G. J. WHYTE-MELVILLE
T. Nelson and Sons 1909
Chapter I 3 Chapter II 15 Chapter III 24 Chapter IV 35 Chapter V 46 Chapter VI 58 Chapter VII 66 Chapter VIII 77 Chapter IX 89 Chapter X 103 Chapter XI 114 Chapter XII 125 Chapter XIII 138 Chapter XIV 151 Chapter XV 163 Chapter XVI 175 Chapter XVII 188 Chapter XVIII 201 Chapter XIX 214 Chapter XX 228 Chapter XXI 241 Chapter XXII 254 Chapter XXIII 267 Chapter XXIV 274
"Kate," said Aunt Deborah to me as we sat with our feet on the fender one rainy afternoon—or, as we were in London, I should say one rainy morning—in June, "I think altogether, considering the weather and what not, it would be as well for you to give up this Ascot expedition, my dear."
I own I felt more than half inclined to cry—most girls would have cried—but Aunt Deborah says I am very unlike the generality of women; and so, although I had ordered a peach-coloured mantle, and such a bonnet as can only be seen at Ascot on the Cup Day, I kept back my tears, and swallowed that horrid choking feeling in my throat, whilst I replied, with the most careless manner I could assume, "Goodness, aunt, it won't rain for ever: not that I care; but think what a disappointment for John!"
I must here be allowed the privilege of my sex, to enter on a slightly discursive explanation as to who Aunt Deborah is and who I am, not forgetting Cousin John, who is good-nature itself, and without whom I cannot do the least bit. My earliest recollections of Aunt Deborah, then, date from a period when I was a curly-headed little thing in a white frock (not so very long ago, after all); and the first occasion on which I can recollect her personality with any distinctness was on a certain birthday, when poor grandfather said to me in his funny way, "Kate, you romp, we must get you a rocking-horse."
Aunt Deborah lifted up her hands and eyes in holy horror and deprecation. "A rocking-horse, Mr. Coventry," said she; "what an injudicious selection! (Aunt Deborah likes to round her periods, as the book-people say.) The child is a sad tomboy already, and if you are going to teach her to ride, I won't answer for the consequences in after-life, when the habits of our youth have become the second nature of our maturity."
Imagine such sentiments so expressed by a tall austere lady, with high manly features, piercing dark eyes, a front of jet-black hair coming low down on a somewhat furrowed brow. Cousin John says all dark women are inclined to be cross; and I own I think we blondes have the best of it as far as good temper is concerned. My aunt is not altered in the slightest degree from what she was then. She dresses invariably in gray silks of the most delicate shades and texture; carries spectacles low down upon her nose, where they can be of no earthly use except for inspection of the carpet; and wears lavender kid gloves at all hours of the day and night—for Aunt Deborah is vain of her hand, and preserves its whiteness as a mark of her birth and parentage. Most families have a crotchet of some sort on which they plume themselves; some will boast that their scions rejoice one and all in long noses; others esteem the attenuated frames which they bequeath to their descendants as the most precious of legacies; one would not part with his family squint for the finest pair of eyes that ever adorned an Andalusian maiden; another cherishes his hereditary gout as a priceless patent of nobility; and even insanity is prized in proportion to the tenacity with which it clings to a particular race. So the Horsinghams never cease talking of the Horsingham hand; and if I want to get anything out of Aunt Deborah, I have only to lend her a pair of my gloves, and apologize to her for their being so large that she can get both her hands into one.
Now the only thing we ever fall out about is what my aunt calls propriety. I had a French governess once who left because I pinned the tail of Cousin John's kite to her skirt, and put white mice in her work-box; and she was always lecturing me about what she called "les convenances." Aunt Deborah don't speak much French, though she says she understands it perfectly, and she never lets me alone about propriety. When I came home from church that rainy Sunday with Colonel Bingham, under his umbrella (a cotton one), Aunt Deborah lectured me on the impropriety of such a thing—though the Colonel is forty if he is a day, and told me repeatedly he was a "safe old gentleman." I didn't think him at all dangerous, I'm sure. I rode a race against Bob Dashwood the other morning, once round the inner ring, down Rotten Row, to finish in front of Apsley House, and beat him all to ribbons. Wasn't it fun? And didn't I kick the dirt in his face? He looked like a wall that's been fresh plastered when he pulled up. I don't know who told Aunt Deborah. It wasn't the coachman, for he said he wouldn't; but she heard of it somehow, and of course she said it was improper and unladylike, and even unfeminine—as if anything a woman does can be unfeminine. I know Bob didn't think so, though he got the worst of it every way.
To be sure, we women are sadly kept down in this world, whatever we shall be in the next. If they would only let us try, I think we could beat the "lords of the creation," as they call themselves, at everything they undertake. Dear me, they talk about our weakness and vanity—why, they never know their own minds for two minutes together; and as for vanity, only tell a man you think him good-looking, and he falls in love with you directly; or if that is too great a bounce—and indeed very few of them have the slightest pretensions to beauty—you need only hint that he rides gallantly, or waltzes nicely, or wears neat boots, and it will do quite as well. I recollect perfectly that Cousin Emily made her great marriage—five thousand a year and the chance of a baronetcy—by telling her partner in a quadrille, quite innocently, that "she should know his figure anywhere." The man had a hump, and one leg shorter than the other; but he thought Emily was dying for him, and proposed within a fortnight. Emily is an artless creature—"good, common-sense," Aunt Deborah calls it—and so she threw over Harry Bloomfield and married the hump and the legs that didn't match and the chance of the baronetcy forthwith; and now they say he beats her, and I think it serves her right.
But we women—gracious! if we only take the trouble we can turn the whole male sex round our little fingers. Who ever saw half a dozen of us hovering and watching and fussing round a masculine biped, thankful even to be snubbed rather than not noticed at all. Who ever saw us fetch and carry like so many retrievers, and "sit up," so to speak, for a withered rose-bud at the fag end of an over-blown bouquet. Not that we don't love flowers in their proper places, and keep them too, sometimes long after their colour has faded and their perfume gone; but we don't make a parade of such things, and have the grace to be ashamed of ourselves when we are so foolish.
But it's quite different with men. They give in to us about everything if we only insist—and it's our own fault if we don't insist; for, of course, if they find us complying and ready to oblige, why, there's no end to their audacity. "Give 'em an inch, and they take an ell." However, they do try to keep us down as much as they can. Now there's that very exercise of riding that they are so proud of. They get us a side-saddle, as they call it, of enormous weight and inconvenience, on which they plant pommels enough to impale three women; they place us in an attitude from which it is next to impossible to control a horse should he be violent, and in a dress which ensures a horrible accident should he fall; added to which, they constantly give us the worst quadruped in the stable; and yet, with all these drawbacks, such is our own innate talent and capacity, we ride many an impetuous steed in safety and comfort that a man would find a dangerous and incontrollable "mount." For my part, I only wish I had been born a man—that's to say, if I could keep my own ideas and feelings. To be sure, I should lose a good many personal adornments; not that I'm vain enough to consider myself a beauty, but still one cannot help being anxious about one's own appearance, particularly if one has a full-length glass in one's bedroom. I need not be ashamed to own that I know I've got bright eyes, and good teeth, and a fresh colour, and loads of soft brown hair, and not a bad figure—so my dressmaker tells me; though I think myself I look best in a riding-habit. Altogether you can't call that a perfect fright; but, nevertheless, I think if I might I would change places with Cousin John. He has no Aunt Deborah to be continually preaching propriety to him. He can go out when he likes without being questioned, and come in without being scolded. He can swagger about wherever he chooses without that most odious of encumbrances called a chaperon; and though I shouldn't care to smoke as many cigars as he does (much as I like the smell of them in the open air), yet I confess it must be delightfully independent to have a latchkey.
I often wonder whether other people think Cousin John good-looking. I have known him so long that I believe I can hardly be a fair judge. He is fresh-coloured, to be sure, and square and rather fat, and when he smiles and shows all his white teeth, he has a very pleasant appearance; but I think I admire a man who looks rather more of a roue—not like Colonel Bingham exactly, whose face is all wrinkles and whiskers, but a little care-worn and jaded, as if he was accustomed to difficulties, and had other things to occupy his thoughts besides his horses and his dinner. I don't like a man that stares at you; and I don't like a man that can't look you in the face. He provokes me if he is all smiles, and I've no patience with him if he's cross. I'm not sure I know exactly what does please me best, but I do know that I like Cousin John's constant good-humour, and the pains he takes to give me a day's amusement whenever he can, or what he calls "have Cousin Kate out for a lark." And this brings me back to Aunt Deborah and the expedition to Ascot, a thing of all others I fancied was so perfectly delightful.
"My dear," said Aunt Deborah as she folded her lavender-gloved hands, "if it wasn't for the weather and my rheumatism, I'd accompany you myself; but I do consider that Ascot is hardly a place for my niece to be seen at without a chaperon, and with no other protector than John Jones—John Jones," repeated the old lady reflectively—"an excellent young man, doubtless (I heard him his Catechism when he was so high), but still hardly equal to so responsible a charge as that of Miss Coventry."
I knew this was what John calls a "back-hander" at me, but I can be so good-tempered when I've anything to gain; therefore I only said,—
"Well, aunt, of course you're the best judge, and I don't care the least about going; only when John calls this afternoon, you must explain it all to him, for he's ordered the carriage and the luncheon and everything, and he'll be so disappointed."
I've long ago found out that if you want to do anything you should never seem too anxious about it.
Aunt Deborah is fonder of John than she likes to confess. I know why, because I overheard my old nurse tell the housekeeper when I was quite a little thing; and what I hear, especially if I'm not intended to hear it, I never forget. There were three Miss Horsinghams, all with white hands—poor mamma, Aunt Deborah, and Aunt Dorcas. Now Aunt Deborah wanted to marry old David Jones (John's papa). I can just remember him—a snuffy little man with a brown wig, but perhaps he wasn't always so; and David Jones, who was frightened at Aunt Deborah's black eyes, thought he would rather marry Aunt Dorcas. Why the two sisters didn't toss up for him I can't think; but he did marry Aunt Dorcas, and Aunt Deborah has been an old maid ever since. Sometimes even now she fixes her eyes on Cousin John, and then takes them off with a great sigh. It seems ridiculous in an old lady, but I don't know that it is so. That's the reason my cousin can do what he likes with Aunt Deborah; and that's the reason why, when he called on that rainy afternoon, he persuaded her to let me go down to Ascot with him all alone by our two selves the following day.
How pleasant it is to wake on the morning of a gala day, to hear the carts and cabs rumbling and clattering in the streets, and to know that you must get up early, and be off directly after breakfast, and will have the whole livelong day to amuse yourself in. What a bright sunshiny morning it was, and what fun I had going with John in a hansom cab to Paddington—I like a hansom cab, it goes so fast—and then down to Windsor by the train in a carriage full of such smart people, some of whom I knew quite well by name, though not to speak to. The slang aristocracy, as they are called, muster in great force at Ascot. Nor could anything be more delightful than the drive through Windsor Forest up to the Course—such a neat phaeton and pair, and John and I like a regular Darby and Joan sitting side by side. Somehow that drive through Windsor Forest made me think of a great many things I never think of at other times. Though I was going to the races, and fully prepared for a day of gaiety and amusement, a half-melancholy feeling stole over me as we rolled along amongst those stately old trees, and that lovely scenery, and those picturesque little places set down in that abode of beauty. I thought how charming it would be to saunter about here in the early summer mornings or the still summer nights, and listen to the thrush and the blackbird and the nightingale in the copse; and then I thought I would not care to wander here quite alone, and that a whisper might steal on my ear, sweeter than the note of the thrush and the nightingale; and that there might be a somebody without whom all that sylvan beauty would be a blank, but with whom any place would become a fairyland. And then I fell to wondering who that somebody would be; and I looked at Cousin John, and felt a little cross—which was very ungrateful; and a little disappointed—which was very unjust.
"Here we are, Kate: that's the Grand Stand, and we'll have the carriage right opposite; and the Queen's not come, and we're in heaps of time; and there's Frank Lovell," exclaimed the unconscious John as we drove on to the Course, and my daydreams were effectually dispelled by the gay scene which spread itself before my eyes.
As I took John's arm and walked into the enclosure in front of the stand, I must confess that the first impression on my mind was this—"Never in my life have I seen so many well-dressed people collected together before;" and when the Queen drove up the Course with her brilliant suite of carriages and outriders, and the mob of gentlemen and ladies cheered her to the echo, I was such a goose that I felt as if I could have cried. After a time I got a little more composed, and looked about at the different toilettes that surrounded me. I own I saw nothing much neater than my own; and I was pleased to find it so, as nothing gives one greater confidence in a crowd than the consciousness of being well dressed. But what I delighted in more than all the bonnets and gowns in the universe were those dear horses, with their little darlings of jockeys. If there is one thing I like better than another, it is a thoroughbred horse. What a gentleman he looks amongst the rest of his kind! How he walks down the Course, as if he knew his own value—self-confident, but not vain—and goes swinging along in his breathing-gallop as easily and as smoothly as if I was riding him myself, and he was proud of his burthen! When Colonist won the Cup, I felt again as if I could have cried. It was a near race, and closely contested the whole way from the distance in. I felt my blood creeping quite chill, and I could perfectly understand then the infatuation men cherish about racing, and why they ruin their wives and children at that pursuit. What a relief it was when the number was up, and I could be quite satisfied that the dear bay horse had won. As for the little jockey that rode him, I could and would have kissed him! Just then Cousin John came back to me, with his sunny, laughing face, and I naturally asked him, "Had he won his money?" John never bets; but he replied, "I'm just as pleased as if I'd won a fortune; only think, Frank Lovell has landed twelve hundred!" "Well," I replied, "I am glad of it—which is very good of me, seeing that I don't know Mr. Lovell." "Don't know Frank Lovell!" exclaimed John. "The greatest friend I have in the world." (Men's friends always are the greatest in the world.) "I'll introduce him to you; there he is—no he isn't. I saw him a moment ago." And forthwith John launched into a long biography of his friend Frank Lovell—how that gentleman was the nicest fellow and the finest rider and the best shot in the universe; how he knew more about racing than any man of his age, and had been in more difficulties, and got out of them better, and robbed the public generally with a more plausible air; how he sang a capital song, and was the pleasantest company, and had more brains than the world gave him credit for (as indeed might easily be the case); how he was very good-looking, and very agreeable, and met with great success (whatever that means) in society; how Lady Scapegrace was avowedly in love with him; and he had thrown over pretty Miss Pinnifer because he wouldn't leave the army, and six months afterwards was obliged to sell his commission, when Outsider won the "Two Thousand;" together with various other details, which lasted till it was time to have luncheon, and go back to Windsor to catch the four o'clock train. Though evidently such a hero of John's, I confess I didn't like what I heard of Frank Lovell at all.
We've got such a sweet little house in Lowndes Street—to my mind the very best situation in London. When I say we, of course I mean Aunt Deborah and myself. We live together, as I hope we always shall do, as Aunt Deborah says, till "one of us is married." And notwithstanding the difference of our ages we get on as comfortably as any two forlorn maidens can. Though a perfect fairy palace within, our stronghold is guarded by no giant, griffin, dragon, or dwarf; nothing more frightful than a policeman, whose measured tread may be heard at the midnight hour pacing up and down beneath our windows. "It's a great comfort," says Aunt Deborah, "to know that assistance is close at hand. I am a lone woman, Kate, and I confess to feeling nervous when I lie awake." I quite agree with my aunt, though I'm not nervous, but I must say I like the idea of being watched over during the hours of sleep; and there is something romantic in hearing the regular tramp of the sentinel whilst one is curled up snug in bed. I don't much think it always is the policeman—at least I know that one night when I got up to peep if it was a constable, he was wrapped in a very loose cloak, such as is by no means the uniform of the force, and was besides, unquestionably, smoking a cigar, which I am given to understand is not permitted by the regulations when on duty. I watched the glowing light for at least ten minutes, and when I went to bed again, I could not get to sleep for wondering who the amateur policeman could be.
But the house is a perfect jewel of its kind. Such a pretty dining-room, such a lovely drawing-room, opening into a conservatory, with a fountain and gold-fish, to say nothing of flowers (I am passionately fond of flowers), and such a boudoir of my own, where nobody ever intrudes except my special favourites—Cousin John, for instance, when he is not in disgrace—and which I have fitted up and furnished quite to my own taste. There's the "Amazon" in gilt bronze, and a bas-relief from the Elgin marbles—not coloured like those flaxen-haired abominations at Sydenham, but pure and simple as the taste that created it; and an etching Landseer did for me himself of my little Scotch terrier growling; and a veritable original sketch of Horace Vernet—in which nothing is distinguishable save a phantom charger rearing straight up amongst clouds of smoke. Then I've put up a stand for my riding-whips, and a picture of my own thoroughbred favourite horse over the chimney-piece; altogether, Aunt Deborah describes the apartment exactly when she says to me, as she does about once a week, "My dear, if you were a man, I should say your room was fitted up in the most perfect taste; but as you happen to be a young lady, I won't say what I think, because I know you won't agree with me;" and I certainly do not agree with Aunt Deborah upon a great many subjects.
However, there's no situation like Lowndes Street. I'm not going to tell the number, nor at which end of the street we live; for it's very disagreeable to have people riding by and stopping to alter their stirrup-leathers, and squinting up at one's drawing-room windows where one sits working in peace, and then cantering off and trotting by again, as if something had been forgotten. No; if curiosity is so very anxious to know where I live, let it look in the Court Guide; for my part, I say nothing, except that there are always flowers in the balcony, and there's no great singularity about that. But there are two great advantages connected with a "residence in Belgravia," which I wonder are not inserted in the advertisements of all houses to let in that locality. In the first place, a lady may walk about all the forenoon quite alone, without being hampered by a maid or hunted by a footman; and in the second, she is most conveniently situated for a morning ride or walk in the Park; and those are about the two pleasantest things one does in London.
Well, the same conversation takes place nearly every morning at breakfast between Aunt Deborah and myself (we breakfast early, never after half-past nine, however late we may have been the night before). Aunt Deborah begins,—
"My dear, I hope we shall have a quiet morning together; I've directed the servants to deny me to all visitors; and if you'll get your work, I will proceed with my readings from excellent Mrs. Hannah More."
Kate.—"Thank you, aunt; Hannah More amuses me very much"—(I confess that prim moralist does make me laugh).
Aunt Deborah (reprovingly).—"Instructive, Kate, not amusing; certainly not ludicrous. If you'll shut the door we'll begin."
Kate.—"Can't we put it off for an hour? I must get my ride, you know, aunt. What's the use of horses if one don't ride?"
Aunt Deborah.—"Kate, you ride too much; I don't object to the afternoons with John Jones, but these morning scampers are really quite uncalled for; they're spoiling your figure and complexion; it's improper—more, it's unfeminine; but as you seem determined upon it, go and get your ride, and come back a little sobered;" and Kate—that's me—disappears into the boudoir, from which she emerges in about five minutes with the neatest habit and the nicest hat, and her hair done in two such killing plaits—John Jones says I never look so well as when I've got my hair dressed for riding.
I always go out for these morning excursions quite alone. Aunt Deborah fought for a long time, and insisted on my taking the coachman; but he is an old family servant, and I soon knocked him up completely. In the first place, the ride is always soft, and I hate going slow, so he used to get a dreadful stitch in his side trying to keep up with me on one of the high-actioned coach-horses; then he didn't see the fun of having two horses to clean when he got home instead of one; so when he found he couldn't get another helper, we begged him off between us, and I go out now unencumbered by that excellent and pursy old man. After all, I ought to be able to take care of myself. I have ridden ever since I was five years old; and if habit is second nature, as Aunt Deborah says, I'm sure my habit ought to be natural enough to me. I recollect as well as if it was yesterday, when poor papa put me on a shaggy Shetland pony, and telling me not to be frightened, gave it a thump, and started me off by myself. I wasn't the least bit afraid, I know that. It was a new sensation, and delightful; round and round the field we went, I shaking my reins with one hand, and holding on a great flapping straw hat with the other; the pony grunting and squeaking, with his mane and tail floating on the breeze, and papa standing in the middle, waving his hat and applauding with all his might. After that I was qualified to ride anything; and by the time I was twelve, there wasn't a hunter in the stables that I wouldn't get on at a moment's notice. I am ashamed to confess that I have even caught the loose cart-horses in a field, and ridden them without saddle or bridle. I never was beat but once, and that was at Uncle Horsingham's when I was about fifteen. He had bought a mare at Tattersall's for his daughter to ride, and brought her down to Dangerfield, thinking she would conduct herself like the rest of her species. How well I remember my governess's face when she gave me leave to go to the stable with Sir Harry and look over the new purchase. I was a great pet of Uncle Horsingham; and as Cousin Amelia was not much of an equestrian, he proposed that I should get upon the chestnut mare first, and try her paces and temper before his daughter mounted her. As we neared the stables out came one of the grooms with a sidesaddle on his head, and the longest face I ever beheld.
"O Sir 'Arry," said he—I quote his exact words—"that new mare's a wicious warmint; afore I was well into the stable, she ups and lets out at me just above the knee: I do believe as my thigh's broke."
"Nonsense, man," said my uncle; "put the saddle on and bring her out." Presently the chestnut mare appeared; and I saw at once that she was not in the best of humours. But I was young, full of spirits, and fresh from lessons; so, fearing if one of the men should venture to mount her she might show temper, and I should lose my ride, I made a sign to the head-groom to give me a hand; and before my uncle had time to exclaim, "For goodness sake, Kate!" I was seated, muslin dress and all, on the back of the chestnut mare. What she did I never could quite make out; it seemed to me that she crouched as if she was going to lie down, and then bounded into the air, with all four legs off the ground. I was as near gone as possible; but for the only time in my life I caught hold of the pommel with my right hand, and that saved me. In another instant she had broke from the groom's hold, and was careering along the approach like a mad thing. If I had pulled at her the least she would have run away with me.
Luckily, the park was roomy, and the old trees far apart; so when we got upon the grass I knew who would be mistress. I gave her a rousing good gallop, shook my reins and patted her, to show her how confident I was, and brought her back to my uncle as quiet as a lamb. Unfortunately, however, the mare had taken a dislike to certain stone pillars which supported the stable gates, and nothing would induce her to pass them. Flushed with success, I borrowed my uncle's riding-whip to punish her; and now began a battle in good earnest. She reared and plunged, and wheeled round and round, and did all she knew to get rid of me; whilst I flogged and jerked, and screamed at her (I didn't swear, because I didn't know how), and vowed in my wicked little heart I would be killed rather than give in. During the tussle we got nearer and nearer to a certain large pond about a hundred yards from the stable gates, at which the cattle used to water in the quiet summer afternoons. I knew it wasn't very deep, for I had seen them standing in it often. By the time we were close on the brink the whole household had turned out to see "Miss Kate killed;" and just as I hit the mare a finishing cut over the ears, I caught a glimpse of my governess in an attitude of combined shame, horror, and disgust that I shall never forget. The next moment we were overhead in the pond, the mare having dashed blindly in, caught her fore-feet in the bridle, and rolled completely over. What a ducking I got to be sure! But it was nothing to the scolding I had to endure afterwards from all the females of the family, including my governess; only Uncle Horsingham stuck up for me, and from that time till the day of his death vowed he had "never known but one plucky fellow in the world, and that was his little niece Kate."
No wonder I feel at home on Brilliant, who never did wrong in his life, who will eat out of my hand, put his foot in my apron-pocket, follow me about like a dog, and is, I am firmly persuaded, the very best horse in England. He is quite thoroughbred, though he has never been in training—and is as beautiful as he is good. Bright bay, with such black legs, and such a silky mane and tail! I know lots of ladies whose hair is coarser than Brilliant's. Fifteen hands three inches, and Cousin John says well up to his weight—an honest fourteen stone. With the smallest nose, and the leanest head, and the fullest dark eye, and the widest, reddest nostril—his expression of countenance, when a little blown, is the most beautiful I ever beheld; and not a white mark about him except a tiny star in the very middle of his forehead; I know it well, for I have kissed it often and often. The picture over my chimney-piece does not half do him justice; but then, to be sure, its pendant, painted by the same artist, and representing my other horse, White Stockings, flatters that very plain and excellent animal most unblushingly.
Of all delights in the world give me my morning canter up the park on Brilliant. Away we go, understanding each other perfectly; and I am quite sure that he enjoys as much as I do the bright sunshine and the morning breeze and the gleaming Serpentine, with its solitary swan, and its hungry ducks, and its amphibious dogs continually swimming for the inciting stick, only rescued to produce fresh exertions; and the rosy children taking their morning walk; and, above all, the liberty of London before two o'clock in the day, when the real London begins. I pat Brilliant's smooth, hard neck, and he shakes his head, and strikes an imaginary butterfly with one black fore-leg, and I draw my rein a thought tighter, and away we go, much to the admiration of that good-looking man with moustachios who is leaning on his umbrella close to the rails, and smoking the cigar of meditation as if the park was his own.
I often wondered who that man was. Morning after morning have I seen him at the same place, always with an umbrella, and always with a cigar. I quite missed him on the Derby day, when of course he was gone to Epsom (by-the-bye, why don't we go to the Derby just as much as to Ascot?); and yet it was rather a relief, too, for I had got almost shy about passing him. It seemed so absurd to see the man every day and never to speak; besides, I fancied, though of course it could only be fancy, that he looked as if he was expecting me. At last I couldn't help blushing, and I thought he saw it; for I'm sure he smiled, and then I was so provoked with myself that I sent Brilliant up the ride at a pace nothing short of a racehorse could have caught.
I wonder whether any lady in England has a maid who, to use that domestic's own expression, is capable of "giving satisfaction." If any lady does rejoice in such an Abigail, I shall be too happy to "swap" with her, and give anything else I possess except Brilliant into the bargain. Mine is the greatest goose that ever stood upon two legs, and how she can chatter as she does with her mouth full of pins is to me a perfect miracle. Once or twice in the week I have to endure a certain ordeal which, although a positive pleasure to some women, is to my disposition intense martyrdom, termed dressing to go out; and I think I never hated it more than the night of Lady Horsingham's ball. Lady Horsingham is my poor uncle's widow; and as Aunt Deborah is extremely punctilious on all matters relating to family connections, we invariably attend these solemnities with a gravity befitting the occasion.
Now, I may be singular in my ideas; but I confess that it does appear to me a strange way of enjoying oneself in the dog-days, to make one's toilette at eleven p.m., for the purpose of sitting in a carriage till twelve, and struggling on a staircase amongst a mob of one's fellow-creatures till half-past. After fighting one's way literally step by step, and gaining a landing by assault, one looks round and takes breath, and what does one see? Panting girls looking in vain for the right partner, who is probably not ten yards from them, but wedged in between substantial dowagers, whom he is cursing in his heart, but from whom there is no escape; or perhaps philosophically and perfidiously making the best of his unavoidable situation, and flirting shamefully with the one he likes next best to the imprisoned maiden on the staircase; or, the tables turned, young fledglings pining madly for their respective enslavers, and picturing to themselves how she may be even now whirling round to that pealing waltz in the arms of some former adorer or delightfully new acquaintance, little heeding him who is languishing in his white neckcloth, actually within speaking distance, but separated as effectually as if he were in another country. By-the-bye, it's fatal when people begin to think of each other as hes and shes; the softest proper name that ever was whispered is not half so dangerous as those demonstrative pronouns. In one corner is a stout old gentleman, wedged against the wall, wiping the drops from his bald head, and wondering what Jane and Julia can see in these gatherings to make them wild about going to every ball for which they can get an invitation. Deluded father! both Jane and Julia have the best of reasons in this very house. You grudge not to spend a broiling September day in the pursuit of your game; each of your fair daughters, sir, flatters herself that she, too, has winged her bird.
Swaying backwards and forwards in the mass, like some goodly merchantman at anchor, pitching and rolling to a ground-swell, behold the chaperon fulfilling her destiny, and skilfully playing that game which to her is the business of life. Flushed and hot in person, she is cool and composed in mind. Practice makes perfect; and the chaperon is as much at home here as the stockbroker on 'Change, or the betting-man in the ring, or the fisherman amidst the roar and turmoil of the waves. With lynx eyes she notes how Lady Carmine's eldest girl is "carrying on" with young Thriftless, and how Lord Looby's eyeglass is fixed on her own youngest daughter; yet for all this she is not absent or preoccupied, but can whisper to stupid Lady Dulwich the very latest intelligence of a marriage, or listen, all attention, to the freshest bit of scandal from Mrs. General Gabbler. But perhaps by this time you have floated with the tide into the doorway, and received from your hostess the cordial shake of the hand or formal bow which makes you free of the place. So, with patience and perseverance you work your way at last into the dancing-room, and you now see what people come here for—dancing, of course. Each performer has about eighteen inches of standing room, and on that space must be enacted in hopeless pantomime the intricate evolutions of the quadrille, or the rotatory struggles of the waltz. Sliding and smiling, and edging and crushing, the conscientious dancers try to fulfil their duties, and much confusion and begging of pardons are the natural results.
However, it's a rare place for love-making. What with the music and the crowd and the confusion, the difficulty is more to make out what one's partner does say than to prevent his being overheard by other people; but, I must confess, if anybody had anything very particular to say to me, I had rather hear it in the quiet country by moonlight, or even coming home from Greenwich by water—or anywhere, in short, rather than in the turmoil of a London ball. But that's all nonsense; and I hope I have too much pride to allow any man to address me in such a strain. Trust me for setting him down!
It's no wonder, then, that I was cross when I was dressing for Lady Horsingham's ball; and that silly Gertrude (that's my maid's name, and what a name it is for a person in that class of life!) put me more and more out of patience with her idiotic conversation, which she tries to adapt to my tastes, and of which the following is a specimen:——
"Master John will be at her ladyship's ball, miss, I make no doubt;" brushing away the while at my back hair, and pulling it unnecessarily hard; no maid ever yet had a "light hand."
No answer. What business is it of hers, and why should she call him Master John? Gertrude tries again: "You look pale to-night, miss; you that generally has such a colour. I'm afraid you're tired with your ride."
"Not a bit of it—only sleepy. Why, it's time one was in bed."
"Lor, miss, I shouldn't want to go to bed, not if I was going to a ball. But I think you like 'orse exercise best; and to be sure, your 'orse is a real beauty, Miss Kate."
The very name of Brilliant always puts me in good humour, so, of course, I can but answer, "That he is, Gertrude, and as good as he's handsome;" on which my voluble handmaid goes off again at score.
"That's what I say, miss, when I see him coming round to the door, with his long black tail and his elegant shape and his thin legs." Thin legs!—I can't stand that; to hear my beautiful Brilliant's great strong legs called thin, as if he were made of paper. I feel I am getting savage again, so I cut Gertrude short, and bid her "finish my hair," and hasten my dressing, for Aunt Deborah don't take long, and we shall be late for the ball. At the mention of the word "ball," off goes Gertrude again.
"What a grand ball it'll be, miss, as all her ladyship's is; and I know there'll be no young lady there as will be better dressed than my young lady, nor better looking neither; and I'm sure, to see you and Master John stand up together, as you did last Christmas when we was all at Dangerfield! and I says to the steward, 'Mr. Musty,' says I, 'a handsomer couple than them two I never clapped eyes on. Master John, he looks so fresh, and so healthy and portly, as becomes a gentleman.' And he says, 'No doubt,' says he; 'and Miss Kate, she steps away like a real good one, with her merry eyes and her trim waist, as blooming,' says he, 'as a beanfield, and as saucy as——'"
"There, that will do, Gertrude; now my pocket-handkerchief and some scent, and my gloves and my fan. Good-night, Gertrude."
"Good-night, miss; I do humbly hope you'll enjoy your ball."
Enjoy my ball, indeed! How little does the girl know what I enjoy, and what I don't enjoy! Lady Horsingham will be as stiff as the poker, and about as communicative. Cousin Amelia will look at everything I've got on, and say the most disagreeable things she can think of, because she never can forgive me for being born two years later than herself. I shall know very few people, and those I do know I shall not like. I shall have a headache before I have been half an hour in the room. If I dance I shall be hot, and if I don't dance I shall be bored. Enjoy my ball, indeed! I'd much rather be going hay-making.
Up went the steps, bang went the door, and ere long we were safely consigned to the "string" of carriages bound for the same destination as ourselves. After much "cutting-in," and shaving of wheels, and lashing of coach-horses, with not a little blasphemy, "Miss Horsingham" and "Miss Coventry" were announced in a stentorian voice, and we were struggling in a mass of silks and satins, blonde and broadcloth, up the swarming staircase. Everything happened exactly as I had predicted; Lady Horsingham accosted Aunt Deborah with the most affectionate cordiality, and lent me two fingers of her left hand, to be returned without delay. Cousin Amelia looked me well over from head to foot, and asked after my own health and Brilliant's with a supercilious smile. How that girl hates me! And I honestly confess to returning the feeling with some cordiality. As far as appearance goes, I think without vanity I may say I have the best of it, Cousin Amelia being very short and pale, with a "turn-up" nose and long ringlets. Why does a little woman with a turn-up nose always wear her hair in ringlets? Is it that she wishes to resemble a King Charles's spaniel? And why are our sex so apt to cherish feelings of animosity towards those who are younger and better-looking than themselves? While I ask myself these questions I was suddenly accosted by a lady who had been some time in conversation with my chaperon, and from whom, I saw by Aunt Deborah's countenance, she was anxious to make her escape. Poor old soul! What could she do? A double rank of dowagers hemmed her in in front; on one side of her was her unwelcome acquaintance and the banisters—on the other, myself and three demure young ladies (sisters), who looked frightened and uncomfortable—whilst her rear was guarded by a tall cavalry officer with enormous moustachios, heading an impervious column of dandies worse than himself. Aunt Deborah was like a needle in a bottle of hay. Taking advantage of her position, the lady before mentioned seized me by both hands, and vowed she should have known me anywhere by my likeness to my poor mamma. "I must make your acquaintance, my dear Miss Coventry—your uncle, Sir Harry, was one of my oldest friends. I see you so often in the park, and you ride the nicest horse in London, a bay with a white star." Of course I bowed an affirmative, and shook my new friend by the hand with a cordiality equal to her own. A conversation begun in so promising a manner as by a reference to my favourite was sure to go on swimmingly; besides, we could not have got away from each other if we would; and ere long I found Mrs. Lumley—for that was the lady's name—a most amusing and satirical personage, with a variety of anecdotes about all her friends and acquaintances, and a sort of flippant charm of manner that was quite irresistible.
Besides all this, she was doubtless a very pretty woman—less striking perhaps than winning. At the first glance you hardly remarked her—at the second you observed she was very well dressed—at the third it occurred to you all of a sudden that she was far better-looking than half the regular red-and-white beauties of the season; and after five minutes' conversation all the men were over head and ears in love with her. She was neither dark nor fair, neither pale nor ruddy, neither short nor tall. I never could succeed in making out the colour of her eyes, but she had wonderfully long thick eyelashes with a curl in them (I wish mine had been cut when I was a baby), and a beautiful healthy-looking skin, and such good teeth. After all, I think her great attraction was her nose. It had more expression in its straight, well-cut bridge and little, sharp point than all the rest of her features put together. I believe it was her nose that conquered everything, and that her small feet and pretty figure and white hands, and dashing ways and piquante conversation had much less to answer for than one saucy little feature. How she rattled on: "You don't know Lady Scapegrace, Miss Coventry, do you? There, that bold-looking woman in yellow. Beautiful black hair, hasn't she?—false, every bit of it! She'll bow to me to-night, because she sees me with your good aunt; there, I told you so! Since she and Sir Guy are living together again she sets up for being respectable—such stories, my dear! but I don't believe half of 'em. However, I've seen her with my own eyes do the oddest things—at best, I'm afraid she's a shocking flirt! There's your cousin, Mr. Jones—you see I know everybody. How black he looks—he don't like me—a great many people don't—but I return good for evil—I like everybody—it's never worth while to be cross;" and as she said so she smiled with such a sunny, merry expression that I liked her better and better.
Cousin John certainly did look very cross. "Who introduced you to that horrid woman, Kate?" said he as soon as a fresh convulsion in the crowd had stranded us a few steps higher up, and we were separated from Mrs. Lumley and her attractions.
"My aunt, sir," I replied demurely, telling a "white one" for the sake of teasing him. "Why? Have you any objections?"
"Oh, of course, if my aunt did, it's all right," replied he. "I don't know a great deal of her, and what I do know I don't much like. But, Kate, there's a friend of mine wishes to be presented to you. You've often heard me mention Frank Lovell—well, there he is; do you see him?—turning round now to speak to Lady Scapegrace."
Good heavens! it was the man I had seen in the park so often, if possible better-looking with his hat off than I had thought him in his morning costume, with the eternal cigar in his mouth. I have a sort of dim recollection of his making his bow to my aunt, who received him, as she does all good-looking young men, with a patronizing smile, and a vision of John "doing the polite," and laughing as he ceremoniously introduced "Captain Lovell" and "Miss Coventry," and something said about "the honour of the next waltz;" and although I am not easily discomposed, I confess I felt a little shy and uncomfortable till I found myself hanging on Captain Lovell's arm, and elbowing our way to a place amongst the dancers.
I must say he wasn't the least what I expected—not at all forward, and never alluded to our previous meeting, or to Brilliant, till we went to have an ice in the tea-room, when Captain Lovell began to enlarge upon the charm of those morning rides, and the fresh air, and the beautiful scenery of Hyde Park; and though I never told him exactly, he managed to find out that I rode every day at the same early hour, "even after a ball!" and that I was as likely to be there to-morrow as any day in the week; and so we had another turn at "the Colombetta" waltz, and he took me back to my aunt, half-inclined to be pleased with him, and more than half-inclined to be angry with myself. I am afraid I couldn't help watching him as he loitered about amongst the crowd, now deep in conversation with Lady Scapegrace, now laughing with my new friend, Mrs. Lumley. He looked so like a gentleman, even amongst all the high-bred men there; and though so handsome, he didn't appear the least conceited. I began to wonder whether all could be true that I had heard of him, and to think that a man who liked such early walks could not possibly be the roue and "good-for-nothing" they made him out. I was roused out of a brown study by Cousin John's voice in my ear, "Now then, Kate, for our waltz. The room's a little clearer, so we can go the 'pace' if you like." And away we went to "the Odalisque" faster than any other couple in the room. Somehow it wasn't half such a pretty air as the Colombetta, and John, though he has a very good ear, didn't seem to waltz quite so well as usual; perhaps I was getting a little tired. I know I wasn't at all sorry when my aunt ordered the carriage; and I thought the dawn never looked so beautiful as it did when we emerged from those hot, lighted rooms into the pure, fragrant summer air. I confess I do love the dawn, even in London. I like to see the "gates of morning" open with that clear, light-green tinge that art has never yet been able to imitate; and if I could do as I liked, which none of us can, I should always be up and dressed by sunrise.
As we drove down Grosvenor Place I saw Captain Lovell walking home, smoking a cigar. I think he caught a glimpse of my face at the carriage-window, for I am almost sure he bowed, but I shrunk back into the corner, and pretended to go to sleep; and when we arrived in Lowndes Street I was not at all sorry to wish Aunt Deborah good-night, and go upstairs to bed.
"Now then, Kate, late as usual; my phaeton's at the door, and we've only an hour and five minutes to do the twelve miles," said Cousin John's cheery voice as he accosted me on the following morning, running upstairs to change my dress after my early ride. Yes, notwithstanding the ball the night before, I was not going to disappoint Brilliant of his gallop; besides, these things are all habit; if you once get accustomed to early hours nothing is so easy as to keep to them. Why, even Captain Lovell was in the park as usual with his cigar—he seems regular enough about that, at all events—and he took his hat off so gracefully when he spied me cantering up the Ride that I hadn't the heart to pass without stopping just to say, "How d'ye do?" but of course I didn't shake hands with him.
"Come, Kate, bustle, bustle," exclaimed that fidget John; and in less time than my lady-readers would believe, I had put on my pink bonnet and my white dress, and was bowling down to Richmond by the side of my cousin, behind a roan and a chestnut that stepped away in a style that it did one good to see.
"What a clipper that off-horse is, John," said I as we cleared London, and got to the level road by Kew Gardens; "let me take the reins for five minutes—they're going so pleasantly." But John don't like me to drive anything more sporting than a pony-carriage, and he refused point blank, which, to say the least of it, was brutal on his part. If I hadn't thought it would make me sick, I should have liked to smoke, on purpose to provoke him. We did the distance with three minutes to spare, and as we pulled up in front of the Castle Hotel, I was proud to hear the admiration our tout ensemble elicited from a knot of idlers lounging round the door. "'Ere's a spicy set-out, Bill," said one. "Crickey! vot a pretty gal!" said another. "Vouldn't I like to be Vilikins with she for a Dinah!" exclaimed the dirtiest of the conclave; and although I appreciated the compliment, I was forced to turn my back on my unwashed admirer, and reply to the greetings of the picnic party we had come down to join.
There was Mrs. Molasses and her two daughters to begin with, people of unheard-of wealth, of which they seemed to carry a large portion on their persons. The mamma, ample, black-eyed, fresh-coloured, and brocaded, with an extremely natural wig. The eldest daughter, Mary, with whom I had afterwards reason to be better acquainted, pale, languid, very quiet, and low-toned, with fine eyes, and soft dark hair, and what people call an interesting look. She took the sentimental line—was all feeling and poetry, and milk and water, and as easily frightened as she was reassured again. The younger girl, Jane, was the very reverse of her sister—short and dark and energetic, rather blue, and I thought a little impudent; however, I liked her the best of the two. Then came Sir Guy and Lady Scapegrace. The Baronet, a stout, square, elderly man, with enormous dyed whiskers and hair to match, combining as much as possible the manners of the coachman with the morals of the roue. A tremendous dandy of the Four-in-hand Club school—high neckcloth, huge pins, gorgeous patterns, enormous buttons, and a flower in his mouth. His lady as handsome as a star, though a little hollow-eyed and passee. She looked like a tragedy queen, with her magnificent figure, and long black hair, and fierce flashing eyes, and woe-begone expression, and the black velvet ribbon with its diamond cross, which she always wore round her neck. Ah me! what stories that diamond-cross could tell, if all be true that we hear of Lady Scapegrace! A girl sold for money, to become a rebellious wife to an unfeeling husband. A handsome young cousin, who cut his own throat in despair—they brought it in temporary insanity, of course. An elopement with a gallant Major to the south of France, and a duel there, in which the Major was shot, but not by Sir Guy; an English lady of rank travelling on the Continent, independent and alone, breaking banks in all directions with her luck and hearts with her beauty; a reconciliation, entirely for money considerations, which drove another far less erring woman into a madhouse (but that was Sir Guy's fault); and a darker tale still of a certain potion prepared by her hand, which the Baronet was prevented from swallowing only by his invariable habit of contradicting his wife on all points, and which the lady herself had the effrontery to boast "would have settled all accounts." Not a word of truth in any of these stories probably; but still, such is the character the world's good nature affixes to that dark handsome woman at whom Cousin John seems so very much alarmed.
Then there was an elderly Miss Minnows, who was horribly afraid of catching cold, but in whose character I could perceive no other very salient point; and a fair-haired young gentleman, whose name I did not distinctly catch, and who looked as if he ought to have been at school, where, indeed, I think he would have been much happier; and sundry regular stereotyped London men and women, well bred and well dressed, and cool and composed, and altogether thoroughly respectable and stupid; and a famous author, who drank a great deal of wine, and never opened his lips to speak; and I think that was all—no, by-the-bye, there was Captain Lovell, who came very late, and we went soberly into Richmond Park, and dined under a tree.
I do not think I quite like a picnic. It is all very well, like most other arrangements, if everything goes right; but I sat between Sir Guy Scapegrace and the light-haired young gentleman, and although I could hear lots of fun going on at the other end of the tablecloth, where Cousin John and Mary Molasses and Captain Lovell had got together, I was too far off to partake of it, and my vis-a-vis, Lady Scapegrace, scowled at me so from under her black eyebrows, though I believe utterly unconsciously, that she made me feel quite nervous. Then it was not reassuring to have that odious Sir Guy pressing me to eat everything, and looking right under my bonnet, and asking me to drink champagne at least four times; and if I turned to my other neighbour, and ventured to address him on the most commonplace subject, he blushed so painfully that I began to think he was quite as much afraid of me as I was of Sir Guy. Altogether I was rather glad when the things were cleared away and put back into the hampers, and the gentlemen asked leave to light their cigars, and we broke up our circle, and lounged about and enjoyed ourselves in the shade of those fine trees on that dry velvet sward. We were rather put to it though for amusement, and had to propose games of forfeits and other pastimes; and Cousin John, quite unwittingly, got me into a sad scrape by boasting about his horses. "Not such another pair out of London to-day," expatiated John to the company in general. "We came down in seven minutes under the hour from my aunt's door in Lowndes Street; didn't we, Kate? And never turned a hair; did we, Kate? Why, they went so smooth Kate couldn't keep her hands off the reins; could you, Kate? And there are few better judges, let me tell you, than Miss Coventry." I saw the ladies look at me, and then at each other; and I knew by that indescribable glance, which none but a woman can thoroughly appreciate, how from that moment they had vowed, one and all, to hate me eternally in their hearts. The offence had been committed; the sentence had gone forth. I had been tried for being fast, and found guilty nem. com., from sneering Lady Scapegrace to unmeaning Miss Minnows; each stared at me for about two seconds, and so made up her mind. I cannot think why it is that this should be so great a crime in the eyes of my own sex. Next to being attractive to the other half of creation—and that I can easily understand is totally unpardonable—there is nothing makes a woman so angry with her sister as high spirits, natural courage, and above all a love for a horse. It is very hard upon us that we should be debarred from all out-of-door exercises and amusements by the prejudices of those very individuals who ought to back us up in our efforts to enlarge the circle of our amusements. I cannot see why it follows that because I do not mind "weather," I must, therefore, be utterly regardless of morality; nor how my knack of breaking in a horse should imply an infraction of all the commandments. Are men the only bipeds that can be at the same time brave and virtuous? Must pluck and piety be for ever divorced in the female character? Shall I never be able to keep the straight path in life because I can turn an awkward corner with four horses at a trot? Female voices answer volubly in the negative, and I give in.
But odious Sir Guy thinks none the worse of me for my coaching predilections. "Fond of driving, Miss Coventry?" says he, leering at me from over his great choking neckcloth. "Seen my team—three greys and a piebald? If you like going fast I can accommodate you. Proud to take you back on my drag. What? Go on the box. Drive, if you like. Hey!"
I confess for one instant, much as I hated the old reprobate, I should have liked to go, if it was only to make all the women so angry; but just then I caught Captain Lovell's eye fixed upon me with a strange, earnest expression, and all at once I felt that nothing should induce me to trust myself with Sir Guy. I couldn't help blushing though as I declined, more particularly when my would-be charioteer swore he considered it "an engagement, hey?—only put off to another time—get the coach new painted—begad, Miss Coventry's favourite colour!" And the old monster grinned in my face till I could have boxed his ears.
The author by this time was fast asleep, with a handkerchief over his face, Miss Minnows searching in vain for a fabulous pair of clogs, as she imagined the dew must be falling—it was about six p.m., and hot June weather. Sir Guy was off to the hampers in search of "brandy and soda," and the rest of the party lounging about in twos and threes, when Captain Lovell proposed we should stroll down to the river and have a row in the cool of the evening. Mary Molasses voted it "charming;" Lady Scapegrace was willing to go anywhere away from Sir Guy; John, of course, all alive for a lark; and though Mrs. Molasses preferred remaining on dry land, she had no objection to trusting her girls with us. So we mustered a strong party for embarkation on Father Thames. Our two cavaliers ran forward to get the boat ready, Captain Lovell bounding over the fences and stiles almost as actively as Brilliant could have done; and John, who is no mean proficient at such exercises, following him; whilst we ladies paced along soberly in the rear.
"Can you row, Miss Coventry?" asked Lady Scapegrace, who seemed to have taken rather a fancy to me, probably out of contradiction to the other women. "I can. I rowed four miles once on the Lake of Geneva," she added in her deep, melancholy voice, "and we were caught in one of those squalls and nearly lost. If it hadn't been for poor Alphonse, not one of us could have escaped. I wonder if drowning's a painful death, Miss Coventry; the water always looks so inviting."
"Goodness, Lady Scapegrace!" exclaimed I; "don't take this opportunity of finding out. None of us can swim but John; and if he saves anybody, he's solemnly engaged to save me."
"I quite agree with you, Lady Scapegrace," said the romantic Miss Molasses. "It looks so peaceful, and gives one such an idea of repose. I for one have not the slightest fear of death, or indeed of any mere bodily changes——Gracious goodness! the bull! the bull!"
What a rout it was! The courageous young lady who thus gave us the first intimation of danger leading the flight with a speed and activity of which I should have thought her languid frame totally incapable; Lady Scapegrace making use of her long legs with an utter forgetfulness of her usually grave and tragic demeanour; and the rest of the party seeking safety helter-skelter.
It was indeed a situation of some peril. Our course to the riverside had led us through a long narrow strip of meadow-land, bounded by high impervious thorn fences, such as I knew would be bullfinches in the winter, and which now, in all the luxuriance of summer foliage, presented a mass of thorns and fragrance that no mortal could expect to get through. At either end of the field was a high hog-backed stile, such as ladies usually make considerable difficulties about surmounting, but which are by no means so impossible of transit when an infuriated bull is bringing up the rear. We were already a quarter of the way across the field, when Miss Mary's exclamation made us aware of our enemy, who had been quietly cropping the grass in a corner behind us, but who now, roused by our gaudy dresses and the piercing screams of some of our party, was lashing himself into a rage, and looking sufficiently mischievous to be a very unpleasant acquaintance. It was impossible to turn round and make for the stile we had just left, as the bull now occupied a position exactly between us and that place of safety; it was hopeless, particularly in our light muslin gowns, to attempt the hedge on either side; there was nothing for it but a fair run to the other end of the meadow, about a quarter of a mile, and sauve qui peut was now the order of the day.
I will not allow that I am deficient in courage; on the contrary, as Cousin John says, "I am rather proud of my pluck;" but there is nothing so contagious as a panic, and I too ran for my very life. The bull came galloping after us, tossing his head and rolling his great body about as if he quite enjoyed the fun; nor do I know how the adventure would have ended, for he must have overtaken some of us before we could reach our haven, had not Lady Scapegrace caught her foot in the long grass, and, falling prostrate, buried her face in her hands, and giving herself up, as she afterwards assured me, to the prospect of a horrible and violent death. I could not leave her in such a situation. By an impulse for which I cannot account I stopped short, turned round, got between the pursuer and his fallen foe, and with a beating heart and my knees knocking together, faced the great mischievous brute with no other weapon, offensive or defensive, than a laced pocket handkerchief. I believe he was a well-meaning bull after all; for instead of crashing in upon me, as I half expected he would, and immolating me on the spot, he too stopped short, stared, bellowed, and began sniffing the grass, and pawing up the turf, and whisking his tail about, just as Brilliant does when he is going to lie down. I don't think he had ever seen a young lady, certainly not a French bonnet before, and he didn't seem to know what to make of the combination; so there we stood, he and I staring each other out of countenance, but without proceeding to any further extremities. I know I have plenty of courage, for after the first minute I wasn't the least bit afraid; I felt just as I do when I ride at a large fence—as I get nearer and nearer I feel something rising and rising within me that enables me to face anything; and so when I had confronted the bull for a little time I felt inclined to carry the war into the enemy's country, and advance upon him. But of course all this is very indelicate and unfeminine; and it would have been far more virtuous and lady-like to have run shrieking away like Miss Molasses, or laid down and given in at once like poor Lady Scapegrace, who was quite resigned to being tossed and trampled upon, and only gave vent every now and then to a stifled moan.
Well, at last I did advance a few steps, and the bull gave ground in the same proportion. I began to think I should beat him after all, when to my great relief, I must allow, I heard a voice behind me exclaim, "By Jove, what a plucky girl!" and I thought I heard something muttered that sounded very like "darling," but of course that couldn't be meant for me; and Captain Lovell, hot, handsome, and breathless, made his appearance, and soon drove our enemy into the farthest corner of the field. As soon as the coast was clear we raised poor Lady Scapegrace, who kissed me with tears in her eyes as she thanked me for what she called "saving her life." I had no idea the woman had so much feeling. Captain Lovell gave each of us an arm as we walked on to join our party, and he explained how the screams of Miss Molasses had reached him even at the riverside, and how he had turned and hastened back immediately, "Fortunately in time to be of some use. But I never saw a finer thing done, Miss Coventry; if I live to a hundred I shall never forget it;" and he looked as if he would have added, "or you either."
Many were the exclamations, and much the conversation created by our adventure. The ladies who had run away so gallantly were of course too much agitated for the proposed boating excursion; so after sundry restoratives at the hotel we ordered the carriages to return to town. Cousin John gave "Frank" (as he calls him) a place in the back seat of his phaeton, and he leaned over and talked to me the whole way home. What a pleasant drive it was in the moonlight, and how happy I felt! I was really sorry when we got back to London. Frank seemed quite anxious to make Aunt Deborah's acquaintance; and I thought I shouldn't wonder if he was to call in Lowndes Street very soon.
When Aunt Deborah is laid up with one of her colds she always has a wonderful accession of "propriety" accompanying the disorder; and that which would appear to her at the worst a harmless escapade when in her usual health and spirits becomes a crime of the blackest dye when seen through the medium of barley-broth and water-gruel—these being Aunt Deborah's infallible remedies for a catarrh. Now, the cold in question had lasted its victim over the Ascot meeting, over our picnic to Richmond, and bade fair to give her employment during the greater part of the summer, so obstinate was the enemy when he had once possessed himself of the citadel; and under these circumstances I confess it appeared to me quite hopeless to ask her permission to accompany Cousin John on a long-promised expedition to Hampton Races. I did not dare make the request myself; and I own I had great misgivings, even when I overheard from my boudoir the all-powerful John preferring his petition, which he did with a sort of abrupt good humour peculiarly his own.
"Going to take Kate out for another lark, aunt, if you have no objection," says John, plumping down into an armchair, and forthwith proceeding to entangle Aunt Deborah's knitting into the most hopeless confusion. "Only some quiet races near town; all amongst ourselves, you know—gentlemen riders, and that sort of thing."
Aunt Deborah, who is a good deal behindhand in all matters connected with the turf, and who has set her face into a determined refusal when she hears the word "racing," rather relaxes at the mention of "gentlemen riders," and replies gravely, "John, I want to talk to you about Kate. The girl's wild after horses and hounds and all such unfeminine pursuits. I wonder you like to see it yourself, my dear. Now, don't you think it would be far better to encourage her in domestic tastes and amusements? I give you my word, she hasn't done a bit of worsted-work for a fortnight."
John's face must have been good at this piece of intelligence; if there is one thing he hates more than another it is "cross-stitch." But he replied with exemplary gravity that "Cousin Kate never was strong, you know, aunt, and she is ordered to be a good deal in the open air, with plenty of horse exercise; and this is delightful weather for riding."
"Well, John," says Aunt Deborah, "of course, if you don't mind it, I needn't; you'll be the sufferer, my dear, not I" (I wonder what she meant by that?); "and I must let her go if you choose to take her, John. How like your father you're growing, my handsome boy!" and Aunt Deborah kissed Cousin John on the forehead, with tears in her eyes; and they called to me to get ready, and the horses came round, and in less than ten minutes we were up and away.
It was very gratifying to overhear the complimentary remarks made upon the general appearance of White Stockings, whom I had ridden down to save Brilliant, and who, despite his ugliness, is a very hunting-looking horse.
"Looks a game 'un, don't he, squire?" remarked a jolly-looking Surrey farmer in top-boots to a dilapidated friend in a white neckcloth. "Shouldn't wonder if he couldn't kick the dirt in some of their faces, with that tight lass to keep his head straight." The friend was a melancholy man, and nodded his silent affirmative with a sigh. I think, early as it was, they had both been drinking.
"Look at that chestnut horse!" exclaimed a good-looking boy of some twenty summers, who had coached his own drag down, like a second Phaethon, only as yet with better luck, and was now smoking a huge cigar on its roof. "Isn't he the image of old Paleface? Who's the woman, eh? Does nobody know her? I'll ask her to come and sit up here. She looks like a lady, too," he added, checking himself. "Never mind, here goes!" And he was jumping off the coach, to tender me, I presume, his polite invitation in person, when his arm was caught by the man next him, who was no other than John's friend, Captain Lovell.
"Charley, stop!" exclaimed Frank, flushing all over his handsome face and temples. "I know her, I tell you. Have a care; it's Miss Coventry." And in another instant he had bounded to the earth, accosted my chaperon with a hearty "Jack, how goes it?" and was deep in conversation with my humble self, with his hand on my horse's neck—Frank always wears such good gloves—and his pleasant countenance beaming with delight at our chance interview. I liked the races better after this, and should have spent a happier day, perhaps, without the society of Mrs. Lumley, who appeared likewise on horseback, quite unexpectedly, and was riding the most beautiful brown mare I ever saw in my life. I quite wished I had brought down Brilliant, if only to have met her on more equal terms. As we were the only two ladies on horseback, of course we were obliged to fraternize (if the weaker sex may use such an expression), as, indeed, we must have done had we been the bitterest foes on earth, instead of merely hating each other with common civility. Mrs. Lumley seemed on particularly good terms with Frank Lovell—I do not know that I liked her any the better for that—and expressed her sentiments and opinions to the world in general with a vivacity and freedom peculiarly her own.
"I am out on 'the sly,' you know," she observed with an arch smile. "I have a good, quiet aunt who lives down at Richmond, and I do penance there for a time, whenever I have been more than usually wicked; but to-day I could not resist the fine weather and the crowd and the fun, and above all the bad company, which amuses me more than all the rest put together, though I do not include you, Miss Coventry, nor yet Mr. Jones, but I am afraid I must Captain Lovell. Come, let's ride amongst the carriages and see the ninnies."
So Mrs. Lumley and I plunged into the crowd, leaving Frank to return to his drag and his betting-book, and Cousin John somewhat discontentedly to bring up the rear.
"After all, I don't see much harm in Hampton," said my lively guide as we threaded our way between the carriages, "though, to be sure, there are some very queer-looking people on the course. I could tell you strange stories of most of them, Miss Coventry, only you wouldn't believe me. Do you see that old, plainish woman, with such black hair and eyebrows—something like Lady Scapegrace, only not so handsome as my favourite enemy? Would you believe it, she might marry three coronets at this moment if she chose, and she won't have any one of them. She is not good-looking, you can see; she can scarcely write her own name. She has no conversation, I happen to know, for I met her once at dinner, and she cannot by any chance put an 'H' into its right place. Yet men see something in her that is totally inexplicable to us, and she seems to have a mysterious influence over all ages and all sorts. One of these infatuated noblemen is decrepit and twaddling; the other a stern, reserved man that up to forty years of age was supposed to be the very impersonation of common sense; and the third, young, clever, and handsome, a man that might marry half the nicest women in England if he liked. And why, do you think, she won't pick and choose from such a trio? Why, forsooth, because she has set her stupid heart on a drunken stockbroker, who won't have a word to say to her, and would have been here to-day, I have no doubt, if he hadn't been afraid of meeting her. Well, there's a stranger story than that about the girl with long fair hair in the next carriage. You can see her now, in a pink bonnet, drinking sherry and soda water. It is supposed that she is old Goldfinch's daughter, and that he won't give her a farthing; but I know somebody who knows his lawyer, and that girl will have half a million, if she don't drink herself to death before old Goldfinch takes his departure from this wicked world. She is beautiful and clever and accomplished, and all the young men are in love with her; but she cannot keep sober, and in three years' time she will have lost her youth and her health and her faculties, and in all probability will finish in a madhouse. There's Frank Lovell making fierce love to her now."
And as Mrs. Lumley concluded with this amiable remark, I looked round for Cousin John, and rode away from her in disgust at her flippancy, and sick at heart to think of such a man as Captain Lovell wasting his smiles on such a creature. To be sure, he only said three words to her, for when I looked round again at the carriage he was gone. There is something very amusing to me in the bustle of a racecourse; and yet, after talking to Mrs. Lumley, the gloss seemed to be only on the surface. She had told me enough of the company to make me fancy there must be some strange history belonging to each. Like the man that saw through the roofs of the houses in Madrid, thanks to the agency of his familiar, I thought that my demon on a side-saddle had taught me to see into the very hearts and secrets of the motley assemblage.
There was a handsome girl, with beautiful teeth and neatly-braided hair and such a brilliant smile, attracting a crowd round her as she sang piquant songs in a sweet, deep-toned voice that ought to have made her fortune on the stage if it had been properly cultivated—sang them, too, with a look and manner that I have seen seldom rivalled by the cleverest actresses; and I thought what a face and form were wasted here to make profit for one knave and sport for some fifty fools. As she accompanied herself on the harp, and touched its strings with a grace and expression which made amends for a certain want of tuition, I could not help fancying her in a drawing-room, surrounded by admirers, making many a heart ache with her arch smile and winning ways. Without being positively beautiful, she had the knack so few women possess of looking charming in every attitude and with every expression of countenance; and although her songs were of a somewhat florid school, yet I could not help thinking that, with those natural gifts and a plaintive old ballad, English or Scotch, such as "Annie Laurie" or "The Nut-brown Maid" to bring them out, in a pretty drawing-room, with the assistance of a good dressmaker—dear! she might marry a duke if she liked.
And yet all this belonged to a dark, close-shaved ruffian, with silver rings and a yellow handkerchief, who scowled and prowled about her, and looked as if he was likely enough to beat her when they got home. But she hands up an ivory bowl for contributions amongst the young dandies on the roof of a neighbouring coach, who have been listening open-mouthed to the siren, and shillings and half-crowns, and a bit of gold from the one last out of the Bench, pour into it; and she moves off, to make way for three French glee-maidens with a monkey and a tambourine, and the swells return to their cigars and their betting, and we are all attention for the next event on the card, because it is a gentlemen-riders' race; and the performances will consequently be as different as possible from what we have just seen.
"We'll secure a good place for this, Kate," says Cousin John, edging his horse in as near the judges' stand as he can get. "Frank Lovell has a mare to run, and I have backed her for a sovereign."
"Dear, I hope she'll win!" is my ardent rejoinder.
"Thank you, Kate," says kind Cousin John, who concludes I take an unusual interest in his speculations; and forthwith we proceed to criticize the three animals brought to the post, and to agree that Captain Lovell's Parachute is far the best-looking of the lot; or, as Sir Guy Scapegrace says to the well-pleased owner, "If make and shape go for anything, Frank, she ought to beat them, as far as they can see."
Sir Guy is chaperoning a strange-looking party of men and women, who have been very noisy since luncheon-time. He is attired in a close-shaved hat (which he had the effrontery to take off to me, but I looked the other way), a white coat, and a red neckcloth, the usual flower in his mouth being replaced for the occasion by a large cigar. Captain Lovell hopes "I admire his mare—she has a look of Brilliant from here, Miss Coventry. 'Baby Larkins' of the Lancers is to ride; and The Baby will do her justice if any one can. He's far the best of the young ones now."
"Do you mean his name is 'Baby'?" said I, much amused, "or that you call him so because he is such a child? He looks as if he ought to be with mamma still." "We always call him 'Baby' in the Lancers," explained Frank, "because he joined us so very young. He is nineteen, though you would guess him about twelve; but he's got the brains of a man of sixty and the nerves of a giant. Ah! Parachute, you may kick, old girl, but you won't get rid of that child!"
And sure enough "The Baby" sat like a rock, with a grim smile, and preserving throughout a silence and sang froid which nothing seemed able to overcome. Two more seedy-looking animals made up the entry. The lamer one of the two was ridden by a stout major with a redundancy of moustaches, the other by a lanky cornet of Heavy Dragoons, who seemed not to know where on earth to dispose of his arms and legs, besides finding his cap somewhat in his way, and being much embarrassed with his whip. They gallop up and down before starting, till I wonder how any galloping can be left for the race; and after a futile attempt or two they get away, The Baby making strong running, the stout Major waiting closely upon his infantine antagonist, while the long cornet, looming like a windmill in the distance, brings up the rear.
"Parachute still making running," says John, standing erect in his stirrups, his honest face beaming with excitement. "Woa, horse!—Stand still, White-Stockings—now they reach the turn, and The Baby takes a pull—Gad, old Ganymede's coming up. Well done, Major—no, the old one's flogging. Parachute wins. Now, Baby!—now Major—the horse!—the mare!—Best race I ever saw in my life—a dead heat—Ha! ha! ha!" The latter explosion of mirth is due to the procrastinated arrival of the long cornet, who flogs and works as religiously home as if he had a hundred more behind him, and who reaches the weighing enclosure in time to ascertain with his own eyes that Ganymede has won, the lame plater who rejoices in that classical appellation having struggled home first by a head, "notwithstanding," as the sporting papers afterwards expressed themselves, "the judicious riding and beautiful finish of that promising young jockey, Mr. B. Larkins." The Baby himself, however, is unmoved as usual, nodding to Parachute's disappointed owner without moving a muscle of his countenance. He merely remarks, "Short of work, Frank. Told you so afore I got up," and putting on a tiny white overcoat like a plaything, disappears, and is seen no more.
What a confusion there is in getting away! Sir Guy Scapegrace has a yearly bet with young Phaethon, who wanted to invite me on his box, as to which shall get first to Kensington on their way back to town. You would suppose Sir Guy was very happy at home by his anxiety to be off. The two drags are soon bumping and rolling and rattling along the sward. The narrow lane through which they must make their way is completely blocked up with spring-vans, and tax-carts, and open carriages, and shut carriages, and broughams, and landaus, and every description of vehicle that ever came out of Long Acre; whilst more four-horse coaches, with fast teams and still faster loads, are thundering in the rear. Slang reigns supreme; and John Gilpin's friend, who had a "ready wit," would here meet with his match. Nor are jest and repartee (what John calls "chaff") the only missiles bandied about. Toys, knocked off "the sticks" for the purpose, darken the air as they fly from one vehicle to another, and the broadside from a well-supplied coach is like that of a seventy-four. Fun and good-humour abound, but confusion gets worse confounded. Young Phaethon's wheel is locked with a market-gardener's, who is accompanied by two sisters-in-law and the suitors of those nowise disconcerted damsels, all more or less intoxicated. Thriftless has his near leader in the back-seat of a pony-carriage, and Sir Guy's off-wheeler is over the pole. John and I agree to make a detour, have a pleasant ride in the country, never mind about dinner, and so get back to London by moonlight. As we reach a quiet, sequestered lane, and inhale the pleasant fragrance of the hawthorn—always sweetest towards nightfall—we hear a horse's tramp behind us, and are joined by Frank Lovell, who explains with unnecessary distinctness that "he always makes a practice of riding back from Hampton to avoid the crowd, and always comes that way." If so, he must be in the habit of taking a considerable detour. But he joins our party, and we ride home together.
How beautifully the moon shone upon the river as we crossed Kew Bridge that calm, silent, summer night! How it flickered through their branches and silvered over the old trees, and what a peaceful, lovely landscape it was! I thought Frank's low, sweet voice quite in keeping with the time and the scene. As we rode together, John lagging a good deal behind (that bay horse of John's never could walk with White Stockings), I could not help thinking how much I had misunderstood Captain Lovell's character. What a deal of feeling—almost of romance—there was under that conventional exterior which he wore before the world! I liked him so much more now I came to know him better. I was quite sorry when we had to wish him "good-night" and John and I rode thoughtfully home through the quiet streets. I thought my cousin's manner was altered too, though I scarce knew how. His farewell sounded more constrained, more polite than usual, when he left me at Aunt Deborah's door. And whilst I was undressing I reflected on all the proceedings of the day, and tried to remember what I had done that could possibly have displeased good-natured John. The more I went over it, backwards and forwards, the less could I make of it. "Can it be possible," I thought at last; "can it be possible that Cousin John——" And here I popped out my candle and jumped into bed.
I really had not courage to take my usual canter the morning after Hampton Races. I did not feel as if I could face the umbrella and the cigar at the rails in "the Ride," and yet I rang the bell once for my maid to help me on with my habit, and had my hand on it more than once to order my horse; but I thought better of it. Poor Aunt Deborah's cold was still bad, though she was downstairs; so I determined to take care of her, in common gratitude, and give her the advantage of my agreeable society. I am very fond of Aunt Deborah in my own way, and I know there is nothing she likes so much as a "quiet morning with Kate."
The hours passed off rather slowly till luncheon-time. I did forty-two stitches of worsted-work—I never do more than fifty at a time, unless it's "grounding"—and I got off Hannah More because Aunt Deborah was too hoarse to read to me, and I really cannot read that excellent work to her without laughing; but I thought luncheon never would be ready, and when it did come I couldn't eat any. However, I went upstairs afterwards, and smoothed my hair and set my collar straight, and was glad to hear Aunt Deborah give her usual order that she was "at home" with her usual solemnity. I had not been ten minutes in the drawing-room before a knock at the door brought my heart into my mouth, and our tragic footman announced "Captain Lovell" in his most tragic voice. In marched Frank, who had never set eyes on my aunt in his life, and shook hands with me, and made her a very low bow, with a degree of effrontery that nothing but a man could ever have been capable of assuming. Aunt Deborah drew herself up—and she really is very formidable when she gets on her high horse—and looked first at me, and then at Frank, and then at me again; and I blushed like a fool, and hesitated, and introduced "Captain Lovell" to "My aunt, Miss Horsingham!" and I didn't the least know what to do next, and had a great mind to make a bolt for it and run upstairs. But our visitor seemed to have no misgivings whatever, and smoothed his hat and talked about the weather as if he had known us all from childhood. I have often remarked that if you only deprive a man of the free use of his hands there is no difficulty which he is unable to face. Give him something to handle and keep fidgeting at, and he seems immediately to be in his element, never mind what it is—a paper-knife and a book to open, or a flower to pull in pieces, or a pair of scissors and a bit of thread to snip, or even the end of a stick to suck—and he draws inspiration, and what is more to the purpose, conversation, from any and all of these sources.