo felt that to betray how much he was thinking of them would be horrifying to his mother: so they both stepped into the marshy part without a word.
"You are still decided to go on Friday,—you and the girls?"
"Surely, Theo: we are all in good health, Heaven be praised! I should not feel that I had done everything if I did not go."
"You are sure it will not be too much for you, mother?"
This question went to her heart. She knew that it ought to be too much for her. Had she been the wife she ought to have been, the widow with a broken heart, then, perhaps, there might have been a doubt. But she knew also that it would not be too much for her. Her heart ached for the ideal anguish, which nobody looked for, nor would have understood. "He would have liked it," she said, in a subdued voice. That, at least, was quite true: and to carry out all his wishes thus faithfully was something, although she could not pay him the homage which was his due,—the supreme compliment of a broken heart.
At last Friday came. It was a dull day, of the colour most congenial to such a ceremony. A gentle shower fell upon the wreaths and crosses that covered the coffin. There was a large assembly from all the country round, for Mr. Warrender had been a man who never harmed anybody, which is perhaps a greater title to respect than those possess who have taken more trouble. When you try to do good, especially in a rural place, you are sure to stir up animosities; but Mr. Warrender had never stirred up anybody. He was greatly respected. Lord Markland was what the farmers called "a wild young sprig," with little regard to the proprieties; but he was there, and half the clergymen of the diocese, and every country gentleman on the west side of the county. The girls from behind their crape veils watched the procession filing into church, and were deeply gratified; and Mrs. Warrender felt that he would have liked it, and that everything was being done according to his wishes. She said to herself that this was what he would have done for her if she had died first; and immediately there rose before her eyes (also behind her crape veil) a picture of what might have been, had the coffin in the middle of the church been hers; how he would have stepped and looked, and the way in which he would have held out his hand silently to each of the company, and the secret pleasure in the fulfilment of all that was just and right which would have been in his mind. It was instantaneous, it was involuntary, it made her smile against her will; but the smile recalled her to herself, and overwhelmed her with compunction and misery. Smile—when it was he who lay there in the coffin, under that black pall, expecting from her the last observances, and that homage which ought to come from a breaking heart!
The blinds were drawn up when they returned home, the sunshine pouring in, the table spread. Minnie, leading Chatty with her, not without a slight struggle on that young lady's part, retired to her room, and lay down a little, which was the right thing to do. She had a tray brought upstairs, and was not disinclined for her luncheon: mercifully, their presence at the funeral had not been too much for them. And all the mourning was complete and everything in order, even so far as to the jet necklaces which the girls put on when they went down to tea. Mrs. Warrender had been quite overcome on re-entering the house, feeling, though she had so suffered from the long interval before the funeral, that to come back to a place from which he had now been solemnly shut out for ever was more miserable than all that had gone before; for it will be perceived that she was not of the steady mettle of the others, but a fantastic woman, who changed her mind very often, and whose feelings were always betraying her. The funeral had been early, and the distant visitors had been able to leave in good time, so that there was no need for a large luncheon party; and the lawyer and a cousin of Mr. Warrender's were the only strangers who shared that meal with the mother and son. Then, as a proper period had now been arrived at, and as solicitors rush in where heirs fear to tread, open questions were asked about the plans of the family and what Theo meant to do. He said at once, "I see no need for plans. Why should there be any discussion of plans? So far as outward circumstances go, what change is there? My mother and the girls will just go on as usual, and I, of course, will go back to Oxford. It will be more than a year before I can take my degree."
He thought—but no doubt he must have been mistaken—that a blank look came over his mother's face; but it was so impossible that she could have thought of anything else that he dismissed the idea from his mind. She said nothing, but Mr. Longstaffe replied—
"At present that is no doubt the wisest way; but I think it is always well that people should understand each other at once and provide for all emergencies, so that there may be no wounded feeling, or that sort of thing, hereafter. You know, Mrs. Warrender, that the house in Highcombe has always been the jointure house?"
"Yes," she said, with a certain liveliness in her answer, almost eagerness. "My husband has often told me so."
"We are authorised to put it in perfect repair, and you are authorised to choose whatever you please out of the furniture at the Warren to make it according to your taste. Perhaps we had better do that at once, and put it into your hands. If you don't live there, you can let it, or lend it, or make some use of it."
"It might be convenient," Mrs. Warrender said, with a slight hesitation, "if Theodore means, as I suppose he does, to carry out improvements here."
And yet she had implored him yesterday not to make many alterations! Theo felt a touch of offence with his mother. He began to think there was something in the things the girls used to say, that you never knew when you had mamma, or whether she might not turn upon you in a moment. She grew much more energetic, all at once, and even her figure lost the slight stoop of languor that was in it. "If you are going to cut any trees, or do any drainage, Theo, we could all live there while the works went on."
He gave a slight start in person, and a much greater in spirit, and a fastidious curve came to his forehead. "I don't know that I shall cut any trees now. You know you said the other day, We can talk of that after."
"Oh yes, it is early days," said the lawyer. "Of course it is not as if there were other heirs coming in, or any compulsory division were to be made. You can take your time. But I have always observed that things went smoother when it was understood from the first, in case of a certain emergency arising, or new conditions of any kind, so and so should follow. You understand what I mean."
"It is always wisest," said the Warrender cousin, "to have it all put down hard and fast, so that nobody may be disappointed, whatever should happen. Of course Theo will marry."
"I hope so," said his mother, permitting herself to smile.
"Of course he will marry," said the lawyer.
"But he had better take his degree first," the cousin added, feeling that he had distinguished himself; "and in the meantime the girls and you will have time to look about you. Highcombe is rather a dull place. And then the house is large. You could not get on in it with less than four or five servants."
"Four would do," said Mr. Longstaffe.
"And supposing my cousin kept a pony chaise, or something? She could not get on without a pony chaise. That means another."
Theodore pushed back his chair from the table with a harsh peremptoriness, startling them all. "I am sure my mother doesn't want to go into these calculations," he said; "neither do I. Leave us alone to settle what we find to be best."
"Dear me," said cousin Warrender, "I hope you don't imagine me to have any wish to interfere." Theo did not make any reply, but gave his mother his arm, and led her upstairs.
"I did not wish you to be troubled with business at all; certainly not to-day," he said to her, half apologetically. But there was something in her face which he did not quite understand, as she thanked him and smiled, with an inclination to cry. Was it possible that she was a little disappointed to have the discussion stopped, and that she took much interest in it, and contemplated not at all with displeasure the prospect of an entire change in her life?
It will be divined from what has been said that there was one element in the life at the Warren which has not yet been entered into, and that was Mrs. Warrender. The family were dull, respectable, and proper to their fingers' ends. But she was not dull. She had been Mr. Warrender's wife for six-and-twenty years,—the wife of a dull, good man, who never wanted any variety in his life, who needed no change, no outbursts of laughter or tears, nothing to carry away the superabundance of the waters of life. With him there had been no superabundance, there had never been any floods; consequently there was no outlet necessary to carry them away. But she was a woman of another sort: she was born to hunger for variety, to want change, to desire everything that was sweet and pleasant. And lo! fate bound her to the dullest life,—to marry Mr. Warrender, to live in the Warren. She had not felt it so much in the earlier part of her life, for then she had to some extent what her spirit craved. She had children: and every such event in a woman's life is like what going into battle is to a man,—a thing for which all his spirits collect themselves, which she may come out of or may not, an enormous risk, a great crisis. And when the children were young, before they had as yet betrayed themselves what manner of spirits they were, she had her share of the laughter and the tears; playing with her babies, living for them, singing to them, filling her life with them, and expecting as they grew up that all would be well. Many women live upon this hope. They have not had the completion of life in marriage which some have; they have failed in the great lottery, either by their own fault or the fault of others: but the children, they say to themselves, will make all right. The desillusionment which takes this form is the most bitter of all. The woman who has not found in her husband that dearest friend, whose companionship can alone make life happy, when she discovers after a while that the children in whom she has placed her last hope are his children, and not hers,—what is to become of her? She is thrown back upon her own individuality with a shock which is often more than flesh and blood can bear. In Mrs. Warrender's case this was not, as in some cases, a tragical discovery, but it had an exasperating and oppressive character which was almost more terrible. She had been able to breathe while they were children; but when they grew up they stifled her, each with the same "host of petty maxims" which had darkened the still air from her husband's lips. How, in face of the fact that she had been their teacher and guide far more than their father ever was, they should have learned these, and put aside everything that was like her or expressed her sentiments, was a mystery which she never could solve; but so it was. Mr. Warrender was what is called a very good father. He did not spoil them; bonbons of any kind, physical or spiritual, never came to them from his hands. He could not be troubled with them much as babies, but when they grew old enough to walk and ride with him he liked their company; and they resembled him, which is always flattering. But he had taken very little notice of them during the first twelve years or so of their life. During that time they had been entirely in their mother's hands, hearing her opinions, regulated outwardly by her will: and yet they grew up their father's children, and not hers! How strange it was, with a touch of the comic which made her laugh!—that laugh of exasperation and impatience which marks the intolerable almost more than tears do. How was it? Can any one explain this mystery? She was of a much more vivacious, robust, and vigorous race than he was, for the level of health among the Warrenders, like the level of being generally, was low; but this lively, warm-blooded, energetic creature was swallowed up in the dull current of the family life, and did not affect it at all. She nursed them, ruled them, breathed her life into them, in vain: they were their father's children,—they were Warrenders born.
This was not precisely the case with Theo, her only son. To him she had transmitted something; not her energy and love of life, but rather something of that exasperated impatience which was so often the temper of her mind in later years, though suppressed by all the powers of self-control she possessed, and modified, happily, by the versatility of her nature, which could not brood and mope over one subject, however deeply that might enter into her life. This impatience took in him the form of a fastidious intolerance, a disposition to start aside at a touch, to put up with nothing, to hear no reason even, when he was offended or crossed. He was like a restive horse, whom the mere movement of a shadow, much more the touch of a rein or the faintest vibration of a whip, sets off in the wildest gallop of nervous self-will or self-assertion. The horse, it is to be supposed, desires his own way as much as the man does when he bolts or starts. Theo was in this respect wonderfully unlike the strain of the Warrenders, but he was not on that account more like his mother; and he had so much of the calm of the paternal blood in his veins along with this unmanageableness that he was as contented as the rest with the quiet of the home life, and so long as he was permitted to shut himself up with his book wished for no distraction,—nay, disliked it, and thought society and amusements an intolerable bore.
Thus it was the mother alone to whom the thought of change was pleasant. A woman of forty-five in widow's weeds, who had just nursed her husband through a long illness and lost him, and whose life since she was nineteen had been spent in this quiet house among all these still surroundings, amid the unchangeable traditions of rural life,—who could have ventured to imagine the devouring impatience that was within her, the desire to flee, to shake the dust off her feet, to leave her home and all her associations, to get out into the world and breathe a larger air and be free? Sons and daughters may entertain such sentiments; even the girls, whose life, no doubt, had been a dull one, might be supposed willing enough, with a faint pretence of natural and traditionary reluctance, and those few natural tears which are wiped so soon, to leave home and see the world. But the mother! In ordinary circumstances it would have been the duty of the historian to set forth the hardness of Mrs. Warrender's case, deprived at once, by her husband's death, not only of her companion and protector, but of her home and position as head of an important house. Such a case is no doubt often a hard one. It adds a hundred little humiliations to grief, and makes bereavement downfall, the overthrow of a woman's importance in the world, and her exile from the sphere in which she has spent her life. We should be far more sure of the reader's sympathy if we pictured her visiting for the last time all the familiar haunts of past years, tearing herself away from the beloved rooms, feeling the world a blank before her as she turned away.
On the contrary, it is scarcely possible to describe the chill of disappointment in her mind when Theo put an abrupt stop to all speculations, and offered her his arm to lead her upstairs. She ought, perhaps, to have wanted his support to go upstairs, after all, as her maid said, that she had "gone through": but she did not feel the necessity. She would have preferred much to know what was going to be done, to talk over everything, to be able to express without further sense that they were premature and inappropriate, as much as it would be expedient to express of her own wishes. The absolute repression of those five dark days, during which she had said nothing, had been almost more intolerable to her than years of the repression which was past. When you know that nothing you can do or say is of any use, and that whatsoever struggle you may make will be wholly ineffectual to change your lot, it is comparatively easy, in the composure of impossibility, to keep yourself down; but when all at once you become again master of your own fate, even a temporary curb becomes intolerable. Mrs. Warrender went into her room by the compulsion of her son and conventional propriety, and was supposed to lie down on the sofa and rest for an hour or two. Her maid arranged the cushions for her, threw a shawl over her feet, and left her on tip-toe, shutting the door with elaborate precautions. Mrs. Warrender remained still for nearly half an hour. She wept, with a strange mixture of feelings; partly out of a poignant sense of the fictitiousness of all these observances by which people were supposed to show "respect" to the dead, and partly out of a real aching of the heart and miserable sense that even now, that certainly by and by, the man who had been so all-important a little while ago would be as if he had not been. She wept for him, and yet at the same time wept because she could not weep more for him, because the place which knew him had already begun to know him no more, and because of the sham affliction with which they were all supplementing the true. It was she who shed the truest tears, but it was she also who rebelled most at the make-believe which convention forced upon her; and the usual sense of hopeless exasperation was strong in her mind. After a while she threw off the shawl from her feet and the cushions that supported her shoulders, and got up and walked about the room, looking out upon the afternoon sunshine and the trees that were turning their shadows to the east. How she longed, with a fervour scarcely explainable, not at all comprehensible to most people, to leave the place, to open her wings in a large atmosphere, to get free!
At half-past four o'clock Minnie and Chatty went down to tea. They were to the minute, and their mother heard them with a half smile. It was always time enough for her to smooth her hair and her collar, and take a new handkerchief from her drawer, when she heard the sisters close their door. She went downstairs after them, in her gown covered with crape, with her snowy cap, which gave dignity to her appearance. Her widow's dress was very becoming to her, as it is to so many people. She had a pretty complexion, pure red and white, though the colour was perhaps a little broken, and not so smooth as a girl's; and her eyes were brown and bright. Notwithstanding the weeks of watching she had gone through, the strain of everything that had passed, she made little show of her trouble. Her eye was not dim, nor her natural force abated. The girls were dull in complexion and aspect, but their mother was not so. As she came into the room there came with her a brightness, a sense of living, which was inappropriate to the hour and the place.
"Where is Theo?" she asked.
"He is coming in presently; at least, I called to him as he went out, and told him tea was ready, and he said he would be in presently," Chatty replied.
"I wish he would have stayed, if it had even been in the grounds, to-day," said Minnie. "It will look so strange to see him walking about as if nothing had happened."
"He has been very good; he has conformed to all our little rules," said the mother, with a sigh.
"Little rules, mamma? Don't you think it of importance, then, that every respect——"
"My dear," said Mrs. Warrender, "I am tired of hearing of every respect. Theo was always respectful and affectionate. I would not misconstrue him even if it should prove that he has taken a walk."
"On the day of dear papa's funeral!" cried Minnie, with a voice unmoved.
Mrs. Warrender turned away without any reply; partly because the tears sprang into her eyes at the matter-of-fact statement, and partly because her patience was exhausted.
"Have you settled, mamma, what he is going to do?" said Chatty.
"It is not for me to decide. He is twenty-one; he is his own master. You have not," Mrs. Warrender said, "taken time to think yet of the change in our circumstances. Theo is now master here. Everything is his to do as he pleases."
"Everything!" said the girls in chorus, opening their eyes.
"I mean, of course, everything but what is yours and what is mine. You know your father's will. He has been very just, very kind, as he always was." She paused a little, and then went on: "But your brother, as you know, is now the master here. We must understand what his wishes are before we can settle on anything."
"Why shouldn't we go on as we always have done?" said Minnie. "Theo is too young to marry; besides, it would not be decent for a time, even if he wanted to, which I am sure he does not. I don't see why he should make any change. There is nowhere we can be so well as at home."
"Oh, nowhere!" said Chatty.
Their mother sat and looked at them, with a dull throb in her heart. They had sentiment and right on their side, and nature too. Everybody would agree that for a bereaved family there was no place so good as home,—the house in which they were born and where they had lived all their life. She looked at them blankly, feeling how unnatural, how almost wicked, was the longing in her own mind to get away, to escape into some place where she could take large breaths and feel a wide sky over her. But how was she to say it, how even to conclude what she had been saying, feeling how inharmonious it was with everything around?
"Still," she said meekly, "I am of Mr. Longstaffe's opinion that everything should be fully understood between us from the first. If we all went on just the same, it might be very painful to Theo, when the time came for him to marry (not now; of course there is no question of that now), to feel that he could not do so without turning his mother and sisters out-of-doors."
"Why should he marry, so long as he has us? It is not as if he had nobody, and wanted some one to make him a home. What would he do with the house if we were to leave it? Would he let it? I don't believe he could let it. It would set everybody talking. Why should he turn his mother and sisters out-of-doors? Oh, I never thought of anything so dreadful!" cried Minnie and Chatty, one uttering one exclamation, and another the other. They were very literal, and in the minds of both the grievance was at once taken for granted. "Oh, I never could have thought such a thing of Theo,—our own brother, and younger than we are!"
The mother had made two or three ineffectual attempts to stem the tide of indignation. "Theo is thinking of nothing of the kind," she said at last, when they were out of breath. "I only say that he must not feel he has but that alternative when the time comes, when he may wish—when it may be expedient——No, no, he has never thought of such a thing. I only say it for the sake of the future, to forestall after-complications."
"Oh, I wish you wouldn't frighten one, mamma! I thought you had heard about some girl he had picked up at Oxford, or something. I thought we should have to turn out, to leave the Warren—which would break my heart."
"And mine too,—and mine too!" cried Chatty.
"Where we have always been so happy, with nothing to disturb us!"
"Oh, so happy! always the same, one day after another! It will be different," said the younger sister, crying a little, "now that dear papa—— But still no place ever can be like home."
And there was the guilty woman sitting by, listening to everything they said; feeling how good, how natural, it was,—and still more natural, still more seemly, for her, at her age, than for them at theirs,—yet conscious that this house was a prison to her, and that of all things in the world that which she wanted most was to be turned out and driven away!
"My dears," she said, not daring to betray this feeling, "if I have frightened you, I did not mean to do it. The house in Highcombe, you know, is mine. It will be our home if—if anything should happen. I thought it might be wise to have that ready, to make it our headquarters, in case—in case Theo should carry out the improvements."
"Improvements!" they cried with one voice. "What improvements? How could the Warren be improved?"
"You must not speak to me in such a tone. There has always been a question of cutting down some of the trees."
"But papa would never agree to it; papa said he would never consent to it."
"I think," said Mrs. Warrender, with a guilty blush, "that he—had begun to change his mind."
"Only when he was growing weak, then,—only when you over-persuaded him."
"Minnie! I see that your brother was right, and that this is not a time for any discussion," Mrs. Warrender said.
There was again a silence: and they all came back to the original state of mind from which they started, and remembered that quiet and subdued tones and an incapacity for the consideration of secular subjects were the proper mental attitude for all that remained of this day.
It was not, however, long that this becoming condition lasted. Sounds were heard as of voices in the distance, and then some one running at full speed across the gravel drive in front of the door, and through the hall. Minnie had risen up in horror to stop this interruption, when the door burst open, and Theo, pale and excited, rushed in. "Mother," he cried, "there has been a dreadful accident. Markland has been thrown by those wild brutes of his, and I don't know what has happened to him. It was just at the gates, and they are bringing him here. There is no help for it. Where can they take him to?"
Mrs. Warrender rose to her feet at once; her heart rising too almost with pleasure to the thrill of a new event. She hurried out to open the door of a large vacant room on the ground floor. "What was Lord Markland doing here?" she said. "He ought to have reached home long ago."
"He has been in that house in the village, mother. They seemed to think everybody would understand. I don't know what he has to do there."
"He has nothing to do there. Oh, Theo, that poor young wife of his! And had he the heart to go from—from—us, in our trouble—there!"
"He seems to have paid for it, whatever was wrong in it. Go back to the drawing-room, for here they are coming."
"Theo, they are carrying him as if he were——"
"Go back to the drawing-room, mother. Whatever it is, it cannot be helped," Theodore said. He did not mean it, but there was something in his tone which reminded everybody—the servants, who naturally came rushing to see what was the matter, and Mrs. Warrender, who withdrew at his bidding—that he was now the master of the house.
Markland was a much more important place than the Warren. It was one of the chief places in the county in which the family had for many generations held so great a position. It was a large building, with all that irregularity of architecture which is dear to the English mind,—a record of the generations which had passed through it and added to it, in itself a noble historical monument, full of indications of the past. But it lost much of its effect upon the mind from the fact that it was in much less good order than is usual with houses of similar pretensions; and above all because the wood around it had been wantonly and wastefully cut, and it stood almost unsheltered upon its little eminence, with only a few seedling trees, weedy and long, like boys who had outgrown their strength, straggling about the heights. The house itself was thus left bare to all the winds. An old cedar, very large but very feeble, in the tottering condition of old age to which some trees, like men, come, with two or three of its longest branches torn off by storm and decay, interposed its dark foliage over the lower roof of the west wing, and gave a little appearance of shelter, and a few Lombardy poplars and light-leaved young birches made a thin and interrupted screen to the east; but the house stood clear of these light and frivolous young attendants in a nakedness which made the spectator shiver. The wood in the long avenue had been thinned in almost the same ruthless way, but here and there were shady corners, where old trees, not worth much in the market, but very valuable to the landscape, laid their heads together like ancient retainers, and rustled and nodded their disapproval of the devastation around.
Young Lady Markland, with her boy, on the afternoon of the June day on which Mr. Warrender was buried, walked up and down for some time in front of the house, casting many anxious looks down the avenue, by which, in its present denuded state, every approaching visitor was so easily visible. She was still very young, though her child was about eight; she having been married, so to speak, out of the nursery, a young creature of sixteen, a motherless girl, with no one to investigate too closely into the character of the young lover, who was not much more than a boy himself, and between whom and his girlish bride a hot, foolish young love had sprung up like a mushroom, in a week or two of acquaintance. She was twenty-five, but did not look her age. She was small in stature,—one of those exquisitely neat little women whose perfection of costume and appearance no external accident disturbs. Her dress had the look of being moulded on her light little figure; her hair was like brown satin, smooth as a mirror and reflecting the light. She did not possess the large grace of abstract beauty. There was nothing statuesque, nothing majestic, about her, but a kind of mild perfection, a fitness and harmony which called forth the approval of the more serious-minded portion of humanity as well as the admiration of the younger and more frivolous.
It was generally known in the county that this young lady had far from a happy life. She had been married in haste and over-confidence by guardians who, if not glad to be rid of her, were at least pleased to feel that their responsibility was over, and the orphan safe in her husband's care, without taking too much pains to prove that the husband was worthy of that charge, or that there was much reasonable prospect of his devotion to it. Young Markland, it was understood, had sown his wild oats somewhat plentifully at Oxford and elsewhere; and it was therefore supposed, with very little logic, that there were no more to sow. But this had not proved to be the case, and almost before his young wife had reached the age of understanding, and was able to put two and two together, he had run through the fortune she brought him—not a very large one—and made her heart ache, which was worse, as hearts under twenty ought never to learn how to ache. She was not a happy wife. The country all about, the servants, and every villager near knew it, but not from Lady Markland. She was very loyal, which is a noble quality, and very proud, which in some cases does duty as a noble quality, and is accepted as such. What were the secrets of her married life no one ever heard from her; and fortunately those griefs which were open to all the world never reached her, at least in detail. She did not know, save vaguely, in what society her husband spent the frequent absences which separated him from her. She did not know what kind of friends he made, what houses he frequented, even in his own neighbourhood; and she was still under the impression that many of her wrongs were known by herself alone, and that his character had suffered but little in the eyes of the world.
There was one person, however, from whom she had not been able to hide these wrongs, and that was her child;—her only child. There had been two other babies, dead at their birth or immediately after, but Geoff was the only one who had lived, her constant companion, counsellor, and aid. At eight years old! Those who had never known what a child can be at that age, when thus entrusted with the perilous deposit of the family secrets, and elevated to the post which his father ought but did not care to fill, were apt to think little Geoff's development unnatural; and others thought, with reason, that it was bad for the little fellow to be so constantly with his mother, and it was said among the Markland relations that as he was now growing a great boy he ought to be sent to school Poor little Geoff! He was not a great boy, nor ever would be. He was small, chetif, unbeautiful; a little sandy-haired, sandy-complexioned, insignificant boy, with no features to speak of and no stamina, short for his age and of uncertain health, which had indeed been the first reason of that constant association with his mother which was supposed to be so bad for him. During the first years of his life, which had been broken by continual illness, it was only her perpetual care that kept him alive at all. She had never left him, never given up the charge of him to any one; watched him by night and lived with him by day. His careless father would sometimes say, in one of those brags which show a heart of shame even in the breast of the vicious, that if he had not left her so much to herself, if he had dragged her about into society, as so many men did their wives, she never would have kept her boy; and perhaps there was some truth in it. While he pursued his pleasures in regions where no wife could accompany him, she was free to devote all her life, and to find out every new expedient that skill or science had thought of to lengthen out the child's feeble days, and to gain time to make a cure possible. He would never be very strong was the verdict now, but with care he would live: and it was she who had over again breathed life into him. This made the tie a double one; not out of gratitude, for the child knew of no such secondary sentiment, but out of the redoubled love which their constant association called forth. They did not talk together of any family sorrows. It was never intimated between them that anything wrong happened when papa was late and mamma anxious, or when there were people at Markland who were not nice,—oh, not a word; but the child was anxious as well as mamma. He too got the habit of watching, listening for the hurried step, the wild rattle of the phaeton with those two wild horses, which Lord Markland insisted on driving, up the avenue. He knew everything, partly by observation, partly by instinct. He walked with his mother now, clinging with both hands to her arm, his head nearly on a level with her shoulder, and close, close to it, almost touching, his little person confused in the outline of her dress. The sunshine lay full along the line of the avenue, just broken in two or three places by the shadow of those old and useless trees, but without a speck upon it or a sound.
"I don't think papa can be coming, Geoff, and it is time you had your tea."
"Never mind me. I'll go and take it by myself, if you want me to, and you can wait here."
"Why?" she said. "It will not bring him home a moment sooner, as you and I know."
"No, but it feels as if it made him come; and you can see as far as the gate. It takes a long time to drive up the avenue. Oh yes, stop here; you will like that best."
"I am so silly," she said, which was her constant excuse. "When you are grown up, Geoff, I shall always be watching for you."
"That you shan't," said the boy. "I'll never leave you. You have had enough of that."
"Oh yes, my darling, you will leave me. I shall want you to leave me. A boy cannot be always with his mother. Come, now, I am going to be strong-minded. Let us go in. I am a little tired, I think."
"Perhaps the funeral was later than he thought," said the boy.
"Perhaps. It was very kind of papa to go. He does not like things of that kind; and he was not over-fond of Mr. Warrender, who, though he was very good, was a little dull. Papa doesn't like dull people."
"No. Do you like Theo Warrender, mamma?"
"Well enough," said Lady Markland. "I don't know him very much."
"I like him," said the child. "He knows a lot: he told me how to do that Latin. He is the sort of man I should like for my tutor."
"But he is a gentleman, Geoff. I mean, he would never be a tutor. He is as well off as we are,—perhaps better."
"Are men tutors only when they are not well off?"
"Well, dear, generally when they require the money. You could not expect young Mr. Warrender to come here and take a great deal of trouble, merely for the pleasure of teaching you."
"Why not?" said Geoff. "Isn't it a fine thing to teach children? It was you that said so, mamma."
"For me, dear, that am your mother; but not for a gentleman who is not even a relation."
"Gentlemen, to be sure, are different," said Geoff, with an air of deliberation. "There's papa, for instance——"
His mother threw up her hand suddenly. "Hark, Geoff! Do you hear anything?"
They had come indoors while this talk was going on, and were now seated in a large but rather shabby sitting-room, which was full of Geoff's toys and books. The windows were wide open, but the sounds from without came in subdued; for this room was at the back of the house, and at some distance from the avenue. They were both silent for some moments, listening, and then Lady Markland said, with an air of relief, "Papa is coming. I hear the sound of the phaeton."
"That is not the phaeton, mamma; that is only one horse," said Geoff, whose senses were very keen. When Lady Markland had listened a little longer, she acquiesced in this opinion.
"It will be some one coming to call," she said, with an air of resignation; and then they went on with their talk.
"Gentlemen are different; they don't take the charge of the children like you. However, in books," said Geoff, "the fathers very often are a great deal of good; they tell you all sorts of things. But books are not very like real life; do you think they are? Even Frank, in Miss Edgeworth, though you say he is so good, doesn't do things like me. I mean, I should never think of doing things like him; and no little girl would ever be so silly. Now, mamma, say true, what do you think? Would any little girl ever be so silly as to want the big bottle out of a physic shop? Girls may be silly, but not so bad as that."
"Perhaps, let us hope, she didn't know so much about physic shops, as you call them, as you do, my poor boy. I wonder who can be calling to-day, Geoff! I should have thought that everybody near would be thinking of the Warrenders, and—— It is coming very fast, don't you think? But it does not sound like the phaeton."
"Oh no, it is not the phaeton. I'll go and look," said Geoff. He came back in a moment, crying, "I told you—it's a brougham! Coming at such a pace!"
"I wonder who it can be!" Lady Markland said.
And when the boy resumed his talk she listened with inattention, trying in vain to keep her interest fixed on what he was saying, making vague replies, turning over a hundred possibilities in her mind, but by some strange dulness, such as is usual enough in similar circumstances, never thinking of the real cause. What danger could there be to Markland in a drive of half a dozen miles, in the daylight; what risk in Mr. Warrender's funeral? The sense that something which was not an ordinary visit was coming grew stronger and stronger upon her, but of the news which was about to reach her she never thought at all.
At last the door opened. She rose hastily, unable to control herself, to meet it, whatever it was. It was not a ceremonious servant announcing a visit, but Theo Warrender, pale as death itself, with a whole tragic volume in his face, but speechless, not knowing, now that he stood before her, what to say, who appeared in the doorway. He had hurried off, bringing his mother's little brougham to carry the young wife to her husband's bedside; but it was not until he looked into her face and heard the low cry that burst from her that he realised what he had to tell. He had forgotten that a man requires all his skill and no small preparation to enable him to tell a young woman that her husband, who left her in perfect health a few hours before, was now on the brink of death. He stopped short on the threshold, awed by this thought, and only stared at her, not knowing what to say.
"Mr. Warrender!" she said, with the utmost surprise; then, with growing wonder and alarm, "You have come—— Something has happened!"
"Lady Markland—yes, there has been an accident. My mother—sent me with the brougham. I came off at once. Will you go back with me? The horse is very fast, and you can be there in half an hour."
This was all he could find to say. She went up to him, holding out her hands in an almost speechless appeal. "Why for me? Why for me? What has it got to do with me?"
He did not know how to answer her question. "Lady Markland!" he cried, "your husband——" and said no more.
She was at the door of the brougham in a moment. She had not taken off her garden hat, and she wanted no preparation. The child sprang to her side, caught her arm, and went with her without a word or question, as if that were undeniably his place. Everybody knew and remarked upon the singular union between the neglected young wife and her only child, but Warrender felt, he could scarcely tell why, that it annoyed and irritated him at this moment. When he put her into the carriage, and the boy clambered after her, he was unaccountably vexed by it,—so much vexed that his profound sympathy for the poor lady seemed somehow checked. Instead of following them into the carriage, which was not a very roomy one, he shut the door upon them sharply. "I will walk," he said. "I am not needed. Right, Jarvis, as fast as you can go." He stood by to see them dash off, Lady Markland giving him a surprised yet half-relieved look, in the paleness of her anxiety and misery. Then it suddenly became apparent to him that he had done what was best and most delicate, though without meaning it, out of the sudden annoyance which had risen within him. It was the best thing he could have done: but to walk six miles at the end of a fatiguing and trying day was not agreeable, and the sense of irritation was strong in him. "If ever I have anything to do with that boy——" he said involuntarily within himself. But what could he ever have to do with the boy, who probably by this time, little puny thing that he was, was Lord Markland, and the owner of all this great, bare, unhappy-looking place, eaten up by the locusts of waste and ruin.
The butler, an old servant, had been anxiously trying all this time to catch his eye. He came up now, as Warrender turned to follow on foot the carriage, which was already almost out of sight. "I beg your pardon, sir," he said, with the servant's usual formula, "but I've sent round for the dogcart, if you'll be so kind as to wait a few minutes. None of us, sir, but feels your kindness, coming yourself for my lady, and leaving her alone in her trouble, poor dear. Mr. Warrender, sir, if I may make so bold, what is the fact about my lord? Yes, sir, I heard what you told my lady; but I thought you would nat'rally say the best, not to frighten her. Is there any hope?"
"Not much, I fear. He was thrown out violently, and struck against a tree; they are afraid that his spine is injured."
"Oh, sir, so young! and oh, so careless! God help us, Mr. Warrender, we never know a step before us, do we, sir? If it's the spine, it will be no pain; and him so joky, more than his usual, going off them very steps this morning, though he was going to a funeral. Oh, Mr. Warrender, that I should speak so light, forgetting—— God bless us, what an awful thing, sir, after what has happened already, to happen in your house!"
Warrender answered with a nod,—he had no heart to speak; and, refusing the dogcart, he set out on his walk home. An exquisite summer night: everything harsh stilled out of the atmosphere; the sounds of labour ceasing; a calm as of profoundest peace stealing over everything. The soft and subdued pain of his natural grief, hushed by that fatigue and exhaustion of both body and mind which a long strain produces, was not out of accord with the calm of nature. But very different was the harsh note of the new calamity, which had struck not the house in which the tragedy was being enacted, but this one, which lay bare and naked in the last light of the sinking sun. So young and so careless! So young, so wasteful of life and all that life had to give, and now parted from it, taken from it at a blow!
Lord Markland died at the Warren that night. He never recovered consciousness, nor knew that his wife was by his side through all the dreadful darkening of the summer evening, which seemed to image forth in every new tone of gathering gloom the going out of life. They told her as much as was necessary of the circumstances,—how, the distance between the Warren and the churchyard being so short, and the whole cortege on foot, Lord Markland's carriage had been left in the village; how he had stayed there to luncheon (presumably with the rector, for no particulars were given, nor did the bewildered young woman ask for any), which was the reason of his delay. The rest was very easily explained: everybody had said to him that "some accident" would happen one day or other with the horses he insisted on driving, and the prophecy had been fulfilled. Such prophecies are always fulfilled. Lady Markland was very quiet, accepting that extraordinary revolution in her life with a look of marble, and words that betrayed nothing. Was she broken-hearted? was she only stunned by the suddenness, the awe, of such a catastrophe? The boy clung to her, yet without a tear, pale and silent, but never, even when the words were said that all was over, breaking forth into any childish outburst. He sat on the floor in her shadow, even when she was watching by the deathbed, never left her, keeping always a hold upon her arm, her hand, or her dress. Mrs. Warrender would have taken him away, and put him to bed,—it was so bad for him; but the boy opposed a steady resistance, and Lady Markland put down her hand to him, not seeing how wrong it was to indulge him, all the ladies said. After this, of course nothing could be done, and he remained with her through all that followed. What followed was strange enough to have afforded a scene for a tragedy. Lady Markland asked to speak to Warrender, who had retired, leaving his mother, as was natural, to manage everything. He came to her at the door of the room which had so suddenly, with its bare, unused look, in the darkness of a few flickering candles, become a sort of presence chamber filled with the solemnity of dying. Her little figure, so neat and orderly, an embodiment of the settled peace and calm of life having nothing to do with tragedies, with the child close pressed against her side, his pale face looking as hers did, pale too and stony—never altogether passed from the memory of the man who came, reluctant, almost afraid, to hear what she had to say to him. It was like a picture against the darkness of the room,—a darkness both physical and moral, which centred in the curtained gloom behind, about which two shadowy figures were busy. Often and with very different sentiments he saw this group again, but never wholly forgot it, or had it effaced from the depths of his memory.