H. RIDER HAGGARD
"Our natures languish incomplete; Something obtuse in this our star Shackles the spirit's winged feet; But a glory moves us from afar, And we know that we are strong and fleet." Edmund Ollier.
"Once more I behold the face of her Whose actions all had the character Of an inexpressible charm, expressed; Whose movements flowed from a centre of rest, And whose rest was that of a swallow, rife With the instinct of reposing life; Whose mirth had a sadness all the while It sparkled and laughed, and whose sadness lay In the heaven of such a crystal smile That you longed to travel the self-same way To the brightness of sorrow. For round her breathed A grace like that of the general air, Which softens the sharp extremes of things, And connects by its subtle, invisible stair The lowest and the highest. She interwreathed Her mortal obscureness with so much light Of the world unrisen, that angel's wings Could hardly have given her greater right To float in the winds of the Infinity." Edmund Ollier.
"You lie; you always were a liar, and you always will be a liar. You told my father how I spent the money."
"Well, and what if I did? I had to look after myself, I suppose. You forget that I am only here on sufferance, whilst you are the son of the house. It does not matter to you, but he would have turned me out of doors," whined George.
"Oh! curse your fine words; it's you who forget, you swab. Ay, it's you who forget that you asked me to take the money to the gambling- tent, and made me promise that you should have half of what we won, but that I should play for both. What, are you beginning to remember now—is it coming back to you after a whole month? I am going to quicken your memory up presently, I can tell you; I have got a good deal to pay off, I'm thinking. I know what you are at; you want to play cuckoo, to turn 'Cousin Philip' out that 'Cousin George' may fill the nest. You know the old man's soft points, and you keep working him up against me. You think that you would like the old place when he's gone—ay, and I daresay that you will get it before you have done, but I mean to have my penn'orth out of you now, at any rate," and, brushing the tears of anger that stood in his brown eyes away with the back of his hand, the speaker proceeded to square up to George in a most determined way.
Now Philip, with his broad shoulders and his firm-knit frame, would, even at eighteen, have been no mean antagonist for a full-grown man; much more then did he look formidable to the lankly, overgrown stripling crouching against the corner of the wall that prevented his further retreat.
"Philip, you're not going to strike me, are you, when you know you are so much stronger?"
"Yes, I am, though; if I can't match you with my tongue, at any rate I will use my fists. Look out."
"Oh, Philip, don't! I'll tell your father."
"Tell him! why, of course you will, I know that; but you shall have something to lie about this time," and he advanced to the attack with a grim determination not pleasant for his cousin to behold.
Finding that there was no escape, George turned upon him with so shrill a curse that it even frightened from his leafy perch in the oak above the tame turtle-dove, intensely preoccupied as he was in cooing to a new-found mate. He did more than curse; he fought like a cornered rat, and with as much chance as the rat with a trained fox-terrier. In a few seconds his head was as snugly tucked away in the chancery of his cousin's arm as ever any property was in the court of that name, and, to speak truth, it seemed quite possible that, when it emerged from its retreat, it would, like the property, be much dilapidated and extensively bled.
Let us not dwell upon the scene; for George it was a very painful one, so painful that he never quite forgot it. His nose, too, was never so straight again. It was soon over, though to one of the parties time went with unnatural slowness.
"Well, I think you've had about enough for once," soliloquized Philip, as he critically surveyed the writhing mass on the ground before him; and he looked a very handsome lad as he said it.
His curly black hair hung in waving confusion over his forehead, and flung changing lights and shadows into the depths of his brown eyes, whilst his massive and somewhat heavy features were touched into a more active life by the light of that pleasing excitement which animates nine men out of every ten of the Anglo-Saxon race when they are engaged on killing or hurting some other living creature. The face, too, had a certain dignity about it, a little of the dignity of justice; it was the face of one who feels that if his action has been precipitate and severe, it has at any rate been virtuous. The full but clear-cut lips also had their own expression on them, half serious, half comical; humour, contempt, and even pity were blended in it. Altogether Philip Caresfoot's appearance in the moment of boyish vengeance was pleasing and not uninteresting.
Presently, however, something of the same change passed over his face that we see in the sky when a cloud passes over the sun; the light faded out of it. It was astonishing to note how dull and heavy—ay, more, how bad it made him look all in a breath.
"There will be a pretty business about this," he murmured, and then, administering a sharp kick to the prostrate and groaning form on the ground before him, he said, "Now, then, get up; I'm not going to touch you again. Perhaps, though, you won't be in quite such a hurry to tell lies about me another time, though I suppose that one must always expect a certain amount of lying from a half-bred beggar like you. Like mother, like son, you know."
This last sentence was accompanied by a bitter laugh, and produced a decided effect on the grovelling George, who slowly raised himself upon his hands, and, lifting his head, looked his cousin full in the face.
It was not the ghastly appearance of his mangled and blood-soaked countenance that made Philip recoil so sharply from the sight of his own handiwork—he had fought too often at school to be chicken-hearted about a little bloodshed; and, besides, he knew that his cousin was only knocked about, not really injured—but rather the intense and almost devilish malignity of the expression that hovered on the blurred features and in the half-closed eyes. But no attempt was made by George to translate the look into words, and indeed Philip felt that it was untranslatable. He also felt dimly that the hate and malice with which he was regarded by the individual at his feet was of a more concentrated and enduring character than most men have the power to originate. In the lurid light of that one glance he was able, though he was not very clever, to pierce the darkest recesses of his cousin's heart, and to see his inmost thought, no longer through a veil, but face to face. And what he saw was sufficient to make the blood leave his ruddy cheek, and to fix his eyes into an expression of fear.
Next second George dropped his head on to the ground again, and began to moan in an ostentatious manner, possibly in order to attract some one whose footsteps could be plainly heard proceeding slowly down a shrubbery-path on the other side of the yard wall. At any rate, that was the effect produced; for next moment, before Philip could think of escape, had he wished to escape, a door in the wall was opened, and a gentleman, pausing on the threshold, surveyed the whole scene, with the assistance of a gold-mounted eye-glass, with some evident surprise and little apparent satisfaction.
The old gentleman, for he was old, made so pretty a picture, framed as he was in the arched doorway, and set off by a natural background of varying shades of green, that his general appearance is worth sketching as he stood. To begin with, he was dressed in the fashion of the commencement of this century, and, as has been said, old, though it was difficult to say how old. Indeed, so vigorous and comparatively youthful was his bearing that he was generally taken to be considerably under seventy, but, as a matter of fact, he was but a few years short of eighty. He was extremely tall, over six feet, and stood upright as a lifeguardsman; indeed, his height and stately carriage would alone have made him a remarkable-looking man, had there been nothing else unusual about him; but, as it happened, his features were as uncommon as his person. They were clear-cut and cast in a noble mould. The nose was large and aquiline, the chin, like his son Philip's, square and determined; but it was his eyes that gave a painful fascination to his countenance. They were steely blue, and glittered under the pent-house of his thick eyebrows, that, in striking contrast to the snow-white of his hair, were black in hue, as tempered steel glitters in a curtained room. It was those eyes, in conjunction with sundry little peculiarities of temper, that had earned for the old man the title of "Devil Caresfoot," a sobriquet in which he took peculiar pride. So pleased was he with it, indeed, that he caused it to be engraved in solid oak letters an inch long upon the form of a life-sized and life-like portrait of himself that hung over the staircase in the house.
"I am determined," he would say to his son, "to be known to my posterity as I was known to my contemporaries. The picture represents my person not inaccurately; from the nickname my descendants will be able to gather what the knaves and fools with whom I lived thought of my character. Ah! boy, I am wearing out; people will soon be staring at that portrait and wondering if it was like me. In a very few years I shall no longer be 'devil,' but 'devilled,'" and he would chuckle at his grim and ill-omened joke.
Philip felt his father's eyes playing upon him, and shrunk from them. His face had, at the mere thought of the consequences of his chastisement of his cousin, lost the beauty and animation that had clothed it a minute before; now it grew leaden and hard, the good died away from it altogether, and, instead of a young god bright with vengeance, there was nothing but a sullen youth with dull and frightened eyes. To his son, as to most people who came under his influence, "Devil" Caresfoot was a grave reality.
Presently the picture in the doorway opened its mouth and spoke in a singularly measured, gentle voice.
"You will forgive me, Philip, for interrupting your tete-a-tete, but may I ask what is the meaning of this?"
Philip returned no answer.
"Since your cousin is not in a communicative mood, George, perhaps you will inform me why you are lying on your face and groaning in that unpleasant and aggressive manner?"
George lifted his blood-stained face from the stones, and, looking at his uncle, groaned louder than ever.
"May I ask you, Philip, if George has fallen down and hurt himself, or if there has been an—an—altercation between you?"
Here George himself got up and, before Philip could make any reply, addressed himself to his uncle.
"Sir," he said, "I will answer for Philip; there has been an altercation, and he in the scuffle knocked me down, and I confess," here he put his hand up to his battered face, "that I am suffering a good deal, but what I want to say is, that I beg you will not blame Philip. He thought that I had wronged him, and, though I am quite innocent, and could easily have cleared myself had he given me a chance, I must admit that appearances are to a certain extent against me——"
"He lies!" broke in Philip, sullenly.
"You will wonder, sir," went on the blood-stained George, "how I allowed myself to be drawn into such a brutal affair, and one so discreditable to your house. I can only say that I am very sorry,"— which indeed he was—"and that I should never have taken any notice of his words—knowing that he would regret them on reflection—had he not in an unguarded moment allowed himself to taunt me with my birth. Uncle, you know the misfortune of my father's marriage, and that she was not his equal in birth, but you know too that she was my mother and I love her memory though I never saw her, and I could not bear to hear her spoken of like that, and I struck him. I hope that both you and he will forgive me; I cannot say any more."
"He lies again, he cannot speak the truth."
"Philip, will you allow me to point out," remarked his father in his blandest voice, "that the continued repetition of the very ugly word 'lie' is neither narrative nor argument. Perhaps you will be so kind as to tell me your side of the story; you know I always wish to be perfectly impartial."
"He lied to you this morning about the money. It's true enough that I gambled away the ten pounds at Roxham fair, instead of paying it into the bank as you told me, but he persuaded me to it, and he was to have shared the profits if we won. I was a blackguard, but he was a bigger blackguard; why should I have all the blame and have that fellow continually shoved down my throat as a saint? And so I thrashed him, and that is all about it."
"Sir, I am sorry to contradict Philip, but indeed he is in error; the recollection of what took place has escaped him. I could, if necessary, bring forward evidence—Mr. Bellamy——"
"There is no need, George, for you to continue," and then, fixing his glittering eye on Philip: "it is very melancholy for me, having only one son, to know him to be such a brute, such a bearer of false witness, such an impostor as you are. Do you know that I have just seen Mr. Bellamy, the head clerk at the bank, and inquired if he knew anything of what happened about that ten pounds, and do you know what he told me?"
"No, I don't, and I don't want to."
"But I really must beg your attention: he told me that the day following the fair your cousin George came to the bank with ten pounds, and told him how you had spent the ten pounds I gave you to pay in, and that he brought the money, his own savings, to replace what you had gambled away; and Bellamy added that, under all the circumstances, he did not feel justified in placing it to my credit. What have you to say to that?"
"What have I to say? I have to say that I don't believe a word of it. If George had meant to do me a good turn he would have paid the money in and said nothing to Bellamy about it. Why won't you trust me a little more, father? I tell you that you are turning me into a scoundrel. I am being twisted up into a net of lies till I am obliged to lie myself to keep clear of ruin. I know what this sneak is at; he wants to work you into cutting me out of the property which should be mine by right. He knows your weaknesses——"
"My weaknesses, sir—my weaknesses!" thundered his father, striking his gold-headed cane on to the stones; "what do you mean by that?"
"Hush, uncle, he meant nothing," broke in George.
"Meant nothing! Then for an idle speech it is one that may cost him dear. Look you here, Philip Caresfoot, I know very well that our family has been quite as remarkable for its vices as its virtues, but for the last two hundred and fifty years we have been gentlemen, and you are not a gentleman; we have not been thieves, and you have proved yourself a thief; we have spoken the truth, and you are, what you are so fond of calling your cousin, who is worth two of you, a liar. Now listen. However imperious I may have grown in my old age, I can still respect the man who thwarts me even though I hate him; but I despise the man who deceives me, as I despise you, my dear son Philip—and I tell you this, and I beg you to lay it to heart, that if ever again I find that you have deceived me, by Heaven I will disinherit you in favour of—oh, oh!" and the old man fell back against the grey wall, pressing his hands to his breast and with the cold perspiration starting on to his pallid countenance.
Both the lads sprang forward, but before they reached him he had recovered himself.
"It is nothing," he said, in his ordinary gentle voice, "a trifling indisposition. I wish you both good morning, and beg you to bear my words in mind."
When he was fairly gone, George came up to his cousin and laid his hand upon his arm.
"Why do you insist upon quarrelling with me, Philip? it always ends like this, you always get the worst of it."
But Philip's only reply was to shake him roughly off, and to vanish through the door towards the lake. George regarded his departing form with a peculiar smile, which was rendered even more peculiar by the distortion of his swollen features.
It is difficult to imagine any study that would prove more fascinating in itself or more instructive in its issues, than the examination of the leading characteristics of individual families as displayed through a series of generations. But it is a subject that from its very nature is more or less unapproachable, since it is but little that we know even of our immediate ancestors. Occasionally in glancing at the cracking squares of canvas, many of which cannot even boast a name, but which alone remain to speak of the real and active life, the joys and griefs, the sins and virtues that centred in the originals of those hard daubs and of ourselves, we may light upon a face that about six generations since was the counterpart of the little boy upon our shoulder, or the daughter standing at our side. In the same way, too, partly through tradition and partly by other means, we are sometimes able to trace in ourselves and in our children the strong development of characteristics that distinguished the race centuries ago.
If local tradition and such records of their individual lives as remained are worthy of any faith, it is beyond a doubt that the Caresfoots of Bratham Abbey had handed down their own hard and peculiar cast of character from father to son unaffected in the main by the continual introduction of alien blood on the side of the mother.
The history of the Caresfoot family had nothing remarkable about it. They had been yeomen at Bratham from time immemorial, perhaps ever since the village had become a geographical fact; but it was on the dissolution of the monasteries that they first became of any importance in the county. Bratham Abbey, which had shared the common fate, was granted by Henry VIII. to a certain courtier, Sir Charles Varry by name. For two years the owner never came near his new possession, but one day he appeared in the village, and riding to the house of Farmer Caresfoot, which was its most respectable tenement, he begged him to show him the Abbey house and the lands attached. It was a dark November afternoon, and by the time the farmer and his wearied guest had crossed the soaked lands and reached the great grey house, the damps and shadows of the night had begun to curtain it and to render its appearance, forsaken as it was, inexpressibly dreary and lonesome.
"Damp here, my friend, is it not?" said Sir Charles with a shudder, looking towards the lake, into which the rain was splashing.
"You are right, it be."
"And lonely too, now that the old monks have gone."
"Ay, but they do say that the house be mostly full of the spirits of the dead," and the yeoman sank his voice to an awed whisper.
Sir Charles crossed himself and muttered, "I can well believe it," and then, addressing his companion—
"You do not know of any man who would buy an abbey with all its rights and franchises, do you, friend?"
"Not rightly, sir; the land be so poor it hath no heart in it; it doth scarce repay the tillage, and what the house is you may see. The curse of the monks is on it. But still, sir, if you have a mind to be rid of the place, I have a little laid by and a natural love for the land, having been bred on it, and taken the colour of my mind and my stubby growth therefrom, and I will give you—" and this astutest of all the Caresfoots whispered a very small sum into Sir Charles' ear.
"Your price is very small, good friend, it doth almost vanish into nothing; and methinks the land that reared you cannot be so unkind as you would have me think. The monks did not love bad land, but yet, if thou hast it in the gold, I will take it; it will pay off a debt or two, and I care not for the burden of the land."
And so Farmer Caresfoot became the lawful owner of Bratham Abbey with its two advowsons, its royal franchises of treasure-trove and deodand, and more than a thousand acres of the best land in Marlshire.
The same astuteness that had enabled this wise progenitor to acquire the estate enabled his descendants to stick tightly to it, and though, like other families, they had at times met with reverses, they never lost their grip of the Abbey property. During the course of the first half of the nineteenth century the land increased largely in value, and its acreage was considerably added to by the father of the present owner, a man of frugal mind, but with the family mania for the collection of all sorts of plate strongly developed. But it was Philip's father, "Devil Caresfoot," who had, during his fifty years' tenure of the property, raised the family to its present opulent condition, firstly, by a strict attention to business and the large accumulations resulting from his practice of always living upon half his income, and secondly, by his marriage late in middle life with Miss Bland, the heiress of the neighbouring Isleworth estates, that stretched over some two thousand acres of land.
This lady, who was Philip's mother, did not live long to enjoy her wealth and station. Her husband never spoke a rough word to her, and yet it is no exaggeration to say that she died of fear of him. The marriage had been one of convenience, not of affection; indeed poor Anna Bland had secretly admired the curate at Isleworth, and hated Mr. Caresfoot and his glittering eye. But she married him for all that, to feel that till she died that glance was always playing round her like a rapier in the hands of a skilled fencer. And very soon she did die, Mr. Caresfoot receiving her last words and wishes with the same exquisite and unmoved politeness that he had extended to every remark she had made to him in the course of their married life. Having satisfactorily eyed Mrs. Caresfoot off into a better world, her husband gave up all idea of further matrimonial ventures, and set himself to heap up riches. But a little before his wife's death, and just after his son's birth, an event had occurred in the family that had disturbed him not a little.
His father had left two sons, himself and a brother, many years his junior. Now this brother was very dear to Mr. Caresfoot; his affection for him was the one weak point in his armour; nor was it rendered any the less sincere, but rather the more touching, by the fact that its object was little better than half-witted. It is therefore easy to imagine his distress and anger when he heard that a woman who had till shortly before been kitchen-maid at the Abbey House, and was now living in the village, had been confined of a son which she fixed upon his brother, whose wife she declared herself to be. Investigation only brought out the truth of the story; his weak-minded brother had been entrapped into a glaring mesalliance.
But Mr. Caresfoot proved himself equal to the occasion. So soon as his "sister-in-law," as it pleased him to call her sardonically, had sufficiently recovered, he called upon her. What took place at the visit never transpired, but next day Mrs. E. Caresfoot left her native place never to return, the child remaining with the father, or rather with the uncle. That boy was George. At the time when this story opens both his parents were dead: his father from illness resulting from entire failure of brain power, the mother from drink.
Whether it was that he considered the circumstance of the lad's birth entitled him to peculiar consideration, or that he transferred to him the affection he bore his father, the result was that his nephew was quite as dear if not even dearer to Mr. Caresfoot than his own son. Not, however, that he allowed his preference to be apparent, save in the negative way that he was blind to faults in George that he was sufficiently quick to note in Philip. To observers this partiality seemed the more strange when they thought upon Philip's bonny face and form, and then noted how the weak-brained father and coarse-blooded mother had left their mark in George's thick lips, small, restless eyes, pallid complexion, and loose-jointed form.
When Philip shook off his cousin's grasp and vanished towards the lake, he did so with bitter wrath and hatred in his heart, for he saw but too clearly that he had deeply injured himself in his father's estimation, and, what was more, he felt that so much as he had sunk his side of the balance, by so much he had raised up that of George. He was inculpated; a Bellamy came upon the scene to save George, and, what was worse, an untruthful Bellamy; he was the aggressor, and George the meek in spirit with the soft answer that turneth away wrath. It was intolerable; he hated his father, he hated George. There was no justice in the world, and he had not wit to play rogue with such a one as his cousin. Appearances were always against him; he hated everybody.
And then he began to think that there was in the very next parish somebody whom he did not hate, but who, on the contrary, interested him, and was always ready to listen to his troubles, and he also became aware of the fact that whilst his mind had been thinking his legs had been walking, and that he was very near the abode of that person—almost at its gates, in short. He paused and looked at his watch; it had stopped at half-past eleven, the one blow that George had succeeded in planting upon him having landed on it, to the great detriment of both the watch and the striker's knuckles; but the sun told him that it was about half-past twelve, not too early to call. So he opened the gate, and, advancing up an avenue of old beeches to a square, red-brick house of the time of Queen Anne, boldly rang the bell.
Was Miss Lee at home? Yes, Miss Lee was in the greenhouse; perhaps Mr. Philip would step into the garden, which Mr. Philip did accordingly.
"How do you do, Philip? I'm delighted to see you; you've just come in time to help in the slaughter."
"Slaughter, slaughter of what—a pig?"
"No, green fly. I'm going to kill thousands."
"You cruel girl."
"I daresay it is cruel, but I don't care. Grumps always said that I had no heart, and, so far as green fly are concerned, Grumps was certainly right. Now, just look at this lily. It is an auratum. I gave three-and-six (out of my own money) for that bulb last autumn, and now the bloom is not worth twopence, all through green fly. If I were a man I declare I should swear. Please swear for me, Philip. Go outside and do it, so that I mayn't have it on my conscience. But now for vengeance. Oh, I say, I forgot, you know, I suppose. I ought to be looking very sorry——"
"Why, what's the matter? Any one dead?"
"Oh, no, so much better than that. It's got Grumps."
"Got her, what has got her? What is 'it'?"
"Why, Chancery, of course. I always call Chancery 'it.' I wouldn't take its name in vain for worlds. I am too much afraid. I might be made to 'show a cause why,' and then be locked up for contempt, which frequently happens after you have tried to 'show a cause.' That is what has happened to Grumps. She is now showing a cause; shortly she will be locked up. When she comes out, if she ever does come out, I think that she will avoid wards in Chancery in future; she will have too much sympathy with them, and too much practical experience of their position."
"But what on earth do you mean, Maria? What has happened to Miss Gregson?" (anglice Grumps).
"Well, you remember one of my guardians, or rather his wife, got 'it' to appoint her my chaperon, but my other guardian wanted to appoint somebody else, and after taking eighteen months to do it, he has moved the court to show that Grumps is not a 'fit and proper person.' The idea of calling Grumps improper. She nearly fainted at it, and swore that, whether she lived through it or whether she didn't, she would never come within a mile of me or any other ward if she could help it, not even the ward of an hospital. I told her to be careful, or she would be 'committing contempt,' which frightened her so that she hardly spoke again till she left yesterday. Poor Grumps! I expect she is on bread and water now; but if she makes herself half as disagreeable to the Vice-Chancellor as she did to me, I don't believe that they will keep her long. She'll wear the gaolers out; she will wear the walls out; she will wear 'it' down to the bone; and then they will let her loose upon the world again. Why, there is the bell for lunch, and not a single green fly the less! Never mind, I will do for them to-morrow. How it would add to her sufferings in her lonely cell if she could see us going to a tete-a-tete lunch. Come on, Philip, come quick, or the cutlets will get cold, and I hate cold cutlets." And off she tripped, followed by the laughing Philip, who, by the way, was now looking quite handsome again.
Maria Lee was not very pretty at her then age—just eighteen—but she was a perfect specimen of a young English country girl; fresh as a rose, and sound as a bell, and endowed besides with a quick wit and a ready sympathy. She was essentially one of that class of Englishwomen who make the English upper middle class what it is—one of the finest and soundest in the world. Philip, following her into the house, thought that she was charming; nor, being a Caresfoot, and therefore having a considerable eye to the main chance, did the fact of her being the heiress to fifteen hundred a year in land detract from her charms.
The cutlets were excellent, and Maria ate three, and was very comical about the departed Grumps; indeed, anybody not acquainted with the circumstances would have gathered that that excellent lady was to be shortly put to the question. Philip was not quite so merry; he was oppressed both by recollections of what had happened and apprehensions of what might happen.
"What is the matter, Philip?" she asked, when they had left the table to sit under the trees on the lawn. "I can see that something is the matter. Tell me all about it, Philip."
And Philip told her what had happened that morning, laying bare all his heart-aches, and not even concealing his evil deeds. When he had done, she pondered awhile, tapping her little foot upon the turf.
"Philip," she said at last, in quite a changed voice, "I do not think that you are being well treated. I do not think that your cousin means kindly by you, but—but I do not think that you have behaved rightly either. I don't like that about the ten pounds; and I think that you should not have touched George; he is not so strong as you. Please try to do as your father—dear me, I am sure I don't wonder that you are afraid of him; I am—tells you, and regain his affection, and make it up with George; and, if you get into any more troubles, come and tell me about them before you do anything foolish; for though, according to Grumps, I am silly enough, two heads are better than one."
The tears stood in the lad's brown eyes as he listened to her. He gulped them down, however, and said—
"You are awfully kind to me; you are the only friend I have. Sometimes I think that you are an angel."
"Nonsense, Philip. If 'it' heard you talk like that, you would join Grumps. Don't let me hear any more such stuff," but, though she spoke sharply, somehow she did not look displeased.
"I must be off," he said at length. "I promised to go with my father to see a new building on Reynold's farm. I have only twenty minutes to get home;" and rising they went into the house through a French window opening on to the lawn.
In the dining-room he turned, and, after a moment's hesitation, stuttered out—
"Maria, don't be angry with me, but may I give you a kiss?"
She blushed vividly.
"How dare you suggest such a thing?—but—but as Grumps has gone, and there is no new Grumps to refer to, and therefore I can only consult my own wishes, perhaps if you really wish to, Philip, why, Philip, you may."
And he did.
When he was gone she leant her head against the cold marble mantelpiece.
"I do love him," she murmured, "yes, that I do."
Philip was not very fond of taking walks with his father, since he found that in nine cases out of ten they afforded opportunities for inculcation of facts of the driest description with reference to estate management, or to the narration by his parent of little histories of which his conduct upon some recent occasion would adorn the moral. On this particular occasion the prospect was particularly unpleasant, for his father would, he was well aware, overflow with awful politeness, indeed, after the scene of the morning, it could not be otherwise. Oh, how much rather would he have spent that lovely afternoon with Maria Lee! Dear Maria, he would go and see her again the very next day.
When he arrived, some ten minutes after time in the antler-hung hall of the Abbey House, he found his father standing, watch in hand, exactly under the big clock, as though he was determined to make a note by double entry of every passing second.
"When I asked you to walk with me this afternoon, Philip, I, if my memory does not deceive me, was careful to say that I had no wish to interfere with any prior engagement. I was aware how little interest, compared to your cousin George, you take in the estate, and I had no wish to impose an uncongenial task. But, as you kindly volunteered to accompany me, I regret that you did not find it convenient to be punctual to the time you fixed. I have now waited for you for seventeen minutes, and let me tell you that at my time of life I cannot afford to lose seventeen minutes. May I ask what has delayed you?"
This long speech had given Philip the opportunity of recovering the breath that he had lost in running home. He replied promptly—
"I have been lunching with Miss Lee."
"Oh, indeed, then I no longer wonder that you kept me waiting, and I must say that in this particular I commend your taste. Miss Lee is a young lady of good family, good manners, and good means. If her estate went with this property it would complete as pretty a five thousand acres of mixed soil as there is in the county. Those are beautiful old meadows of hers, beautiful. Perhaps——" but here the old man checked himself.
On leaving the house they had passed together down a walk called the tunnel walk, on account of the arching boughs of the lime-trees that interlaced themselves overhead. At the end of this avenue, and on the borders of the lake, there stood an enormous but still growing oak, known as Caresfoot's Staff. It was the old squire's favourite tree, and the best topped piece of timber for many miles round.
"I wonder," said Philip, by way of making a little pleasant conversation, "why that tree was called Caresfoot's Staff."
"Your ignorance astonishes me, Philip, but I suppose that there are some people who can live for years in a place and yet imbibe nothing of its traditions. Perhaps you know that the monks were driven out of these ruins by Henry VIII. Well, on the spot where that tree now stands there grew a still greater oak, a giant tree, its trunk measured sixteen loads of timber; which had, as tradition said, been planted by the first prior of the Abbey when England was still Saxon. The night the monks left a great gale raged over England. It was in October, when the trees were full of leaf, and its fiercest gust tore the great oak from its roothold, and flung it into the lake. Look! do you see that rise in the sand, there, by the edge of the deep pool, in the eight foot water? That is there it is supposed to lie. Well, the whole country-side said that it was a sign that the monks had gone for ever from Bratham Abbey, and the country-side was right. But when your ancestor, old yeoman Caresfoot, bought this place and came to live here, in a year when there was a great black frost that set the waters of the lake like one of the new-fangled roads, he asked his neighbours, ay, and his labouring folk, to come and dine with him and drink to the success of his purchase. It was a proud day for him, and when dinner was done and they were all mellow with strong ale, he bade them step down to the borders of the lake, as he would have them be witness to a ceremony. When they reached the spot they saw a curious sight, for there on a strong dray, and dragged by Farmer Caresfoot's six best horses, was an oak of fifty years' growth coming across the ice, earth, roots and all.
"On that spot where it now stands there had been a great hole, ten feet deep by fourteen feet square, dug to receive it, and into that hole Caresfoot Staff was tilted and levered off the dray. And when it had been planted, and the frozen earth well trodden in, your grandfather in the ninth degree brought his guests back to the old banqueting-hall, and made a speech which, as it was the first and last he ever made, was long remembered in the country-side. It was, put into modern English, something like this:
"'Neighbours,—Prior's Oak has gone into the water, and folks said that it was for a sign that the monks would never come back to Bratham, and that it was the Lord's wind that put it there. And, neighbours, as ye know, the broad Bratham lands and the fat marshes down by the brook passed by king's grant to a man that knew not clay from loam, or layer from pasturage, and from him they passed by the Lord's will to me, as I have asked you here to-day to celebrate. And now, neighbours, I have a mind, and though it seem to you but a childish thing, yet I have a mind, and have set myself to fulfil it. When I was yet a little lad, and drove the swine out to feed on the hill yonder, when the acorns had fallen, afore Farmer Gyrton's father had gracious leave from the feoffees to put up the fence that doth now so sorely vex us, I found one day a great acorn, as big as a dow's egg, and of a rich and wondrous brown, and this acorn I bore home and planted in kind earth in the corner of my dad's garden, thinking that it would grow, and that one day I would hew its growth and use it for a staff. Now that was fifty long years ago, lads, and there where grew Prior's Oak, there, neighbours, I have set my Staff to-day. The monks have told us how in Israel every man planted his fig and his vine. For the fig I know not rightly what that is; but for the vine, I will plant no creeping, clinging vine, but a hearty English oak, that, if they do but give it good room to breathe in, and save their heirloom from the axe, shall cast shade and grow acorns, and burst into leaf in the spring and grow naked in the winter, when ten generations of our children, and our children's children, shall have mixed their dust with ours yonder in the graveyard. And now, neighbours, I have talked too long, though I am better at doing than talking; but ye will even forgive me, for I will not talk to you again, though on this the great day of my life I was minded to speak. But I will bid you every man pledge a health to the Caresfoot's Staff, and ask a prayer that, so long as it shall push its leaves, so long may the race of my loins be here to sit beneath its shade, and even mayhap when the corn is ripe and the moon is up, and their hearts grow soft towards the past, to talk with kinsman or with sweetheart of the old man who struck it in this kindly soil.'"
The old squire's face grew tender as he told this legend of the forgotten dead, and Philip's young imagination summoned up the strange old-world scene of the crowd of rustics gathered in the snow and frost round this very tree.
"Philip," said his father, suddenly, "you will hold the yeoman's Staff one day; be like it of an oaken English heart, and you will defy wind and weather as it has done, and as your forbears have done. Come, we must go on."
"By the way, Philip," he continued, after a while, "you will remember what I said to you this morning—I hope that you will remember it, though I spoke in anger—never try to deceive me again, or you will regret it. And now I have something to say to you. I wish you to go to college and receive an education that will fit you to hold the position you must in the course of Nature one day fill in the county. The Oxford term begins in a few days, and you have for some years been entered at Magdalen College. I do not expect you to be a scholar, but I do expect you to brush off your rough ways and your local ideas, and to learn to become such a person both in your conduct and your mind as a gentleman of your station should be."
"Is George to go to college too?"
"No; I have spoken to him on the subject, and he does not wish it. He says very wisely that, with his small prospects, he would rather spend the time in learning how to earn his living. So he is going to be articled to the Roxham lawyers, Foster and Son, or rather Foster and Bellamy, for young Bellamy, who is a lawyer by profession, came here this morning, not to speak about you, but on a message from the firm to say that he is now a junior partner, and that they will be very happy to take George as an articled clerk. He is a hard-working, shrewd young man, and it will be a great advantage to George to have his advice and example before him."
Philip assented, and went on in silence, reflecting on the curious change in his immediate prospects that this walk had brought to light. He was much rejoiced at the prospect of losing sight of George for a while, and was sufficiently intelligent to appreciate the advantages, social and mental, that the University would offer him; but it struck him that there were two things which he did not like about the scheme. The first of these was, that whilst he was pursuing his academical studies, George would practically be left on the spot—for Roxham was only six miles off—to put in motion any schemes he might have devised; and Philip was sure that he had devised schemes. And the second, that Oxford was a long way from Maria Lee. However, he kept his objections to himself. In due course they reached the buildings they had set out to examine, and the old squire, having settled what was to be done, and what was to be left undone, with characteristic promptitude and shrewdness, they turned homewards.
In passing through the shrubberies, on their way back to the house, they suddenly came upon a stolid-looking lad of about fifteen, emerging from a side-walk with a nest full of young blackbirds in his hand. Now, if there was one thing in this world more calculated than another to rouse the most objectionable traits of the old squire's character into rapid action, it was the discovery of boys, and more especially bird-nesting boys, in his plantations. In the first place, he hated trespassers; and in the second, it was one of his simple pleasures to walk in the early morning and listen to the singing of the birds that swarmed around. Accordingly, at the obnoxious sight he stopped suddenly, and, drawing himself up to his full height, addressed the trembling youth in his sweetest voice.
"Your name is, I believe—Brady—Jim Brady—correct me if I am wrong— and you have come here, you—you—young—villain—to steal my birds."
The frightened boy walked slowly backwards, followed by the old man with his fiery eyes fixed upon his face, till at last concussion against the trunk of a great tree prevented further retreat. Here he stood for about thirty seconds, writhing under the glance that seemed to pierce him through and through, till at last he could stand it no longer, but flung himself on the ground, roaring:
"Oh! don't ee, squire; don't ee now look at me with that 'ere eye. Take and thrash me, squire, but don't ee fix me so! I hayn't had no more nor twenty this year, and a nest of spinxes, and Tom Smith he's had fifty-two and a young owl. Oh! oh!"
Enraged beyond measure at this last piece of information, Mr. Caresfoot took his victim at his word, and, ceasing his ocular experiments, laid into the less honourable portion of his form with the gold-headed malacca cane in a way that astonished the prostrate Jim, though he was afterwards heard to declare that the squire's cane "warn't not nothing compared with the squire's eye, which wore a hot coal, it wore, and frizzled your innards as sich."
When Jim Brady had departed, never to return again, and the old man had recovered his usual suavity of manner, he remarked to his son:
"There is some curious property in the human eye; a property that is, I believe, very much developed in my own. Did you observe the effect of my glance upon that boy? I was trying an experiment on him. I remember it was always the same with your poor mother. She could never bear me to look at her."
Philip made no reply, but he thought that, if she had been the object of experiments of that nature, it was not very wonderful.
Shortly after their return home he received a note from Miss Lee. It ran thus:
"My dear Philip,
"What do you think? Just after you had gone away, I got by the mid-day post, which Jones (the butcher) brought from Roxham, several letters, amongst them one from Grumps and one from Uncle Tom. Grumps has shown a cause. Why? 'It' said she was not an improper person; but, for all that, she is so angry with Uncle Tom that she will not come back, but has accepted an offer to go to Canada as companion to a lady; so farewell Grumps.
"Now for Uncle Tom. 'It' suggested that I should live with some of my relations till I came of age, and pay them four hundred a year, which I think a good deal. I am sure it can't cost four hundred a year to feed me, though I have such an appetite. I had no idea they were all so fond of me before; they all want me to come and live with them, except Aunt Chambers, who, you know, lives in Jersey. Uncle Tom says in his letter that he shall be glad if his daughters can have the advantage of my example, and of studying my polished manners (just fancy my polished manners; and I know, because little Tom, who is a brick, told me, that only last year he heard his father tell Emily—that's the eldest—that I was a dowdy, snub-nosed, ill-mannered miss, but that she must keep in with me and flatter me up). No, I will not live with Uncle Tom, and I will tell 'it' so. If I must leave my home, I will go to Aunt Chambers at Jersey. Jersey is a beautiful place for flowers, and one learns French there without the trouble of learning it; and I like Aunt Chambers, and she has no children, and nothing but the memory of a dear departed. But I don't like leaving home, and feel very much inclined to cry. Hang the Court of Chancery, and Uncle Tom and his interference too!—there. I suppose you can't find time to come over to-morrow morning to see me off? Good-bye, dear Philip,
"Your affectionate friend, "Maria Lee."
Philip did manage to find time next morning, and came back looking very disconsolate.
Philip went to college in due course, and George departed to learn his business as a lawyer in Roxham, but it will not be necessary for us to enter into the details of their respective careers during this period of their lives.
At college Philip did fairly well, and, being a Caresfoot, did not run into debt. He was, as his great bodily strength gave promise of, a first-class athlete, and for two years stroked the Magdalen boat. Nor did he altogether neglect his books, but his reading was of a desultory and out-of-the-way order, and much directed towards the investigation of mystical subjects. Fairly well liked amongst the men with whom he mixed, he could hardly be called popular; his temperament was too uncertain for that. At times he was the gayest of the gay, and then when the fit took him he would be plunged into a state of gloomy depression that might last for days. His companions, to whom his mystical studies were a favourite jest, were wont to assert that on these occasions he was preparing for a visit from his familiar, but the joke was one that he never could be prevailed upon to appreciate. The fact of the matter was that these fits of gloom were constitutional with him, and very possibly had their origin in the state of his mother's mind before his birth, when her whole thoughts were coloured by her morbid and fanciful terror of her husband, and her frantic anxiety to conciliate him.
During the three years that he spent at college, Philip saw but little of George, since, when he happened to be down at Bratham, which was not often, for he spent most of his vacations abroad, George avoided coming there as much as possible. Indeed, there was a tacit agreement between the two young men that they would see as little of each other as might be convenient. But, though he did not see much of him himself, Philip was none the less aware that George's influence over his father was, if anything, on the increase. The old squire's letters were full of him and of the admirable way in which he managed the estate, for it was now practically in his hands. Indeed, to his surprise and somewhat to his disgust, he found that George began to be spoken of indifferently with himself as the "young squire." Long before his college days had come to an end Philip had determined that he would do his best, as soon as opportunity offered, to reduce his cousin to his proper place, not by the violent means to which he had resorted in other days, but rather by showing himself to be equally capable, equally assiduous, and equally respectful and affectionate.
At last the day came when he was to bid farewell to Oxford for good, and in due course he found himself in a second-class railway carriage —thinking it useless to waste money, he always went second—and bound for Roxham.
Just before the train left the platform at Paddington, Philip was agreeably surprised out of his meditations by the entry into his carriage of an extremely elegant and stately young lady, a foreigner as he judged from her strong accent when she addressed the porter. With the innate gallantry of twenty-one, he immediately laid himself out to make the acquaintance of one possessed of such proud, yet melting blue eyes, such lovely hair, and a figure that would not have disgraced Diana; and, with this view, set himself to render her such little services as one fellow-traveller can offer to another. They were accepted reservedly at first, then gratefully, and before long the reserve broke down entirely, and this very handsome pair dropped into a conversation as animated as the lady's broken English would allow. The lady told him that her name was Hilda von Holtzhausen, that she was of a German family, and had come to England to enter a family as companion, in order to obtain a perfect knowledge of the English language. She had already been to France and acquired French; when she knew English, then she had been promised a place as school-mistress under government in her own country. Her father and mother were dead, and she had no brothers or sisters, and very few friends.
Where was she going to? She was going to a place called Roxham; here it was written on the ticket. She was going to be companion to a dear young lady, very rich, like all the English, whom she had met when she had travelled with her French family to Jersey, a Miss Lee.
"You don't say so!" said Philip. "Has she come back to Rewtham?"
"What, do you, then, know her?"
"Yes—that is, I used to three years ago. I live in the next parish."
"Ah! then perhaps you are the gentleman of whom I have heard her to speak, Mr. Car-es-foot, whom she did seem to appear to love; is not that the word?—to be very fond, you know."
Philip laughed, blushed, and acknowledged his identity with the gentleman whom Miss Lee "did seem to appear to love."
"Oh! I am glad; then we shall be friends, and see each other often— shall we not?"
He declared unreservedly that she should see him very often.
From Fraulein von Holtzhausen Philip gathered in the course of their journey a good many particulars about Miss Lee. It appeared that, having attained her majority, she was coming back to live at her old home at Rewtham, whither she had tried to persuade her Aunt Chambers to accompany her, but without success, that lady being too much attached to Jersey to leave it. During the course of a long stay on the island, the two girls had become fast friends, and the friendship had culminated in an offer being made by Maria Lee to Fraulein von Holtzhausen to come and live with her as a companion, a proposal that exactly suited the latter.
The mention of Miss Lee's name had awakened pleasant recollections in Philip's mind, recollections that, at any other time, might have tended towards the sentimental; but, when under fire from the blue eyes of this stately foreigner, it was impossible for him to feel sentimental about anybody save herself. "The journey is over all too soon," was the secret thought of each as they stepped on to the Roxham platform. Before they had finally said good-bye, however, a young lady with a dainty figure, in a shady hat and pink and white dress, came running along the platform.
"Hilda, Hilda, here I am! How do you do, dear? Welcome home," and she was about to seal her welcome with a kiss, when her eye fell upon Philip standing by.
"Oh, Philip!" she cried with a blush, "don't you know me? Have I changed much? I should have known you anywhere; and I am glad to see you, awfully glad (excuse the slang, but it is such a relief to be able to say 'awful' without being pulled up by Aunt Chambers). Just think, it is three years since we met. Do you remember Grumps? How do I look? Do you think you will like me as much as you used to?"
"I think that you are looking the same dear girl that you always used to look, only you have grown very pretty, and it is not possible that I shall like you more than I used to."
"I think they must teach you to pay compliments at Oxford, Philip," she answered, flushing with pleasure, "but it is all rubbish for you to say that I am pretty, because I know I am not"—and then, confidentially, glancing round to see that there was nobody within hearing (Hilda was engaged with a porter in looking after her things): "Just look at my nose, and you will soon change your mind. It's broader, and flatter, and snubbier than ever. I consider that I have got a bone to pick with Providence about that nose. Ah! here comes Hilda. Isn't she lovely! There's beauty for you if you like. She hasn't got a nose. Come and show us to the carriage. You will come and lunch with us to-morrow, won't you? I am so glad to get back to the old house again; and I mean to have such a garden! 'Life is short, and joys are fleeting,' as Aunt Chambers always says, so I mean to make the best of it whilst it lasts. I saw your father yesterday. He is a dear old man, though he has such awful eyes. I never felt so happy in my life as I do now. Good-bye. One o'clock." And she was gone, leaving Philip with something to think about.
Philip's reception at home was cordial and reassuring. He found his father considerably aged in appearance, but as handsome and upright as ever, and to all appearance heartily glad to see him.
"I am glad to see you back, my boy," he said. "You come to take your proper place. If you look at me, you will see that you won't have long to wait before you take mine. I can't last much longer, Philip, I feel that. Eighty-two is a good age to have reached. I have had my time, and put the property in order, and now I suppose I must make room. I went with the clerk, old Jakes, and marked out my grave yesterday. There's a nice little spot the other side of the stone that they say marks where old yeoman Caresfoot, who planted Caresfoot's Staff, laid his bones, and that's where I wish to be put, in his good company. Don't forget that when the time comes, Philip. There's room for another if you care to keep it for yourself, but perhaps you will prefer the vault."
"You must not talk of dying yet, father. You will live many years yet."
"No, Philip; perhaps one, perhaps two, not more than two, perhaps a month, perhaps not a day. My life hangs on a thread now." And he pointed to his heart. "It may snap any day, if it gets a strain. By the way, Philip, you see that cupboard? Open it! Now, you see that stoppered bottle with the red label? Good. Well now, if ever you see me taken with an attack of the heart (I have had one since you were away, you know, and it nearly carried me off), you run for that as hard as you can go, and give it me to drink, half at a time. It is a tremendous restorative of some sort, and old Caley says that, if I do not take it when the next attack comes, there'll be an end of 'Devil Caresfoot';" and he rapped his cane energetically on the oak floor.
"And so, Philip, I want you to go about and make yourself thoroughly acquainted with the property, so that you may be able to take things over when I die without any hitch. I hope that you will be careful and do well by the land. Remember that a big property like this is a sacred trust.
"And now there are two more things that I will take this opportunity to say a word to you about. First, I see that you and your cousin George don't get on well, and it grieves me. You have always had a false idea of George, always, and thought that he was underhand. Nothing could be more mistaken than such a notion. George is a most estimable young man, and my dear brother's only son. I wish you would try to remember that, Philip—blood is thicker than water, you know— and you will be the only two Caresfoots left when I am gone. Now, perhaps you may think that I intend enriching George at your expense, but that is not so. Take this key and open the top drawer of that secretaire, and give me that bundle. This is my will. If you care to look over it, and can understand it—which is more than I can—you will see that everything is left to you, with the exception of that outlying farm at Holston, those three Essex farms that I bought two years ago, and twelve thousand pounds in cash. Of course, as you know, the Abbey House, and the lands immediately round, are entailed—it has always been the custom to entail them for many generations. There, put it back. And now the last thing is, I want you to get married, Philip. I should like to see a grandchild in the house before I die. I want you to marry Maria Lee. I like the girl. She comes of a good old Marlshire stock—our family married into hers in the year 1703. Besides, her property would put yours into a ring-fence. She is a sharp girl too, and quite pretty enough for a wife. I hope you will think it over, Philip."
"Yes, father; but perhaps she will not have me. I am going to lunch there to-morrow."
"I don't think you need be afraid, Philip; but I won't keep you any longer. Shake hands, my boy. You'll perhaps think of your old father kindly when you come to stand in his shoes. I hope you will, Philip. We have had many a quarrel, and sometimes I have been wrong, but I have always wished to do my duty by you, my boy. Don't forget to make the best of your time at lunch to-morrow."
Philip went out of his father's study considerably touched by the kindness and consideration with which he had been treated, and not a little relieved to find his position with reference to his succession to the estate so much better than he had anticipated, and his cousin George's so much worse.
"That red-haired fox has plotted in vain," he thought, with secret exultation. And then he set himself to consider the desirability of falling in with his father's wishes as regards marriage. Of Maria he was, as the reader is aware, very fond; indeed, a few years before he had been in love with her, or something very like it; he knew too that she would make him a very good wife, and the match was one that in every way commended itself to his common sense and his interests. Yes, he would certainly take his father's advice. But every time he said this to himself—and he said it pretty often that evening—there would arise before his mind's eye a vision of the sweet blue eyes of Miss Lee's stately companion. What eyes they were, to be sure! It made Philip's blood run warm and quick merely to think of them; indeed, he could almost find it in his heart to wish that Hilda was Maria and Maria was in Hilda's shoes.
What between thoughts of the young lady he had set himself to marry, and of the young lady he did not mean to marry, but whose eyes he admired, Philip did not sleep so well as usual that night.
Philip did not neglect to go to luncheon at Rewtham house, and a very pleasant luncheon it was; indeed, it would have been difficult for him to have said which he found the pleasantest: Maria's cheerful chatter and flattering preference, or Hilda's sweet and gracious presence.
After luncheon, at Maria's invitation he gave Fraulein von Holtzhausen her first lesson in writing in English character; and to speak truth he found the task of guiding her fair hand through the mysteries of the English alphabet a by no means uncongenial occupation. When he came away his admiration of Hilda's blue eyes was more pronounced than ever; but, on the other hand, so was his conviction that he would be very foolish if he allowed it to interfere with his intention of making Maria Lee his wife.
He who would drive two women thus in double harness must needs have a light hand and a ready lash, and it is certainly to the credit of Philip's cleverness that he managed so well as he did. For as time went on he discovered his position to be this. Both Hilda and Maria were in love with him, the former deeply and silently, the latter openly and ostensibly. Now, however gratifying this fact might be to his pride, it was in some ways a thorny discovery, since he dared not visibly pay his attentions to either. For his part he returned Hilda von Holtzhausen's devotion to a degree that surprised himself; his passion for her burnt him like a fire, utterly searing away the traces of his former affection for Maria Lee. Under these circumstances, most young men of twenty-one would have thrown prudence to the winds and acknowledged, either by acts or words, the object of their love; but not so Philip, who even at that age was by no means deficient in the characteristic caution of the Caresfoot family. He saw clearly that his father would never consent to his marriage with Hilda, nor, to speak truth, did he himself at all like the idea of losing Miss Lee and her estates.
On the other hand, he knew Hilda's proud and jealous mind. She was no melting beauty who would sigh and submit to an affront, but, for all her gracious ways, at heart a haughty woman, who, if she reigned at all, would reign like Alexander, unrivalled and alone. That she was well aware of her friend's tendresse for Philip the latter very shortly guessed; indeed, as he suspected, Maria was in the habit of confiding to her all her hopes and fears connected with himself, a suspicion that made him very careful in his remarks to that young lady.
The early summer passed away whilst Philip was still thinking over his position, and the face of the country was blushing with all the glory of July, when one afternoon he found himself, as he did pretty frequently, in the shady drawing-room at Miss Lee's. As he entered, the sound of voices told him that there were other visitors beside himself, and, as soon as his eyes had grown accustomed to the light, he saw his cousin George, together with his partner Mr. Bellamy, and a lady with whom he was not acquainted.
George had improved in appearance somewhat since we last saw him meeting with severe treatment at his cousin's hands. The face had filled up a little, with the result that the nose did not look so hooked, nor the thick lips so coarse and sensual. The hair, however, was as red as ever, and as for the small, light-blue eyes, they twinkled with the added sharpness and lustre that four years of such experience of the shady side of humanity as can be gathered in a lawyer's office, is able to give to the student of men and manners.
So soon as Philip had said how-do-you-do to Maria and Hilda, giving to each a gentle pressure of the hand, George greeted him with warmth.
"How are you, Philip? delighted to see you; how is my uncle? Bellamy saw him this morning, and thought that he did not look well."
"I certainly did think, Mr. Philip," said the gentleman alluded to, a very young-looking, apple-faced little man, with a timid manner, who stood in the background nervously rubbing his dry hands together—"I certainly did think that the squire looked aged when I saw him this morning."
"Well, you see, Mr. Bellamy, eighty-two is a good age, is it not?" said Philip, cheerfully.
"Yes, Mr. Philip, a good age, a very good age, for the next heir," and Mr. Bellamy chuckled softly somewhere down in his throat, and retreated a little.
"He is getting facetious," broke in George, "that marriage has done that for him. By the way, Philip, do you know Mrs. Bellamy? she has only been down here a fortnight, you know. What, no! Then you have a pleasure to come" (raising his voice so that it might be heard at the other end of the room), "a very clever woman, and as handsome as she is clever."
"Indeed! I must ask you to introduce me presently, Mr. Bellamy. I only recently heard that you were married."
Mr. Bellamy blushed and twisted and was about to speak, when George cut in again.
"No, I dare say you didn't; sly dog, Bellamy; do you know what he did? I introduced him to the lady when we were up in town together last Christmas. I was dreadfully hard hit myself, I can assure you, and as soon as my back was turned he went and cut me out of the water—and turned my adored into Mrs. Bellamy."
"What are you taking my name in vain about, Mr. Caresfoot?" said a rich, low voice behind them.
"Bless me, Anne, how softly you move, you quite startled me," said little Mr. Bellamy, putting on his spectacles in an agitated manner.
"My dear, a wife, like an embodied conscience, should always be at her husband's shoulder, especially when he does not know it."
Bellamy made no reply, but looked as though the sentiment was one of which he did not approve; meantime the lady repeated her question to George, and the two fell into a bantering conversation. Philip, having dropped back a little, had an opportunity of carefully observing Mrs. Bellamy, an occupation not without interest, for she was certainly worthy of notice.
About twenty years of age, and of medium height, her figure was so finely proportioned and so roomily made that it gave her the appearance of being taller than she really was. The head was set squarely on the shoulders, the hair was cut short, and clustered in ringlets over the low, broad brow; whilst the clearly carved Egyptian features and square chin gave the whole face a curious expression of resoluteness and power. The eyes were heavily-lidded and greyish-green in hue, with enormously large dark pupils that had a strange habit of expanding and contracting without apparent reason.
Gazing at her, Philip was at a loss to know whether this woman so bizarrely beautiful fascinated or repelled him; indeed, neither then nor at any future time did he succeed in deciding the question. Whilst he was still contemplating, and wondering how Bellamy of all people in the world had managed to marry such a woman, and what previous acquaintance George had had with her, he saw the lady whisper something to his cousin, who at once turned and introduced him.
"Philip," he said, "let me introduce you to the most charming lady of my acquaintance, Mrs. Bellamy."
Philip bowed and expressed himself delighted, whilst the lady curtsied with a mixture of grace and dignity that became her infinitely well.
"Your cousin has often spoken to me of you, Mr. Caresfoot, but he never told me——" here she hesitated, and broke off.
"What did he never tell you, Mrs. Bellamy? Nothing to my disadvantage, I hope."
"On the contrary, if you wish to know," she said, in that tone of flattering frankness which is sometimes so charming in a woman's mouth, "he never told me that you were young and handsome. I fancied you forty at least."
"I should dearly like to tell you, Mrs. Bellamy, what my cousin George never told me; but I won't, for fear I should make Bellamy jealous."
"Jealousy, Mr. Caresfoot, is a luxury that my husband is not allowed to indulge in; it is very well for lovers, but what is a compliment in a lover becomes an impertinence in a husband. But if I keep you here much longer, I shall be drawing the enmity of Miss Lee, and—yes, of Fraulein von Holtzhausen, too, on to my devoted head, and, as that is the only sort of jealousy I have any fear of, or indeed any respect for, being as it is the expression of the natural abhorrence of one woman for another, I had rather avoid it."
Philip followed the direction of her sleepy eyes, and saw that both Miss Lee and Hilda appeared to be put out. The former was talking absently to Mr. Bellamy, and glancing continually in the direction of that gentleman's wife. The latter, too, whilst appearing to listen to some compliment from George, was gazing at Mrs. Bellamy with a curious look of dislike and apprehension in her face.
"You see what I mean; Fraulein von Holtzhausen actually looks as though she were afraid of me. Can you fancy any one being afraid of me, except my husband, of course?—for as you know, when a woman is talking of men, her husband is always excepted. Come, we must be going; but, Mr. Caresfoot, bend a little nearer; if you will accept it from such a stranger, I want to give you a bit of advice—make your choice pretty soon, or you will lose them both."
"What do you mean—how do you know——"
"I mean nothing at all, or just as much as you like, and for the rest I use my eyes. Come, let us join the others."
A few minutes later Hilda put down her work, and, declaring that she felt hot, threw open the French window and went out into the garden, whither, on some pretext or other, Philip followed her.
"What a lovely woman that is," said Mrs. Bellamy, with enthusiasm, to Miss Lee, as soon as Philip was out of earshot. "Her tout ensemble positively kills one. I feel plain and dowdy as a milkmaid alongside of a Court-beauty when I am in the room with her. Don't you, Miss Lee?"
"Oh, I don't know, I never thought about it, but of course she is lovely and I'm plain, so there is no possibility of comparison between us."
"Well, I think you rate yourself rather low, if you will allow me to say so; but most women would but 'poorly satisfy the sight' of a man when she was present. I know that I should not care to trust my admirer (if I had one), however devoted he might be, for a single day in her company; would you?"
"I really don't know; what do you mean?"
"Mean, Miss Lee, why I mean nothing at all; what should I mean, except that beauty is a magnet which attracts all men; it serves them for a standard of morality and a test of right and wrong. Men are different from women. If a man is faithful to one of us, it is only because no other woman of sufficient charm has become between him and us. You can never trust a man."
"What dreadful ideas you have."
"Do you think so? I hope not. I only speak what I have observed. Take the case of Fraulein von Holtzhausen, for instance. Did you not notice that whilst she was in the room the eyes of the three gentlemen were all fixed upon her, and as soon as she leaves it one of them follows her, as the others would have done had they not been forestalled? One cannot blame them; they are simply following a natural law. Any other man would do the same where such a charming person is concerned."
"I certainly did not notice it; indeed, to speak the truth, I thought that they were more occupied with you——"
"With me! why, my dear Miss Lee, I don't set up for being good- looking. What a strange idea. But I dare say you are right, it is only one of my theories based upon my own casual observations, and, after all, men are not a very interesting subject, are they? Let's talk of something more exciting—dresses, for instance."
But poor Maria was too uncomfortable and disturbed to talk of anything else, so she collapsed into silence, and shortly after Mr. and Mrs. Bellamy and George made their adieux.
Meanwhile Philip and Hilda had been walking leisurely down the shrubberies adjoining the house.
"Why have you come out?" she asked in German, a language he understood well.
"To walk with you. Why do you speak to me in German?"
"Because it is my pleasure to do so, and I never asked you to walk with me. You are wanted in the drawing-room, you had better go back."
"No, I won't go, Hilda; that is, not until you have promised me something."
"Do not call me Hilda, if you please. I am the Fraulein von Holtzhausen. What is it you want me to promise?"
"I want you to meet me this evening at nine o'clock in the summer- house."
"I think, Mr. Caresfoot, that you are forgetting a little what is due to me, to yourself, and—to Miss Lee?"
"What do you mean by due to Miss Lee?"
"Simply that she is in love with you, and that you have encouraged her in her affection; you need not contradict me, she tells me all about it."
"Nonsense, Hilda; if you will meet me to-night, I will explain everything; there is no need for you to be jealous."
She swept round upon him, tossing her head, and stamping her dainty foot upon the gravel.
"Mr. Caresfoot," she said, "once and for all I am not jealous, and I will not meet you; I have too much respect for myself, and too little for you," and she was gone.
Philip's face, as he stood looking after her, was not pleasant to see; it was very hard and angry.
"Jealous, is she? I will give her something to be jealous for, the proud minx;" and in his vexation he knocked off the head of a carnation with his stick.
"Philip, what are you doing? Those are my pet Australian carnations; at least, I think they are Australian. How can you destroy them like that?"
"All right, Maria; I was only plucking one for you. Won't you put it in your dress? Where are the others?"
"They have all gone. Come in, it is so hot out there; and tell me what you think of Mrs. Bellamy."
"I think that she is very handsome and very clever. I wonder where Bellamy picked her up."
"I don't know; I wish he hadn't picked her up at all. I don't like her, she says unpleasant things; and, though I have only seen her three times, she seems to know all about me and everybody else. I am not very quick; but do you know just now I thought that she was insinuating that you were in love with Hilda; that's not true, is it, Philip? Don't think me forward if I ask you if that is true, and if I say that, if it is, it is better that I should know it. I sha'n't be angry, Philip;" and the girl stood before him to await his answer, one hand pressed against her bosom to still the beating of her heart, whilst with the other she screened her blushing brow.
And Philip too stood face to face with her sweet self, with conscience, and with opportunity. "Now," whispered conscience, "is the time, before very much harm is done; now is the acceptable time to tell her all about it, and, whilst forbidding her love, to enlist her sympathy and friendship. It will be wrong to encourage her affection; when you ardently love another woman, you cannot palter any more." "Now," whispered opportunity, shouldering conscience aside, "is the time to secure her, her love, and her possessions, and to reward Hilda for her pride. Do not sacrifice yourself to an infatuation; do not tell her about Hilda—it would only breed jealousies; you can settle with her afterwards. Take the goods the gods provide you."
All this and more passed through his mind; and he had made his choice long before the rich blood that mantled in the lady's cheek had sunk back to the true breast from whence it came.
Oh, instant of time born to colour all eternity to thine own hue, for this man thou hast come and gone! Oh, fleeting moment, bearing desolation or healing on thy wings, how the angels, in whose charge lie the souls of men, must tremble and turn pale, as they mark thy flight through the circumstances of a man's existence, and thence taking thy secrets with thee away to add thy fateful store to the records of his past!
He took her hand, the hand that was pressed upon her bosom.
"Maria," he said, "you should not get such ideas into your head. I admire Hilda very much, and that is all. Why, dear, I have always looked upon myself as half engaged to you—that is, so far as I am concerned; and I have only been waiting till circumstances would allow me to do so, to ask you if you think me worth marrying."
For a while she made no reply, but only blushed the more; at last she looked up a little.
"You have made me very happy, Philip." That was all she said.
"I am very glad, dear, that you can find anything in me to like; but if you do care for me, and think me worth waiting for, I am going to ask something of your affection: I am going to ask you to trust me as well as to love me. I do not, for reasons that I will not enter into, but which I beg you to believe are perfectly straightforward, wish anything to be said of our engagement at present, not even to your friend Hilda. Do you trust me sufficiently to agree to that?"
"Philip, I trust you as much as I love you, and for years I have loved you with all my heart. And now, dear, please go; I want to think."
In the hall a servant gave him a note; it was from Hilda, and ran thus—
"I have changed my mind. I will meet you in the summer-house this evening. I have something to say to you."
Philip whistled as he read it.
"Devilish awkward," he thought to himself; "if I am going to marry Maria, she must leave this. But I cannot bear to part with her. I love her! I love her!"
It was some time before Philip could make up his mind whether or no he would attend his tryst with Hilda. In the first place, he felt that it was an unsafe proceeding generally, inasmuch as moonlight meetings with so lovely a person might, should they come to the knowledge of Miss Lee, be open to misconstruction; and particularly because, should she show the least tenderness towards him, he knew in his heart that he could not trust himself, however much he might be engaged in another direction. At twenty-one the affections cannot be outraged with impunity, but have an awkward way of asserting themselves, ties of honour notwithstanding.
But as a rule, when in our hearts we wish to do anything, that thing must be bad indeed if we cannot find a satisfactory excuse for doing it; and so it was with Philip. Now, thought he to himself, would be his opportunity to inform Hilda of his relations with Maria Lee, and to put an end to his flirtation with her; for, ostensibly at any rate, it was nothing more than a very serious flirtation—that is to say, though there had been words of love, and even on her part a passionate avowal of affection, wrung in an unguarded moment from the depths of her proud heart, there had been no formal engagement. It was a thing that must be done, and now was the time to do it. And so he made up his mind to go.
But when, that night, he found himself sitting in the appointed place, and waiting for the coming of the woman he was about to discard, but whom he loved with all the intensity of his fierce nature, he began to view the matter in other lights, and to feel his resolution oozing from him. Whether it was the silence of the place that told upon his nerves, strained as they were with expectation—for silence, and more especially silence by night, is a great unveiler of realities,—or the dread of bitter words, or the prescience of the sharp pang of parting —for he knew enough of Hilda to know that, what he had to say once said, she would trouble him no more—whether it was these things, or whatever it was that affected him, he grew most unaccountably anxious and depressed. Moreover, in this congenial condition of the atmosphere of his mind, all its darker and hidden characteristics sprang into a vigorous growth. Superstitions and presentiments crowded in upon him. He peopled his surroundings with the shades of intangible deeds that yet awaited doing, and grew afraid of his own thoughts. He would have fled from the spot, but he could not fly; he could only watch the flicker of the moonlight upon the peaceful pool beside him, and—wait.
At last she came with quick and anxious steps, and, though but a few minutes before he had dreaded her coming, he now welcomed it eagerly. For our feelings, of whatever sort, when directed towards each other, are so superficial as compared with the intensity of our fears when we are terrified by calamity, or the presence, real or fancied, of the unknown, that in any moment of emergency, more especially if it be of a mental kind, we are apt to welcome our worst enemy as a drowning man welcomes a spar.
"At last," he said, with a sigh of relief. "How late you are!"
"I could not get away. There were some people to dinner;" and then, in a softened voice, "How pale you look! Are you ill?"
"No, only a little tired."
After this there was silence, and the pair stood facing one another, each occupied with their own thoughts, and each dreading to put them into words. Once Philip made a beginning of speech, but his voice failed him; the beating of his heart seemed to choke his utterance.
At length she leaned, as though for support, against the trunk of a pine-tree, in the boughs of which the night breeze was whispering, and spoke in a cold clear voice.
"You asked me to meet you here to-night. Have you anything to say to me? No, do not speak; perhaps I had better speak first. I have something to say to you, and what I have to say may influence whatever is in your mind. Listen; you remember what passed between us nearly a month ago, when I was so weak as to let you see how much I loved you?"
Philip bowed his head in assent.
"Very good. I have come here to-night, not to give you any lover's meeting, but to tell you that no such words must be spoken again, and that I am about to make it impossible that they should be spoken either by you or by me. I am going away from here, never, I hope, to return."
"Going away!" he gasped. "When?"
Here was the very thing he hoped for coming to pass, and yet the words that should have been so full of comfort fell upon him cold as ice, and struck him into misery.
"When! why, to-morrow morning. A relation of mine is ill in Germany, the only one I have. I never saw him, and care nothing for him, but it will give me a pretext; and, once gone, I shall not return. I have told Maria that I must go. She cried about it, poor girl."
At these words, all recollection of his purpose passed out of Philip's mind; all he realized was that, unless he could alter her determination, he was about the lose the woman he so passionately adored, and whose haughty pride was to him in itself more charming than all poor Maria's gentle love.
"Hilda, do not go," he said, seizing her hand, which she immediately withdrew; "do not leave me. You know how I love you."
"And why should I not leave you, even supposing it to be true that you do love me? To my cost I love you, and am I any longer to endure the daily humiliation of seeing myself, the poor German companion, who has nothing but her beauty, put aside in favour of another whom I also love. You say you love me, and bid me stay; now, tell me what is your purpose towards me? Do you intend to try to take advantage of my infatuation to make me your mistress? It is, I am told, a common thing for such proposals to be made to women in my position, whom it would be folly for wealthy gentlemen to marry. If so, abandon that idea; for I tell you, Philip, that I would rather die than so disgrace my ancient name to gratify myself. I know you money-loving English do not think very much of race unless the bearers of the name are rich; but we do; and, although you would think it a mesalliance to marry me, I, on the other hand, should not be proud of an alliance with you. Why, Philip, my ancestors were princes of royal blood when yours still herded the swine in these woods. I can show more than thirty quarterings upon my shield, each the mark of a noble house, and I will not be the first to put a bar sinister across them. Now, I have spoken plainly, indelicately perhaps, and there is only one more word to be said between us, and that word is good-bye," and she held out her hand.
He did not seem to see it; indeed, he had scarcely heard the latter part of what she said. Presently he lifted his face, and it bore traces of a dreadful inward struggle. It was deadly pale, and great black rings had painted themselves beneath the troubled eyes.
"Hilda," he said, hoarsely, "don't go; I cannot bear to let you go. I will marry you."
"Think of what you are saying, Philip, and do not be rash. I do not wish to entrap you into marriage. You love money. Remember that Maria, with all her possessions, asks nothing better than to become your wife, and that I have absolutely nothing but my name and my good looks. Look at me," and she stepped out into a patch of moonlight that found its way between the trees, and, drawing the filmy shawl she wore from her head and bare neck and bosom, stood before him in all the brightness of her beauty, shaded as it was, and made more lovely by the shadows of the night.
"Examine me very carefully," she went on, with bitter sarcasm, "look into my features and study my form and carriage, or you may be disappointed with your bargain, and complain that you have not got your money's worth. Remember, too, that an accident, an illness, and at the best the passage of a few years, may quite spoil my value as a beautiful woman, and reflect, before I take you at your word."
Philip had sat or rather crouched himself down upon the log of a tree that lay outside the summer-house, and covered his face with his hand, as though her loveliness was more than he could bear to look upon. Now, however, he raised his eyes and let them dwell upon her scornful features.
"I had rather," he said slowly—"I had rather lose my life than lose you; I love you so that I would buy you at the price even of my honour. When will you marry me?"
"What, have you made up your mind so quickly? Are you sure? Then,"— and here she changed her whole tone and bearing, and passionately stretched out her arms towards him,—"my dearest Philip, my life, my love, I will marry you when you will."
"To-morrow, if you like!"
"You must promise me something first."
"What is it?"
"That you will keep the marriage a complete secret, and bear another name until my father's death. If you do not, he will most probably disinherit me."
"I do not like your terms, Philip. I do not like secret marriages; but you are giving up much to marry me, so I suppose I must give up something to marry you."
"You solemnly promise that nothing shall induce you to reveal that you are my wife until I give you permission to do so?"
"I promise—that is, provided you do not force me to in self-defence."
"You need not fear that," he said. "But how shall we arrange about getting married?"
"I can meet you in London."
"Very well. I will go up early to-morrow, and get a licence, and then on Wednesday I can meet you, and we can be married."
"As you will, Philip; where shall I meet you?"
He gave her an address which she carefully noted down.
"Now," she said, "you must go, it is late. Yes, you may kiss me now. There, that will do, now go." In another minute he was gone.
"I have won the game," she mused; "poor Maria. I am sorry for her, but perhaps hers is the better part. She will get over it, but mine is a sad fate; I love passionately, madly, but I do not trust the man I love. Why should our marriage be so secret? He cannot be entangled with Maria, or she would have told me." And she stretched out her arms towards the path by which he had left her, and cried aloud, in the native tongue that sounded so soft upon her lips, "Oh, my heart's darling! if I could only trust you as well as I love you, it is a happy woman that I should be to-night."
Nothing occurred to interfere with the plan of action decided on by Hilda and Philip; no misadventure came to mock them, dashing the Tantalus cup of joy to earth before their eyes. On the contrary, within forty-eight hours of the conversation recorded in the last chapter, they were as completely and irrevocably man and wife, as a special licence and the curate of a city church, assisted by the clerk and the pew-opener, could make them.
Then followed a brief period of such delirium as turned the London lodgings, dingy and stuffy as they were in the height of the hot summer, into an earthly paradise, a garden of Eden, into which, alas! the serpent had no need to seek an entrance. But, as was natural, when the first glory of realized happiness was beginning to grow faint on their horizon, the young couple turned themselves to consider their position, and found in it, mutually and severally, many things that did not please them. For Philip, indeed, it was full of anxieties, for he had many complications to deal with. First there was his secret engagement to Maria Lee, of which, be it remembered, his wife was totally ignorant, and which was in itself a sufficiently awkward affair for a married man to have on his hands. Then there was the paramount need of keeping his marriage with Hilda as secret as the dead, to say nothing of the necessity of his living, for the most part, away from his wife. Indeed, his only consolation was that he had plenty of money on which to support her, inasmuch as his father had, from the date of his leaving Oxford, made him an allowance of one thousand a year.
Hilda had begun to discover that she was not without her troubles. For one thing, her husband's fits of moodiness and fretful anxiety troubled her, and led her, possessed as she was with a more than ordinary share of womanly shrewdness, to suspect that he was hiding something from her. But what chiefly vexed her proud nature was the necessity of concealment, and all its attendant petty falsehoods and subterfuges. It was not pleasant for Hilda Caresfoot to have to pass as Mrs. Roberts, and to be careful not to show herself in public places in the daytime, where there was a possibility of her being seen by any one who might recognize in her striking figure the lady who had lived with Miss Lee in Marlshire. It was not pleasant to her to be obliged to reply to Maria Lee's affectionate letters, full as they were of entreaty for her return, by epistles that had to be forwarded to a country town in a remote district of Germany to be posted, and which were in themselves full of lies that, however white they might have seemed under all the circumstances, she felt in her conscience to be very black indeed. In short, there was in their union none of that sense of finality and of security that is, under ordinary circumstances, the distinguishing mark of marriage in this country; it partook rather of the nature of an illicit connection.
At the end of a fortnight of wedded bliss all these little things had begun to make themselves felt, and in truth they were but the commencement of evils. For, one afternoon, Philip, for the first time since his wedding, tore himself away from his wife's side, and paid a visit to a club to which he had been recently elected. Here he found no less than three letters from his father, the first requesting his return, the second commanding it in exceptionally polite language, and the third—which, written in mingled anxiety and anger, had just arrived—coolly announcing his parent's intention, should he not hear of him by return, of setting detective officers to work to discover his whereabouts. From this letter it appeared, indeed, that his cousin George had already been despatched to London to look for him, and on reference to the hall porter he discovered that a gentleman answering to his description had already inquired for him several times.
Cursing his own folly in not having kept up some communication with his father, he made the best of his way back to his lodgings, to find Hilda waiting for him somewhat disconsolately.
"I am glad you have come back, love," she said, drawing him towards her till his dark curls mingled with her own fair locks, and kissing him upon the forehead. "I have missed you dreadfully. I don't understand how I can have lived all these years without you."
"I am afraid, dear, you will have to live without me for a while now; listen," and he read her the letters he had just received.
She listened attentively till he had finished.
"What are you going to do?" she asked, with some anxiety in her voice.
"Do? why of course I must go home at once."
"And what am I to do?"
"Well, I don't know; I suppose that you must stop here."
"That will be pleasant for me, will it not?"
"No, dear, it will be pleasant neither for you nor me; but what can I do? You know the man my father is to deal with; if I stop here in defiance to his wishes, especially as he has been anxious about me, there is no knowing what might not happen. Remember, Hilda, that we have to deal with George, whose whole life is devoted to secret endeavours to supplant me. If I were to give him such an opportunity as I should by stopping away now, I should deserve all I got, or rather all I did not get."
Hilda sighed and acquiesced; had she been a softer-minded woman she would have wept and relieved her feelings, but she was not soft- minded. And so, before the post went out, he wrote an affectionate letter to his father, expressing his sorrow at the latter's anxiety at at his own negligence in not having written to him, the fact of the matter being, he said, that he had been taken up with visiting some of his Oxford friends, and had not till that afternoon been near his club to look for letters. He would, however, he added, return on the morrow, and make his apologies in person.
This letter he handed to his wife to read.
"Do you think that will do?" he asked, when she had finished.
"Oh, yes!" she replied, with a touch of her old sarcasm, "it is a masterpiece of falsehood."
Philip looked very angry, and fumed and fretted; but he made no reply, and on the following morning he departed to Bratham Abbey.
"Ah, Philip, Philip!" said his father, under the mellow influence of his fourth glass of port, on the night of his arrival. "I know well enough what kept you up in town. Well, well, I don't complain, young men will be young men; but don't let these affairs interfere with the business of life. Remember Maria Lee, my boy; you have serious interests in that direction, interests that must not be trifled with, interests that I have a right to expect you will not trifle with."
His son made no reply, but sipped his wine in silence, aching at his heart for his absent bride, and wondering what his father would say did he really know what had "kept him in town."
After this, matters went on smoothly enough for a month or more; since, fortunately for Philip, the great Maria Lee question, a question that the more he considered it the more thorny did it appear, was for the moment shelved by the absence of that young lady on a visit to her aunt in the Isle of Wight. Twice during that month he managed, on different pretexts, to get up to London and visit his wife, whom he found as patient as was possible under the circumstances, but anything but happy. Indeed, on the second occasion, she urged on him strongly the ignominy of her position, and even begged him to make a clean breast of it to his father, offering to undertake the task herself. He refused equally warmly, and some sharp words ensued to be, however, quickly followed by a reconciliation.
On his return from this second visit, Philip found a note signed "affectionately yours, Maria Lee," waiting for him, which announced that young lady's return, and begged him to come over to lunch on the following day.
He went—indeed, he had no alternative but to go; and again fortune favoured him in the person of a diffident young lady who was stopping with Maria, and who never left her side all that afternoon, much to the disgust of the latter and the relief of Philip. One thing, however, he was not spared, and that was the perusal of Hilda's last letter to her friend, written apparently from Germany, and giving a lively description of the writer's daily life and the state of her uncle's health, which, she said, precluded all possibility of her return. Alas! he already knew its every line too well; for, as Hilda refused to undertake the task, he had but a week before drafted it himself. But Philip was growing hardened to deception, and found it possible to read it from end to end, and speculate upon its contents with Maria without blush or hesitation.
But he could not always expect to find Miss Lee in the custody of such an obtuse friend; and, needless to say, it became a matter of very serious importance to him to know how he should treat her. It occurred to him that his safest course might be to throw himself upon her generosity and make a clean breast of it; but when it came to the point he was too weak to thus expose his shameful conduct to the woman whose heart he had won, and to whom he was bound by every tie of honour that a gentleman holds sacred.
He thought of the scornful wonder with which she would listen to his tale, and preferred to take the risk of greater disaster in the future to the certainty of present shame. In the end, he contrived to establish a species of confidential intimacy with Maria, which, whilst it somewhat mystified the poor girl, was not without its charm, inasmuch as it tended to transform the every-day Philip into a hero of romance.
But in the main Maria was ill-suited to play heroine to her wooer's hero. Herself as open as the daylight, it was quite incomprehensible to her why their relationship should be kept such a dark and mysterious secret, or why, if her lover gave her a kiss, it should be done with as many precautions as though he were about to commit a murder.