MRS. HENRY DE LA PASTURE
And I left my youth behind For somebody else to find.
TO THE BELOVED MEMORY OF MY ONLY BROTHER
LT. COLONEL WALTER FLOYD BONHAM, D.S.O.
TO MY AMERICAN READERS
The author of "Peter's Mother" has been bidden of the publishers, who have incurred the responsibility of presenting her to the American public, to write a preface to this edition of her novel. She does so with the more diffidence because it has been impressed upon her, by more than one wiseacre, that her novels treat of a life too narrow, an atmosphere too circumscribed, to be understood or appreciated by American readers.
No one can please everybody; I suppose that no one, except the old man in Aesop's Fable, ever tried to do so. But I venture to believe that to some Americans, a sincere and truthful portrait of a typical Englishwoman of a certain class may prove attractive, as to us are the studies of a "David Harum," or others whose characteristics interest because—and not in spite of—their strangeness and unfamiliarity. We do not recognise the type; but as those who do have acknowledged the accuracy of the representation, we read, learn, and enjoy making acquaintance with an individuality and surroundings foreign to our own experience.
There are hundreds of Englishwomen living lives as isolated, as guarded from all practical knowledge of the outer world, as entirely circumscribed as the life of Lady Mary Crewys; though they are not all unhappy. On the contrary, many diffuse content and kindness all around them, and take it for granted that their own personal wishes are of no account.
Indeed it would seem that some cease to be aware what their own personal wishes are.
With anxious eyes fixed on others—the husband, father, sons, who dominate them,—they live to please, to serve, to nurse, and to console; revered certainly as queens of their tiny kingdoms, but also helpless as prisoners.
Calm, as fixed stars, they regard (perhaps sometimes a little wistfully) the orbits of brighter planets, and the flashing of occasional meteors, within their ken; knowing that their own place is unchangeable—immutable.
That the views of such women are often narrow, their prejudices many, their conventions tiresome, who shall deny? That their souls are pure and tender, their hearts open to kindness as are their hands to charity, nobody who knows the type will dispute. They lack many advantages which their more independent sisters (no less gifted with noble and womanly qualities) enjoy, but they possess a peculiar gentleness, which is all their own, whether it be adored or despised.
When one of their number happens to be cleverer, larger minded, more restless, and impatient, it may be, by nature than her sisters, tragedy may ensue. But not often. Habit and public opinion are strong restrainers, stronger sometimes than even the most carefully inculcated abstract principles.
To turn to another phase of the story—there was a time during the Boer War when there was literally scarcely a woman in England who was not mourning the death of some man—be he son, brother, or husband, lover or friend,—and that time seems still very, very recent to some of us.
The rights and wrongs of a war have nothing to do with the sympathy all civilised men and women extend to the soldiers on both sides who take part in it.
"Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do or die,"
and whether they "do or die," the mingled suspense, pride, and anguish suffered by their women-kind rouses the pity of the world; but most of all, for the secret of sympathy is understanding, the pity of those who have suffered likewise. So that such escapades as Peter's in the story, being not very uncommon at that dark period (and having its foundation in fact), may have touched hearts over here, which will be unmoved on the other side of the Atlantic. I cannot tell. I have known very few Americans, and though I have counted those few among my friends, they have been rarely met.
My only knowledge of America has been gleaned from my observation of these, and from reading. As it happens, the favourite books of my childhood were, with few exceptions, American.
Partly from association and partly because I count it the most truly delightful story of its kind that ever was written, "Little Women" has always retained its early place in my affections. "Meg," "Jo," "Beth," and "Amy" are my oldest and dearest friends; and when I think of them, it is hard to believe that America could be a land of strangers to me after all. I confess to a weakness for the "Wide, Wide World" and a secret passion for "Queechy." I loved "Mr. Rutherford's Children," and was always interested to hear "What Katy Did," Whilst the very thought of "Melbourne House" thrills me with recollections of the joy I experienced therein.
But this is all by the way; and for the egotism which is, I fear me, displayed in this foreword, I can but plead, not only the difficulty of writing a preface at all, when one has no personal inclination that way, but the nervousness which must beset a writer who is directly addressing not a tried and friendly public, but an unknown, and, it may be, less easily pleased and more critical audience. It appears to me that it would be a simpler thing to write another book; and I would rather do so. I can only hope that some of the readers of "Peter's Mother," if she is so happy as to find favour in American eyes, would rather I did so too; in I which case I shall very joyfully try to gratify their wishes, and my own.
BETTY DE LA PASTURE.
Above Youlestone village, overlooking the valley and the river, and the square-towered church, stood Barracombe House, backed by Barracombe Woods, and owned by Sir Timothy Crewys, of Barracombe.
From the terrace before his windows Sir Timothy could take a bird's-eye view of his own property, up the river and down the river; while he also had the felicity of beholding the estate of his most important neighbour, Colonel Hewel, of Hewelscourt, mapped out before his eyes, as plainly visible in detail as land on the opposite side of a narrow valley must always be.
He cast no envious glances at his neighbour's property. The Youle was a boundary which none could dispute, and which could only be conveniently crossed by the ferry, for the nearest bridge was seven miles distant, at Brawnton, the old post-town.
From Brawnton the coach still ran once a week for the benefit of the outlying villages, and the single line of rail which threaded the valley of the Youle in the year 1900 was still a novelty to the inhabitants of this unfrequented part of Devon.
Sir Timothy sometimes expressed a majestic pity for Colonel Hewel, because the railway ran through some of his neighbour's best fields; and also because Hewelscourt was on the wrong side of the river—faced due north—and was almost buried in timber. But Colonel Hewel was perfectly satisfied with his own situation, though sorry for Sir Timothy, who lived within full view of the railway, but was obliged to drive many miles round by Brawnton Bridge in order to reach the station.
The two gentlemen seldom met. They lived in different parishes, and administered justice in different directions. Sir Timothy's dignity did not permit him to make use of the ferry, and he rarely drove further than Brawnton, or rode much beyond the boundaries of his own estate. He cared only for farming, whilst Colonel Hewel was devoted to sport.
The Crewys family had been Squires of Barracombe, cultivating their own lands and living upon them contentedly, for centuries before the Hewels had ever been heard of in Devon, as all the village knew very well; wherefore they regarded the Hewels with a mixture of good-natured contempt and kindly tolerance. The contempt was because Hewelscourt had been built within the memory of living man, and only two generations of Hewels born therein; the tolerance because the present owner, though not a wealthy man, was as liberal in his dealings as their squire was the reverse.
* * * * *
In the reign of Charles I., one Peter Crewys, an adventurous younger son of this obscure but ancient Devonshire family, had gained local notoriety by raising a troop of enthusiastic yeomen for his Majesty's service; subsequently his own reckless personal gallantry won wider recognition in many an affray with the parliamentary troops; and on the death of his royal master, Peter Crewys was forced to fly the country. He joined King Charles II. in his exile, whilst his prudent elder brother severed all connection with him, denounced him as a swashbuckler, and made his own peace with the Commonwealth.
The Restoration, however, caused Farmer Timothy to welcome his relative home in the warmest manner, and the brothers were not only reconciled in their old age, but the elder made haste to transfer the ownership of Barracombe to the younger, in terror lest his own disloyalty should be rewarded by confiscation of the family acres.
A careless but not ungrateful monarch, rejoicing doubtless to see his faithful soldier and servant so well provided for, bestowed on him a baronetcy, a portrait by Vandyck of the late king, his father, and the promise of a handsome sum of money, for the payment of which the new baronet forebore to press his royal patron. His services thus recognized and rewarded, old Sir Peter Crewys settled down amicably with his brother at Barracombe.
Presumably there had always been an excellent understanding between them. In any case no question of divided interests ever arose.
Sir Peter enlarged the old Elizabethan homestead to suit his new dignity; built a picture-gallery, which he stocked handsomely with family portraits; designed terrace gardens on the hillside after a fashion he had learnt in Italy, and adopted his eldest nephew as his heir.
Old Timothy meanwhile continued to cultivate the land undisturbed, disdaining newfangled ideas of gentility, and adhering in all ways to the customs of his father. Presently, soldier and farmer also passed away, and were laid to rest side by side on the banks of the Youle, in the shadow of the square-towered church.
Before the house rolled rich meadows, open spaces of cornland, and low-lying orchards. The building itself stood out boldly on a shelf of the hill; successive generations of the Crewys family had improved or enlarged it with more attention to convenience than to architecture. The older portion was overshadowed by an imposing south front of white stone, shaded in summer by a prolific vine, which gave it a foreign appearance, further enhanced by rows of green shutters. It was screened from the north by the hill, and from the east by a dense wood. Myrtles, hydrangeas, magnolias, and orange-trees nourished out-of-doors upon the sheltered terraces cut in the red sandstone.
The woods of Barracombe stretched upwards to the skyline of the ridge behind the house, and were intersected by winding paths, bordered by hardy fuchsias and delicate ferns. A rushing stream dropped from height to height on its rocky course, and ended picturesquely and usefully in a waterfall close to the village, where it turned an old mill-wheel before disappearing into the Youle.
If the Squire of Barracombe overlooked from his terrace garden the inhabitants of the village and the tell-tale doorway of the much-frequented inn on the high-road below—his tenants in the valley and on the hillside were privileged in turn to observe the goings-in and comings-out of their beloved landlord almost as intimately; nor did they often tire of discussing his movements, his doings, and even his intentions.
His monotonous life provided small cause for gossip or speculation; but when the opportunity arose, it was eagerly seized.
In the failing light of a February afternoon a group of labourers assembled before the hospitably open door of the Crewys Arms.
"Him baint been London ways vor uppard of vivdeen year, tu my zurtain knowledge," said the old road-mender, jerking his empty pewter upwards in the direction of the terrace, where Sir Timothy's solid dark form could be discerned pacing up and down before his white house.
"Tis vur a ligacy. You may depend on't. 'Twas vur a ligacy last time," said a brawny ploughman.
"Volk doan't git ligacies every day," said the road-mender, contemptuously. "I zays 'tis Master Peter. Him du be just the age when byes du git drubblezum, gentle are zimple. I were drubblezum myself as a bye."
"'Twas tu fetch down this 'ere London jintle-man as comed on here wi' him to-day, I tell 'ee. His cousin, are zuch like. Zame name, anyways, var James Coachman zaid zo."
"Well, I telled 'ee zo," said the road-mender. "He's brart down the nextest heir, var tu keep a hold over Master Peter, and I doan't blame 'un."
"James Coachman telled me vive minutes zince as zummat were up. 'Ee zad such arders var tu-morrer morning, 'ee says, as niver 'ee had befar," said the landlord.
"Thart James Coachman weren't niver lit tu come here," said the road-mender, slyly. His toothless mouth extended into the perpetual smile which had earned him the nickname of "Happy Jack," over sixty years since, when he had been the prettiest lad in the parish.
"He only snicked down vor a drop o' brandy, vur he were clean rampin' mazed wi' tuth-ache. He waited till pretty nigh dusk var the ole ladies tu be zafe. 'Ee says they du take it by turns zo long as daylight du last, tu spy out wi' their microscopes, are zum zuch, as none of Sir Timothy's volk git tarking down this ways. A drop o' my zider might git tu their 'yeds," said the landlord, sarcastically, "though they drinks Sir Timothy's by the bucket-vull up tu Barracombe."
"'Tis stronger than yars du be," said Happy Jack. "There baint no warter put tu't, Joe Gudewyn. The warter-varl be tu handy vur yure brewin'."
"Zum of my customers has weak 'yeds, 'tis arl the better for they," said Goodwyn, calmly.
"Then charge 'em accardin', Mr. Landlord, charge 'em accardin', zays I. Warter doan't cost 'ee nart, du 'un?" said Happy Jack, triumphantly.
"'Ere be the doctor goin' on in's trap, while yu du be tarking zo," said the ploughman. "Lard, he du be a vast goer, be Joe Blundell."
"I drove zo vast as that, and vaster, when I kip a harse," said the road-mender, jealously. "'Ee be a young man, not turned vifty. I mind his vather and mother down tu Cullacott befar they was wed. Why doan't he go tu the war, that's what I zay?"
"Sir Timothy doan't hold wi' the war," said the landlord.
"Mar shame vor 'un," said Happy Jack. "But me and Zur Timothy, us made up our minds tu differ long ago. I'm arl vor vighting vurriners—Turks, Rooshans, Vrinchmen; 'tis arl one tu I."
"Why doan't 'ee volunteer thyself, Vather Jack? Thee baint turned nointy yit, be 'ee?" said a labourer, winking heavily, to convey to the audience that the suggestion was a humorous one.
"Ah, zo I wude, and shute Boers wi' the best on 'un. But the Governmint baint got the zince tu ax me," said Happy Jack, chuckling. "The young volk baint nigh zo knowing as I du be. Old Kruger wuden't ha' tuke in I, try as 'un wude. I be zo witty as iver I can be."
Dr. Blundell saluted the group before the inn as he turned his horse to climb the steep road to Barracombe.
No breath of wind stirred, and the smoke from the cottage chimneys was lying low in the valley, hovering over the river in the still air.
A few primroses peeped out of sheltered corners under the hedge, and held out a timid promise of spring. The doctor followed the red road which wound between Sir Timothy's carefully enclosed plantations of young larch, passed the lodge gates, which were badly in need of repair, and entered the drive.
The justice-room was a small apartment in the older portion of Barracombe House; the low windows were heavily latticed, and faced west.
Sir Timothy sat before his writing-table, which was heaped with papers, directories, and maps; but he could no longer see to read or write. He made a stiff pretence of rising to greet the doctor as he entered, and then resumed his elbow-chair.
The rapidly failing daylight showed a large elderly, rather pompous gentleman, with a bald head, grizzled whiskers, and heavy plebeian features.
His face was smooth and unwrinkled, as the faces of prosperous and self-satisfied persons sometimes are, even after sixty, which was the age Sir Timothy had attained.
Dr. Blundell, who sat opposite his patient, was neither prosperous nor self-satisfied.
His dark clean-shaven face was deeply lined; care or over-work had furrowed his brow; and the rather unkempt locks of black hair which fell over it were streaked with white. From the deep-set brown eyes looked sadness and fatigue, as well as a great kindness for his fellow-men.
"I came the moment I received your letter," he said. "I had no idea you were back from London already."
"Dr. Blundell," said Sir Timothy, pompously, "when I took the very unusual step of leaving home the day before yesterday, I had resolved to follow the advice you gave me. I went to fulfil an appointment I had made with a specialist."
"With Sir James Power?"
"No, with a man named Herslett. You may have heard of him."
"Heard of him!" ejaculated Blundell. "Why, he's world-famous! A new man. Very clever, of course. If anything, a greater authority. Only I fancied you would perhaps prefer an older, graver man."
"No doubt I committed a breach of medical etiquette," said Sir Timothy, in self-satisfied tones. "But I fancied you might have written your version of the case to Power. Ah, you did? Exactly. But I was determined to have an absolutely unbiassed opinion."
"Well," said Blundell, gently.
"Well—I got it, that's all," said Sir Timothy. The triumph seemed to die out of his voice.
"Not from your point of view," said the squire, with a heavy jocularity which did not move the doctor to mirth. "I'm bound to say he confirmed your opinion exactly. But he took a far more serious view of my case than you do."
"Did he?" said Blundell, turning away his head.
"The operation you suggested as a possible necessity must be immediate. He spoke of it quite frankly as the only possible chance of saving my life, which is further endangered by every hour of delay."
"Fortunately," said Blundell, cheerfully, "you have a fine constitution, and you have lived a healthy abstemious life. That is all in your favour."
"I am over sixty years of age," said Sir Timothy, coldly, "and the ordeal before me is a very severe one, as you must be well aware. I must take the risk of course, but the less said about the matter the better."
Dr. Blundell had always regarded Sir Timothy Crewys as a commonplace contradictory gentleman, beset by prejudices which belonged properly to an earlier generation, and of singularly narrow sympathies and interests. He believed him to be an upright man according to his lights, which were not perhaps very brilliant lights after all; but he knew him to be one whom few people found it possible to like, partly on account of his arrogance, which was excessive; and partly on account of his want of consideration for the feelings of others, which arose from lack of perception.
People are disliked more often for a bad manner than for a bad heart. The one is their private possession—the other they obtrude on their acquaintance.
Sir Timothy's heart was not bad, and he cared less for being liked than for being respected. He was the offspring of a mesalliance; and greatly over-estimating the importance in which his family was held, he imagined he would be looked down upon for this mischance, unless he kept people at a distance and in awe of him. The idea was a foolish one, no doubt, but then Sir Timothy was not a wise man; on the contrary, his lifelong determination to keep himself loftily apart from his fellow-men had resulted in an almost extraordinary ignorance of the world he lived in—a world which Sir Timothy regarded as a wild and misty place, peopled largely and unnecessarily with savages and foreigners, and chiefly remarkable for containing England; as England justified its existence by holding Devonshire, and more especially Barracombe.
Sir Timothy had never been sent to school, and owed such education as he possessed almost entirely to his half-sisters. These ladies were considerably his seniors, and had in turn been brought up at Barracombe by their grandmother; whose maxims they still quoted, and whose ideas they had scarcely outgrown. Under the circumstances, the narrowness of his outlook was perhaps hardly to be wondered at.
But the dull immovability and sense of importance which characterized him now seemed to the doctor to be almost tragically charged with the typical matter-of-fact courage of the Englishman; who displays neither fear nor emotion; and who would regard with horror the suspicion that such repression might be heroic.
"When is it to be?" said Blundell.
"And here," said Sir Timothy; "Dr. Herslett objected, but I insisted. I won't be ill in a strange house. I shall recover far more rapidly—if I am to recover—among my people, in my native air. London stifles me. I dislike crowds and noise. I hate novelty. If I am to die, I will die at home."
"Herslett himself performs the operation, of course?"
"Yes. He is to arrive at Brawnton to-night, and sleep there. I shall send the carriage over for him and his assistants early to-morrow morning. You, of course, will meet him here, and the operation is to take place at eleven o'clock."
In his alarm lest the doctor might be moved to express sympathy, Sir Timothy spoke with unusual severity.
Dr. Blundell understood, and was silent.
"I sent for you, of course, to let you know all this," said Sir Timothy, "but I wished, also, to introduce you to my cousin, John Crewys, who came down with me."
"Exactly. I have made him my executor and trustee, and guardian of my son."
"Jointly with Lady Mary, I presume?" said the doctor, unguardedly.
"Certainly not," said Sir Timothy, stiffly. "Lady Mary has never been troubled with business matters. That is why I urged John to come down with me. In case—anything—happens to-morrow, his support will be invaluable to her. I have a high opinion of him. He has succeeded in life through his own energy, and he is the only member of my family who has never applied to me for assistance. I inquired the reason on the journey down, for I know that at one time he was in very poor circumstances; and he replied that he would rather have starved than have asked me for sixpence. I call that a very proper spirit."
The doctor made no comment on the anecdote. "May I ask how Lady Mary is bearing this suspense?" he asked.
"Lady Mary knows nothing of the matter," said the squire, rather peevishly.
"You have not prepared her?"
"No; and I particularly desire she and my sisters should hear nothing of it. If this is to be my last evening on earth, I should not wish it to be clouded by tears and lamentations, which might make it difficult for me to maintain my own self-command. Herslett said I was not to be agitated. I shall bid them all good night just as usual. In the morning I beg you will be good enough to make the necessary explanations. Lady Mary need hear nothing of it till it is over, for you know she never leaves her room before twelve—a habit I have often deplored, but which is highly convenient on this occasion."
Dr. Blundell reflected for a moment. "May I venture to remonstrate with you, Sir Timothy?" he said. "I fear Lady Mary may be deeply shocked and hurt at being thus excluded from your confidence in so serious a case. Should anything go wrong," he added bluntly, "it would be difficult to account to her even for my own reticence."
Sir Timothy rose majestic from his chair. "You will say that I forbade you to make the communication," he said, with rather a displeased air.
"I beg your pardon," said Dr. Blundell, "but—"
"I am not offended," interrupted Sir Timothy, mistaking remonstrance for apology. He was quite honestly incapable of supposing that his physician would presume to argue with him.
"You do not, very naturally, understand Lady Mary's disposition as well as I do," he said, almost graciously. "She has been sheltered from anxiety, from trouble of every kind, since her childhood. To me, more than a quarter of a century her senior, she seems, indeed, still almost a child."
Dr. Blundell coloured. "Yet she is the mother of a grown-up son," he said.
"Peter grown-up! Nonsense! A schoolboy."
"Eighteen," said the doctor, shortly. "You don't wish him sent for?"
"Most certainly not. The Christmas holidays are only just over. Rest assured, Dr. Blundell," said Sir Timothy, with grim emphasis, "that I shall give Peter no excuse for leaving his work, if I can help it."
There was a tap at the door. The squire lowered his voice and spoke hurriedly.
"If it is the canon, tell him, in confidence, what I have told you, and say that I should wish him to be present to-morrow, in his official capacity, in case of—"
It was the canon, whose rosy good-humoured countenance appeared in the doorway whilst Sir Timothy was yet speaking.
"I hope I am not interrupting," he said, "but the ladies desired me—that is, Lady Belstone and Miss Crewys desired me—to let you know that tea was ready."
The canon had an innocent surprised face like a baby; he was constitutionally timid and amiable, and his dislike of argument, or of a loud voice, almost amounted to fear.
Sir Timothy mistook his nervousness for proper respect, and maintained a distant but condescending graciousness towards him.
"I hear you came back by the afternoon train, Sir Timothy. A London outing is a rare thing for you. I hope you enjoyed yourself," said the canon, with a meaningless laugh.
"I transacted my business successfully, thank you," said Sir Timothy, gravely.
"Brought back any fresh news of the war?"
"None at all."
"I hear the call for more men has been responded to all over the country. It's a fine thing, so many young fellows ready and willing to lay down their lives for their country."
"Very few young men, I believe," said Sir Timothy, frigidly, "can resist any opportunity to be concerned in brawling and bloodshed, especially when it is legalized under the name of war. My respect is reserved for the steady workers at home."
"And how much peace would the steady workers at home enjoy without the brawlers abroad to defend them, I wonder!" cried the canon, flushing all over his rosy face, and then suddenly faltering as he met the cold surprise of the squire's grey eyes.
"I have some letters to finish before post time," said Sir Timothy, after an impressive short pause of displeasure. "I will join you presently, Dr. Blundell, at the tea-table, if you will return to the ladies with Canon Birch."
Sir Timothy rang for lights, and his visitors closed the door of the study behind them. Dr. Blundell's backward glance showed him the tall and portly form silhouetted against the window; the last gleam of daylight illuminating the iron-grey hair; the face turned towards the hilltop, where the spires of the skeleton larches were sharply outlined against a clear western sky.
"What made you harp upon the war, man, knowing what his opinions are?" the doctor asked vexedly, as he stumbled along the uneven stone passage towards the hall.
"I did not exactly intend to do so; but I declare, the moment I see Sir Timothy, every subject I wish to avoid seems to fly to the tip of my tongue," said the poor canon, apologetically; "though I had a reason for alluding to the war to-night—a good reason, as I think you will acknowledge presently. I want your advice, doctor."
"Not for yourself, I hope," said the doctor, absently.
"Come into the gun-room for one moment," said Birch. "It is very important. Do you know I've a letter from Peter?"
"From Peter! Why should you have a letter from Peter?" said the doctor, and his uninterested tone became alert.
"I'm sure I don't know why not. I was always fond of Peter," said the canon, humbly. "Will you cast your eye over it? You see, it's written from Eton, and posted two days later in London."
Dr. Blundell read the letter, which was written in a schoolboy hand, and not guiltless of mistakes in spelling.
"DEAR CANON BIRCH,
"As my father wouldn't hear of my going out to South Africa, I've taken the law into my own hands. I wrote to my mother's cousin, Lord Ferries, to ask him to include me in his yeomanry corps. Of course I let him suppose papa was willing and anxious, which perhaps was a low-down game, but I remembered that all's fair in love and war; and besides, I consider papa very nearly a pro-Boer. We've orders to sail on Friday, which is sharp work; but I should be eternally disgraced now if they stopped me. As my father never listens to reason, far less to me, you had better explain to him that if he's any regard for the honour of our name, he's no choice left. I expect my mother had better not be told till I'm gone, or she will only fret over what can't be helped. I'll write to her on board, once we're safely started. I know you're all right about the war, so you can tell papa I was ashamed to be playing football while fellows younger than me, and fellows who can't shoot or ride as I can, are going off to South Africa every day.
"P.S.—Hope you won't mind this job. I did try to get papa's leave fair and square first."
"I always said Peter was a fine fellow at bottom," said Canon Birch, anxiously scanning the doctor's frowning face.
"He's an infernal self-willed, obstinate, heartless young cub on top, then," said Blundell.
"He's a chip of the old block, no doubt," said the canon; "but still"—his admiration of Peter's boldness was perceptible in his voice—"he doesn't share his father's reprehensible opinions on the subject of the war."
"Sons generally begin life by differing from their fathers, and end by imitating them," said Blundell, sharply. "Birch, we must stop him."
"I don't see how," said the canon; and he indulged in a gentle chuckle. "The young rascal has laid his plans too well. He sails to-morrow. I telegraphed inquiries. Ferries' Horse are going by the Rosmore Castle to-morrow morning at eleven o'clock."
Dr. Blundell made an involuntary movement, which the canon did not perceive.
"I don't relish the notion of breaking this news to Sir Timothy. But I thought we could consult together, you and me, how to do it," said the innocent gentleman. "There's no doubt, you know, that it must be done at once, or he can't get to Southampton in time to see the boy off and forgive him. I suppose even Sir Timothy will forgive him at such a moment. God bless the lad!"
Dr. Blundell uttered an exclamation that did not sound like a blessing.
"Look here, Birch," he said, "this is no time to mince matters. If the boy can't be stopped—and under the circumstances he's got us on toast—he can't cry off active service—as the boy can't be stopped, you must just keep this news to yourself."
"But I must tell Sir Timothy!"
"You must not tell Sir Timothy."
"Though all my sympathies are with the boy—for I'm a patriot first, and a parson afterwards—God forgive me for saying so," said Birch, in a trembling voice, "yet I can't take the responsibility of keeping Peter's father in ignorance of his action. I see exactly what you mean, of course. Sir Timothy will make unpleasantness, and very likely telegraph to his commanding officer, and disgrace the poor boy before his comrades; and shout at me, a thing I can't bear; and you kindly think to spare me—and Peter. But I can't take the responsibility of keeping it dark, for all that," said the canon, shaking his head regretfully.
"I take the responsibility," said the doctor, shortly. "As Sir Timothy's physician, I forbid you to tell him."
"Is Sir Timothy ill?" The canon's light eyes grew rounder with alarm.
"He is to undergo a dangerous operation to-morrow morning."
"God bless my soul!"
"He desires this evening—possibly his last on earth—to be a calm and unclouded one," said the doctor. "Respect his wishes, Birch, as you would respect the wishes of a dying man."
"Do you mean he won't get over it?" said the canon, in a horrified whisper.
"You always want the t's crossed and the i's dotted," said Blundell, impatiently. "Of course there is a chance—his only chance. He's a d——d plucky old fellow. I never thought to like Sir Timothy half so well as I do at this moment."
"I hope I don't dislike any man," faltered the canon. "But—"
"Exactly," said the doctor, dryly.
"But what shall I do with Peter's letter?" said the unhappy recipient.
"Not one word to Sir Timothy. Agitation or distress of mind at such a moment would be the worst thing in the world for him."
"But I can't let Peter sail without a word to his people. And his mother. Good God, Blundell! Is Lady Mary to lose husband and son in one day?"
"Lady Mary," said the doctor, bitterly, "is to be treated, as usual, like a child, and told nothing of her husband's danger till it's over. As for Peter—well, devoted mother as she is, she must be pretty well accustomed by this time to the captious indifference of her spoilt boy. She won't be surprised, though she may be hurt, that he should coolly propose to set off without bidding her good-bye."
"Couldn't we tell her in confidence about Peter?" said the canon, struck with a brilliant idea.
"Certainly not; she would fly to him at once, and leave Sir Timothy alone in his extremity."
"Couldn't we tell her in confidence about Sir Timothy?"
"I have allowed Sir Timothy to understand that neither you nor I will betray his secret."
"I'm no hand at keeping a secret," said the canon, unhappily.
"Nonsense, canon, nonsense," said Dr. Blundell, laying a friendly hand on his shoulder. "No man in your profession, or in mine, ought to be able to say that. Pull yourself together, hope for the best, and play your part."
John Crewys looked round the hall at Barracombe House with curious, interested eyes.
It was divided from the outer vestibule on the western side of the building by a massive partition of dark oak, and it retained the solid beams and panelled walls of Elizabethan days; but the oak had been barbarously painted, grained and varnished. Only the staircase was so heavily and richly carved, that it had defied the ingenuity of the comb engraver. It occupied the further end of the hall, opposite the entrance door, and was lighted dimly by a small heavily leaded, stained-glass window. The floor was likewise black, polished with age and the labour of generations. A deeply sunken nail-studded door led into a low-ceiled library, containing a finely carved frieze and cornice, and an oak mantelpiece, which John Crewys earnestly desired to examine more closely; the shield-of-arms above it bore the figures of 1603, but the hall itself was of an earlier date.
Parallel to it was the suite of lofty, modern, green-shuttered reception-rooms, which occupied the south front of the house, and into which an opening had been cut through the massive wall next the chimney.
The character of the hall was, however, completely destroyed by the decoration which had been bestowed upon it, and by the furniture and pictures which filled it.
John Crewys looked round with more indignation than admiration at the home of his ancestors.
In the great oriel window stood a round mahogany table, bearing a bouquet of wax flowers under a glass shade. Cases of stuffed birds ornamented every available recess; mahogany and horsehair chairs were set stiffly round the walls at even distances. A heap of folded moth-eaten rugs and wraps disfigured a side-table, and beneath it stood a row of clogs and goloshes.
Round the walls hung full-length portraits of an early Victorian date. The artist had spent a couple of months at Barracombe fifty years since, and had painted three generations of the Crewys family, who were then gathered together beneath its hospitable roof. His diligence had been more remarkable than his ability. At any other time John Crewys would have laughed outright at this collection of works of art.
But the air was charged with tragedy, and he could not laugh. His seriousness commended him favourably, had he known it, to the two old ladies, his cousins, Sir Timothy's half-sisters, who were seated beside the great log fire, and who regarded him with approving eyes. For their stranger cousin had that extreme gentleness and courtesy of manner and regard, which sometimes accompanies unusual strength, whether of character or of person.
It was a pity, old Lady Belstone whispered to her spinster sister, that John was not a Crewys, for he had a remarkably fine head, and had he been but a little taller and slimmer, would have been a credit to the family.
Certainly John was not a Crewys. He possessed neither grey eyes, nor a large nose, nor the height which should be attained by every man and woman bearing that name, according to the family record.
But though only of middle size, and rather square-shouldered, he was, nevertheless, a distinguished-looking man, with a finely shaped head and well-cut features. Clean shaven, as a great lawyer ought to be, with a firm and rather satirical mouth, a broad brow, and bright hazel eyes set well apart and twinkling with humour. No doubt John's appearance had been a factor in his successful career.
The sisters, themselves well advanced in the seventies, spoke of him and thought of him as a young man; a boy who had succeeded in life in spite of small means, and an extravagant mother, to whom he had been obliged to sacrifice his patrimony. But though he carried his forty-five years lightly, John Crewys had left his boyhood very far behind him. His crisp dark hair was frosted on the temples; he stooped a little after the fashion of the desk-worker; he wore pince-nez; his manner, though alert, was composed and dignified. The restlessness, the nervous energy of youth, had been replaced by the calm confidence of middle age—of tested strength, of ripe experience.
On his side, John Crewys felt very kindly towards the venerable ladies, who represented to him all the womankind of his own race.
Both sisters possessed the family characteristics which he lacked. They were tall and surprisingly upright, considering the weight of years which pressed upon their thin shoulders. They retained the manners—almost the speech—of the eighteenth century, to which the grandmother who was responsible for their upbringing had belonged; and, with the exception of a very short experience of matrimony in Lady Belstone's case, they had always resided exclusively at Barracombe.
Lady Belstone, besides her widowed dignity, had the advantage of her sister in appearance, mainly because she permitted art, in some degree, to repair the ravages of time. A stiff toupet of white curls crowned the withered brow, below a widow's cap; and, when she smiled, which was not very often, a double row of pearls was not unpleasantly displayed. Miss Crewys had never succumbed to the temptations of worldly vanity. She scrupulously parted her scanty grey locks above her polished forehead, and cared not how wide the parting grew. If she wore a velvet bow upon her scalp, it was, as she truly said, for decency, and not for ornament; and further, she allowed her wholesome, ruddy cheeks to fall in, as her ever-lengthening teeth fell out. The frequent explanations which ensued, regarding the seniority of the widow, were a source of constant satisfaction to Miss Crewys, and vexation to her sister.
"You might be a hundred years old, Georgina," she would angrily lament.
"I very soon shall be a hundred years old, Isabella, if I live as long as my grandmother did," Miss Crewys would triumphantly reply. "It is surprising to me that a woman who was never good-looking at the best of times, should cling to her youth as you do."
"It is more surprising to me that you should let yourself go to rack and ruin, and never stretch out a hand to help yourself."
"I am what God made me," said the pious Georgina, "whereas you do everything but paint your face, Isabella; and I have little doubt but what you will come to that by the time you are eighty."
But though they disputed hotly on occasion the sisters generally preserved a united front before the world, and only argued, since argue they must, in the most polite and affectionate terms.
The firelight shed its cheerful glow over the laden tea-table, and was reflected in the silver urn, and the crimson and gold and blue of the Crown Derby tea-set. But the old ladies, though casting longing eyes in the direction of the teapot, religiously abstained from offering to touch it.
"No, John," said Miss Crewys, in a tone of exemplary patience; "I have made it a rule never to take upon myself any of the duties of hospitality in my dear brother's house, ever since he married,—odd as it may seem, when we remember how he used once to sit at this very table in his little bib and tucker, whilst Isabella poured out his milk, and I cut his bread and butter."
"We both make the rule, John," said Lady Belstone, mournfully, "or, of course, as the elder sister, I should naturally pour out the tea in our dear Lady Mary's absence."
"Of course, of course," said John Crewys.
"Forgive me, Isabella, but we have discussed this point before," said Miss Crewys. "Though I cannot deny, our cousin being, as he is, a lawyer, his opinion would carry weight. But I think he will agree with me"—John smiled—"that when the elder daughter of a house marries, she forfeits her rights of seniority in that house, and the next sister succeeds to her place."
"I should suppose that might be the case," John, bowing politely in the direction of the widow.
"I never disputed the fact, Georgina. It is, as our cousin says, self-evident," said Lady Belstone, returning the bow. "But I have always maintained, and always shall, that when the married sister comes back widowed to the home of her fathers, the privileges of birth are restored to her."
Both sisters turned shrewd, expectant grey eyes upon their cousin.
"It is—it is rather a nice point," said John Crewys, as gravely as he could.
He welcomed thankfully the timely interruption of an opening door and the entrance of Canon Birch and the doctor.
At the same moment, from the archway which supported the great oak staircase, the butler entered, carrying lights.
"Is her ladyship not yet returned from her walk, Ash?" asked Lady Belstone, with affected surprise.
"Her ladyship came in some time ago, my lady, and went to see Sir Timothy. She left word she was gone upstairs to change her walking things, and would be down directly."
The sisters greeted the canon with effusion, and Dr. Blundell with frigid civility.
John Crewys shook hands with both gentlemen.
"I am sorry I cannot offer you tea, Canon Birch, until my sister-in-law comes down," said Miss Crewys.
"Our dear Lady Mary is so very unpunctual," said Lady Belstone.
"I dare say something has detained her," said the canon, good-humouredly.
"It often happens that my sister and myself are kept waiting a quarter of an hour or more for our tea. We do not complain," said Lady Belstone.
John Crewys began to feel a little sorry for Lady Mary.
As the sisters appeared inclined to devote themselves to their clerical visitor rather exclusively, he drew near the recess to which Dr. Blundell had retired, and joined him in the oriel window.
"Have you never been here before?" asked the doctor, rather abruptly.
"Never," said John Crewys, smiling. "I understand my cousins are not much given to entertaining visitors. I have never, in fact, seen any of them but once before. That was at Sir Timothy's wedding, twenty years ago."
"Barely nineteen," said the doctor.
"I believe it was nineteen, since you remind me," said John, slightly astonished. "I remember thinking Sir Timothy a lucky man."
"I dare say he looked much about the same as he does now," said the doctor.
"Well," John said, "perhaps a little slimmer, you know. Not much. An iron-grey, middle-aged-looking man. No; he has changed very little."
"He was born elderly, and he will die elderly," said the doctor, shortly. "Neither the follies of youth nor the softening of age will ever be known to Sir Timothy." He paused, noting the surprised expression of John's face, and added apologetically, "I am a native of these parts. I have known him all my life."
"And I am—only a stranger," said John. He hesitated, and lowered his voice. "You know why I came?"
"Yes, I know. I am very glad you did come," said the doctor. His tone changed. "Here is Lady Mary," he said.
John Crewys was struck by the sudden illumination of Dr. Blundell's plain, dark face. The deeply sunken eyes glowed, and the sadness and weariness of their expression were dispelled.
His eyes followed the direction of the doctor's gaze, and his own face immediately reflected the doctor's interest.
Lady Mary was coming down the wide staircase, in the light of a group of wax candles held by a tall bronze angel.
She was dressed with almost rigid simplicity, and her abundant light-brown hair was plainly parted. She was pale and even sad-looking, but beautiful still; with a delicate and regular profile, soft blue eyes, and a sweet, rather tremulous mouth.
John's heart seemed to contract within him, and then beat fast with a sensation that was not entirely pity, because those eyes—the bluest, he remembered, that he had ever seen—brought back to him, suddenly and vividly, the memory of the exquisitely fresh and lovely girl who had married her elderly guardian nineteen years since.
He recollected that some members of the Crewys family had agreed that Lady Mary Setoun had done well for herself, "a penniless lass wi' a lang pedigree;" for Sir Timothy was rich. Others had laughed, and said that Sir Timothy was determined that his heirs should be able to boast some of the bluest blood in Scotland on their mother's side,—but that he might have waited a little longer for his bride.
She was so young, barely seventeen years old, and so very lovely, that John Crewys had felt indignant with Sir Timothy, whose appearance and manner did not attract him. He was reminded that the bride owed almost everything she possessed in the world to her husband, but he was not pacified.
The glance of the gay blue eyes,—the laugh on the curved young mouth,—the glint of gold on the sunny brown hair,—had played havoc with John's honest heart. He had not a penny in the world at that time, and could not have married her if he would; but from Lady Mary's wedding he carried away in his breast an image—an ideal—which had perhaps helped to keep him unwed during these later years of his successful career.
Why did she look so sad?
John's kind heart had melted somewhat towards Sir Timothy, when the poor gentleman had sought him in his chambers on the previous day, and appealed to him for help in his extremity. He was sorry for his cousin, in spite of the pompousness and arrogance with which Sir Timothy unconsciously did his best to alienate even those whom he most desired to attract.
He had come to Devonshire, at great inconvenience to himself, in response to that appeal; and in his hurry, and his sympathy for his cousin's trouble, he had scarcely given a thought to the momentary romance connected with his first and only meeting with Lady Mary. Yet now, behold, after nineteen years, the look on her sweet face thrilled his middle-aged bosom as it had thrilled his young manhood. John smiled or thought he smiled, as he came forward to be presented once more to Sir Timothy's wife; but he was, nevertheless, rather pleased to find that he had not outgrown the power of being thus romantically attracted.
"I hope I'm not late," said the soft voice. "You see, no one expected Sir Timothy to come home so soon, and I was out. Is that Cousin John? We met once before, at my wedding. You have not changed a bit; I remember you quite well," said Lady Mary. She came forward and held out two welcoming hands to her visitor.
John Crewys bowed over those little white hands, and became suddenly conscious that his vague, romantic sentiment had given place to a very real emotion—an almost passionate anxiety to shield one so fair and gentle from the trouble which was threatening her, and of which, as he knew, she was perfectly unconscious.
The warmth of her impulsive welcome did not, of course, escape the keen eyes of the sisters-in-law, which, in such matters as these, were quite undimmed by age.
"Why didn't somebody pour out tea?" said Lady Mary.
"We know your rights, Mary," said Miss Crewys. "Never shall it be said that dear Timothy's sisters ousted his wife from her proper place, because she did not happen to be present to occupy it."
"Besides," said Lady Belstone, "you have, no doubt, some excellent reason, my love, for the delay."
Lady Mary's blue eyes, glancing at John, said quite plainly and beseechingly to his understanding, "They are old, and rather cranky, but they don't mean to be unkind. Do forgive them;" and John smiled reassuringly.
"I'm afraid I haven't much excuse to offer," she said ingenuously. "I was out late, and I tired myself; and then I heard Sir Timothy had come back, so I went to see him. And then I made haste to change my dress, and it took a long time—and that's all."
The three gentlemen laughed forgivingly at this explanation, and the two ladies exchanged shocked glances.
"Our cousin John did his best to entertain us, and we him," said Lady Belstone, stiffly.
"His best—and how good that must be!" said Lady Mary, with pretty spirit. "The great counsel whose eloquence is listened to with breathless attention in crowded courts, and read at every breakfast-table in England."
"That is a very delightful picture of the life of a briefless barrister," said John Crewys, smiling.
"Mary," said Miss Crewys, in lowered tones of reproof, "I understood that divorce cases, unhappily, occupied the greater part of our cousin John's attention."
"We've heard of you, nevertheless—we've heard of you, Mr. Crewys," said the canon, nervously interposing, "even in this out-of-the-way corner of the west."
"But there is one breakfast-table, at least, in England, where divorce cases are not perused, and that is my brother Timothy's breakfast-table," said Lady Belstone, very distinctly.
John hastened to fill up the awkward pause which ensued, by a reference to the beauty of the hall.
"I'm afraid we don't live up to our beautiful old house," said Lady Mary, shaking her head. "There are some lovely things stored away in the gallery upstairs, and some beautiful pictures hanging there, including the Vandyck, you know, which Charles II. gave to old Sir Peter, your cavalier ancestor. But the gallery is almost a lumber-room, for the floor is too unsafe to walk upon. And down here, as you see, we are terribly Philistine."
"This hall was furnished by my grandmother for her son's marriage," said Miss Crewys.
"And she sent all your great-grandmother's treasures to the attics," said Lady Mary, with rather a wilful intonation. "I always long to bring them to light again, and to make this place livable; but my husband does not like change."
"Dear Timothy is faithful to the past," said Miss Crewys, majestically.
"I wish old Lady Crewys had been as faithful," said Lady Mary, shrugging her shoulders.
"Young people always like changes," said Lady Belstone, more leniently.
"Young people!" said Lady Mary, with a rather pathetic smile. "John will think you are laughing at me. Am I to be young still at five-and-thirty?"
"To be sure," said John, "unless you are going to be so unkind as to make a man only ten years your senior feel elderly."
Miss Crewys interposed with a simple statement. "In my day, the age of a lady was never referred to in polite conversation. Least of all by herself. I never allude to mine."
"You are unmarried, Georgina," said Lady Belstone, unexpectedly turning upon her ally. "Unmarried ladies are always sensitive on the subject of age. I am sure I do not care who knows that my poor admiral was twenty years my senior. And his age can be looked up in any book of reference. It would have been useless to try and conceal it,—a man so well known."
"A woman is as old as she looks," said the canon, soothingly, for the annoyance of Miss Crewys was visible. "I am bound to say that Miss Crewys looks exactly the same as when I first knew her."
"Of course, a spinster escapes the wear and tear of matrimony," said Miss Crewys, glaring at her widowed relative.
"H'm, h'm!" said Dr. Blundell. "By-the-by, have you inspected the old picture gallery, Mr. Crewys?"
"Not yet," said John.
Lady Belstone shot a glance of speechless indignation at her sister. Sympathy between them was immediately restored. Prompt action was necessary on the part of the family, or this presumptuous physician would be walking round the house to show John Crewys the portraits of his own ancestors.
"I shall be delighted to show our cousin the pictures in the gallery and in the dining-room," said Miss Crewys, "if my sister Isabella will accompany me, and if Lady Mary has no objections."
"You are very kind," said John. He rose and walked to a small rosewood cabinet of curios. "I see there are some beautiful miniatures here."
"Oh, those do not belong to the family."
"They are Setoun things—some of the few that came to me," said Lady Mary, rather timidly. "I am afraid they would not interest you."
"Not interest me! But indeed I care only too much for such things," said John. "Here is a Cosway, and, unless I very much mistake, a Plimer,—and an Engleheart."
Lady Mary unlocked the cabinet with pretty eagerness, and put a small morocco case into his hands.
"Then here is something you will like to see."
For a moment John did not understand. He glanced quickly from the row of tiny, pearl-framed, old-world portraits, of handsome nobles and rose-tinted court dames, to the very indifferent modern miniature he held.
The portrait of a schoolboy,—an Eton boy with a long nose and small, grey eyes, and an expression distinctly rather sulky and lowering than open or pleasing. Not a stupid face, however, by any means.
"It is my boy—Peter," said Lady Mary, softly.
To her the face was something more than beautiful. She looked up at John with a happy certainty of his interest in her son.
"Here he is again, when he was younger. He was a pretty little fellow then, as you see."
"Very pretty. But not very like you," said John, scarcely knowing what he said.
He was strangely moved and touched by her evident confidence in his sympathy, though his artistic tastes were outraged by the two portraits she asked him to admire. He reflected that women were very extraordinary creatures; ready to be pleased with anything Providence might care to bestow upon them in the shape of a child, even cross-looking boys with long noses and small eyes. The heir of Barracombe resembled his aunts rather than his parents.
"He is a thorough Crewys; not a bit like me. All the Setouns are fair, I believe. Peter is very dark. He is such a big fellow now; taller than I am. I sometimes wish," said Lady Mary, laying the miniature on the table as though she could not bear to shut it away immediately, "that one's children never grew up. They are such darlings when they are little, and they are bound, of course, to disappoint one sometimes as they grow older."
John Crewys felt almost murderously inclined towards Peter. So the young cub had presumed to disappoint his mother as he grew older! How dared he?
Poor Lady Mary was quite unconscious of the feelings with which he gazed at the little case in his hand.
"Not that my boy has ever really disappointed me—yet," she said, with her pretty apologetic laugh. "I only mean that, in the course of human nature, it's bound to come, now and then."
"No doubt," said John, gently.
Then she allowed him to examine the rest of the cabinet, whilst she talked on, always of Peter—his horsemanship and his shooting and his prowess in every kind of sport and game.
* * * * *
Meanwhile, Lady Belstone was holding a hurried consultation with her sister.
"How thoughtless you are, Georgina, asking our cousin into the dining-room just when Ash must be laying the cloth for dinner. He will be sadly put about."
"Dear, dear, it quite slipped my memory, Isabella."
"You have no head at all, Georgina."
"Can I frame an excuse?" said Miss Crewys, piteously, "or will he think it discourteous?"
"Leave it to me, Georgina," said Lady Belstone, with the air of a diplomat. "Mary, my love!"
Lady Mary started. "Yes, Isabella."
"Georgina has very properly recalled to me that candles and lamps make a very poor light for viewing the family portraits. You know, my love, the Vandyck is so very dark and black. She proposes, therefore, with your permission, to act as our cousin's cicerone to-morrow morning, in the daytime. Shall we say—at eleven o'clock, John?"
Canon Birch started nervously, and the doctor frowned at him.
"At eleven o'clock," said John, in steady tones; and, as he spoke, Sir Timothy entered the hall.
"Some tea, Timothy?" said Lady Mary.
"If you please, my dear," said Sir Timothy, dropping his letters into the box.
"I am afraid the tea will be little better than poison, brother," said Lady Belstone, in warning tones; "it has stood so long."
"Perhaps dear Mary intends to order fresh tea, Isabella," said Miss Crewys.
"It hasn't stood so very long," said Lady Mary, looking appealingly at Sir Timothy; "and you know Ash is always cross if we order fresh tea."
"Excuse me, my love," said Miss Crewys. "I am the last to wish to trouble poor Ash unnecessarily, but the tea waited for ten minutes before you came down."
"My dear Mary," said Sir Timothy, "will you never learn to be punctual? No; I will take it as it is. Poor Ash has enough to do, as Georgina truly says."
Lady Mary sighed rather impatiently, and it occurred to John Crewys that Sir Timothy spoke to his wife exactly as he might have addressed a troublesome child. His tone was gentler than usual, but this John did not know.
"I should have liked to take a turn about the grounds with you," said Sir Timothy to his cousin, "if it had been possible; but I am afraid it is getting too dark now."
"Surely there will be time enough to-morrow morning for that, brother," said Lady Belstone.
Sir Timothy had walked to the oriel window, but he turned away as he answered her.
"I may be otherwise occupied to-morrow."
"But I hope the opportunity may arise before very long," said John, cheerfully. "I should like to explore these woods."
"You will have to come with me, then," said Lady Mary, smiling. "Timothy hates walking uphill, and I should love to show our beautiful views to a stranger."
"I do not like you to tire yourself, my dear," said Sir Timothy.
"A walk through Barracombe woods means simply a climb, Mary," said Lady Belstone; "and you are not strong."
"I am perfectly robust, Isabella. Do allow me at least the use of my limbs," said Lady Mary, impatiently.
"No woman, certainly no lady, can be called robust," said Miss Crewys, severely.
The sudden clanging of a bell changed the conversation.
"Visitors. How tiresome!" said Lady Mary.
"My dear Mary!" said Sir Timothy.
"But I know it can't be anybody pleasant, Timothy," said his wife, with rather a mischievous twinkle, "for I owe calls to all the nice people, and it's only the dull ones who come over and over again."
"You owe calls, Mary!" said Lady Belstone, in horrified tones.
"I am afraid," said Miss Crewys, considerately lowering her voice as the butler and footman crossed the hall to the outer vestibule, "that dear Mary is more than a little remiss in civility to her neighbours."
"My dear admiral never permitted me to postpone returning a call for more than a week. Royalty, he always said, the same day; ordinary people within a week," said Lady Belstone.
"When royalty calls I certainly will return the visit the same day," said Lady Mary, petulantly. "But I cannot spend my whole life driving along the high-roads from one house to another. I hate driving, as you know, Isabella."
"What did Providence create carriages for but to be driven in?" said Lady Belstone.
"You will give John a wrong impression of our worthy neighbours, Mary," said Sir Timothy, pompously. "Personally, I am always glad to see them."
"But you don't have to return their calls, Timothy," said Lady Mary.
The canon inadvertently laughed. Sir Timothy looked annoyed. Miss Crewys whispered to Lady Belstone, unheard save by the doctor—
"How very odd and flippant poor Mary is to-night—worse than usual! What can it be?"
"It is just the presence of a strange gentleman that is upsetting her, poor thing," said her sister, in the same whisper. "Her head is easily turned. We had better take no notice."
The doctor muttered something emphatic beneath his breath.
"Mrs. and Miss Hewel," said Ash, advancing into the hall.
"Is it only you and Sarah, after all? What a relief! I thought it was visitors," cried Lady Mary, coming forward to greet them very kindly and warmly. "Did you come across in the ferry?"
"No, indeed. You know how I dislike the ferry. I have the long drive home still before me. But we were so close to Barracombe, at the Gilberts' tea-party. I thought we should be certain to meet you there," said Mrs. Hewel, in rather reproachful tones. "Sarah, of course, wanted to go back in the ferry, but I am always doubly frightened at night—and in one's best clothes. It was quite a large party."
"I'm afraid I forgot all about it," said Lady Mary, with a conscience-stricken glance at her husband.
"I hope you sent the carriage round to the stables?" said Sir Timothy.
"No, no; we mustn't stop a minute. But I couldn't help just popping in—so very long since I've seen you—and all this happening at once," said Mrs. Hewel. She was a large, stout woman, with breathless manner and plaintive voice. "And I wanted to show you Sarah in her first grown-up clothes, and tell you about her too," she added.
"Bless me!" said Sir Timothy. "You don't mean to say little Sarah is grown up."
"Oh yes, dear Sir Timothy; she grew up the day before yesterday," said Mrs. Hewel.
"Sharp work," said the doctor, grimly.
"I mean, of course, she turned up her hair, and let her dresses down. It's full early, I know, but it's such a chance for Sarah—that's partly what I came about. After the trouble she's been all her life to me, and all—just going to that excellent school in Germany—here's my aunt wanting to adopt her, or as good as adopt her—Lady Tintern, you know."
Everybody who knew Mrs. Hewel knew also that Lady Tintern was her aunt; and Lady Tintern was a very great lady indeed.
"She is to come out this very season; that is why I took her to the Gilberts', to prepare her for the great plunge," said Mrs. Hewel, not intending to be funny. "It will be a change for Sarah, such a hoyden as she has always been. But my aunt won't wait once she has got a fancy into her head; though the child is only seventeen."
"At seventeen I was still in the nursery, playing with my dolls," said Lady Belstone.
"Oh, Lady Belstone!" said an odd, deep, protesting voice.
John looked with amused interest at the speaker. The unlucky Sarah had taken a low chair beside her hostess, and was holding one of the soft white hands in her plump gloved fingers.
Sarah Hewel's adoration for Lady Mary dated from the days when she had been ferried over the Youle with her nurse, to play with Peter, in his chubby childhood. Peter had often been cross and always tyrannical, but it was so wonderful to find a playmate who was naughtier than herself, that Sarah had secretly admired Peter. She was the black sheep of her own family, and in continual disgrace for lesser crimes than he daily committed with impunity. But her admiration of Peter was tame and pale beside her admiration of Lady Mary. A mother who never scolded, who told no tales, who petted black sheep when they were bruised and torn or stained entirely through their own wickedness, who could always be depended on for kisses and bonbons and fairy-tales, seemed more angelic than human to poor little Sarah; whose own mother was wrapt up in her two irreproachable sons, and had small affection to spare for an ugly, tiresome little girl.
Sarah, however, had slowly but surely struggled out of the ugliness of her childhood; and John Crewys, regarding her critically in the lamplight, decided she would develop, one of these days, into a very handsome young woman; in spite of an ungainly stoop, a wide mouth that pouted rather too much, and a nose that inclined saucily upwards.
Her colouring was fresh, even brilliant—the bright rose, and creamy tint that sometimes accompanies vivid red hair—and of a vivid, uncompromising red were the locks that crowned Miss Sarah's little head, and shaded her blue-veined temples.
Miss Crewys had, in consequence, long ago pronounced her to be a positive fright; and Lady Belstone had declared that such hair would prove an insuperable obstacle to her chances of getting a husband.
"I know she's very young," said Mrs. Hewel, glancing apologetically at her offspring. "But what can I do? There's no going against Lady Tintern; and at seventeen she ought to be something more than a tomboy, after all."
"You were married at seventeen, weren't you?" said Sarah to Lady Mary, in her deep, almost tragic voice—a voice that commanded attention, though it came oddly from her girlish chest.
"Sarah!" said Mrs. Hewel.
Lady Mary started and smiled. "Me? Yes, Sarah; I was married at seventeen."
"Mamma says nobody can be married properly—before they're one and twenty. I knew it was rot," said Sarah, triumphantly.
"Miss Sarah retains the outspokenness of her recently discarded childhood, I perceive," said Sir Timothy, stiffly.
"Sarah!" said her mother, indignantly, "I said not unless they had their parents' consent. I was not thinking of Lady Mary, as you know very well."
"Your people didn't say you were too young to marry at seventeen, did they?" said Sarah, caressing Lady Mary's hand.
Lady Mary smiled at her, but shook her head. "You want to know too much, Sarah."
"Oh, I forgot," said Sarah the artless. "Sir Timothy was your guardian, so, of course, there was nobody to stop his marrying you if he liked. I suppose you had to do what he told you."
"Oh, Sarah, will you cease chattering?" cried her mother.
"I hope you have good news of your sons in South Africa, Mrs. Hewel," said the canon, briskly advancing to the rescue.
Mrs. Hewel's voice changed. "Thank you, canon; they were all right when we heard last. Tom is in Natal, so I feel happier about him; but Willie, of course, is in the thick of it all—and the news to-day—isn't reassuring."
"But you are proud of them both," said Lady Mary, softly. "Every mother must be proud to have sons able and willing to fight for their country."
"We may feel differently concerning the justice of this war," said Sir Timothy, clearing his throat; and Lady Mary shrugged her shoulders, whilst the canon jumped from his chair, and sat meekly down again on catching the doctor's eye.
"But in our sympathy with our brave soldiers we are all one, Mrs. Hewel."
Sarah sprang forward. "You don't mean to say you're still a pro-Boer, Sir Timothy?" she exclaimed. "Well, mamma—talking of the justice of the war—when Tom and Willie are risking their lives"—she broke into a sudden sob—"and now Peter—"
"Peter!" said Lady Mary.
"Oh, I'm sorry," said Sarah, running to her friend. "I didn't mean to hurt you—talking of the war—and—and the boys—when you must be thinking only of Peter." She wrung her hands together piteously.
"Of Peter!" Lady Mary repeated.
"We only heard to-day," said Mrs. Hewel, "and came in hoping for more details. My cousin George, who is also going out with Lord Ferries, happened to mention in his letter that Peter had joined the corps."
"I think I can explain how the mistake arose," said Sir Timothy, stiffly. "Peter wrote for permission to join, and I refused. My son is fortunately too young to be of any use in a contest I regard with horror."
"But Cousin George was helping Peter to get his kit, because they were to sail at such short notice," cried Sarah.
"Sarah," said her mother, in breathless indignation, "will you be silent?"
"What does this mean, Timothy?" said Lady Mary, trembling.
She stood by the centre table; and the hanging lamp above shed its light on her brown hair, and flashed in her blue eyes, and from the diamond ring she wore.
The doctor rose from his chair.
"I am at a loss to understand," said Sir Timothy.
"It means," said Sarah, half-hysterically,—"oh, can't you see what it means? It just means that Peter is going to South Africa, whether you like it or not."
"There must be some mistake, of course," said Mrs. Hewel, in distressed tones. "And yet—George's letter was so very clear."
Dr. Blundell touched the canon's arm.
"Shall I—must I—" whispered the canon, nervously.
"There is no help for it," said the doctor. He was looking at Lady Mary as he spoke. Her face was deathly; her little frail hand grasped the table.
"Sir Timothy," said the canon, "I—I have a communication to make to you."
"On this subject?" said Sir Timothy.
"A letter from Peter."
"Why did you not say so earlier?" said Sir Timothy, harshly.
"I will explain, if you will kindly give me five minutes in the study."
"A letter from Peter," said Lady Mary, "and not—to me."
She looked round at them all with a little vacant smile.
John Crewys, who knew nothing of Peter's letter, had already grasped the situation. He divined also that Lady Mary was fighting piteously against the conviction that Sarah's news was true.
"How could we guess you did not know?" said Mrs. Hewel, almost weeping.
"I am still in the dark," said Sir Timothy, coldly.
"Birch will explain at once," said the doctor, impatiently.
"Peter writes—asking me,—I am sure I don't know why he pitched upon me,—to—break the news to you, that he has joined Lord Ferries' Horse; feeling it his—his duty to his country to do so," said the unhappy canon, folding and unfolding the letter he held, with agitated fingers.
"I knew there would be a satisfactory explanation," said Mrs. Hewel, tearfully. "Dear Lady Mary, having so inadvertently anticipated Peter's letter, there is only one thing left for me to do. I must at least leave you and Sir Timothy in peace to read it. Come, Sarah."
"Allow me to put you into your carriage," said Sir Timothy, in a voice of iron.
Sarah followed them to the door, paused irresolutely, and stole back to Lady Mary's side.
"Say you're not angry with me, dear, beautiful Lady Mary," she whispered passionately. "Do say you're not angry. I didn't know it would make you so unhappy. It was partly my fault for telling Peter in the holidays that only old men, invalids, and—and cowards—were shirking South Africa. I thought you'd be glad, like me, that Peter should go and fight like all the other boys."
"Sarah," said Dr. Blundell, gently, "don't you see that Lady Mary can't attend to you now? Come away, like a good girl."
He took her arm, and led her out of the hall; and Sarah forgot she had grown up the day before yesterday, and sobbed loudly as she went away.
Lady Mary lifted the miniature from the table, and looked at it without a word; but from the sofa, the two old sisters babbled audibly to each other.
"I always said, Isabella, that if poor Mary spoilt Peter so terribly, something would happen to him."
"What sad nonsense you talk, Georgina. Nothing has happened to him—yet."
"He has defied his father, Isabella."
"He has obeyed his country's call, Georgina. Had the admiral been alive, he would certainly have volunteered."
John Crewys made an involuntary step forward and placed himself between the sofa and the table, as though to shield Lady Mary from their observation, but he could not prevent their words from reaching her ears.
She whispered to him very softly. "Will you get the letter for me? I want to see—for myself—what—what Peter says."
"Go quietly into the library," said John, bending over her for a moment. "I will bring it you there immediately."
She obeyed him without a word.
John turned to the sofa. "I beg your pardon, canon," he said courteously, "but Lady Mary cannot bear this suspense. Allow me to take her son's letter to her at once."
"I—I am only waiting for Sir Timothy. It is to him I have to break the news; though, of course, there is nothing that Lady Mary may not know," said the canon, in a polite but flurried tone. "I really should not like—"
"My brother must see it first," said Miss Crewys, decidedly.
"Exactly. I am sure Sir Timothy would not be pleased if—Bless my soul!"
For John, with a slight bow of apology, and his grave air of authority, had quietly taken the letter from the canon's undecided fingers, and walked away with it into the library.
"How very oddly our cousin John behaves!" said Lady Belstone, indignantly. "Almost snatching the letter from your hand."
"Depend upon it, Mary inspired his action," said Miss Crewys, angrily. "I saw her whispering away to him. A man she never set eyes on before."
"Pray are we not to hear the contents?" said Lady Belstone, quivering with indignation.
"I suppose he thinks Lady Mary should make the communication herself to Sir Timothy," gasped the canon. "I am sure I have no desire to fulfil so unpleasing a task. Still, the matter was entrusted to me. However, the main substance has been told; there can be no further secret about it. My only care was that Sir Timothy should not be unduly agitated."
"It is a comfort to find that some one can consider the feelings of our poor brother," said Miss Crewys.
"Do give me your arm to the drawing-room, canon," said Lady Belstone, rightly judging that the canon would reveal the whole contents of Peter's letter to her more easily in private. "The shock has made me feel quite faint. You, too, Georgina, are looking pale."
"It is not the shock, but the draught, which is affecting me, Isabella,—Sir Timothy thoughtlessly keeping the door open so long. I will accompany you to the drawing-room."
"But Sir Timothy may want me," said the canon, uneasily.
"Bless the man! they've got the letter itself, what can they want with you?" said her ladyship, vigorously propelling her supporter out of reach of possible interruption. "Close the door behind us, Georgina, I beg, or that odious doctor will be racing after us."
"He takes far too much upon himself. I have no idea of permitting country apothecaries to be so familiar," said Miss Crewys.
Lady Mary, coming from the library with the letter in her hand, met her husband in the hall.
She looked at him wistfully. Her face was very pale as she gave him the letter. Sir Timothy took out his glasses, wiped them deliberately, and put them on.
"Never mind reading it. I can tell you in one word," she said, trembling with impatience. "My boy is sailing for South Africa to-morrow morning."
"I prefer," said Sir Timothy, "to read the letter for myself."
"Oh, do be quick!" she said, half under her breath.
But he read it slowly twice, and folded it. He was really thunderstruck. Peter was accustomed to write polite platitudes to his parent, and had presumably not intended that his letter to the canon should be actually read by Sir Timothy, when he had asked that the contents of it should be broken to him.
"Selfish, disobedient, headstrong, deceitful boy!" said Sir Timothy.
Lady Mary started. "How can you talk so!" Her gentle voice sounded almost fierce. "At least he has proved himself a man.' And he is right. It was a shame and a disgrace for him to stay at home, whilst his comrades did their duty. I say it a thousand times, though I am his mother."
Then she broke down. "Oh, Peter, my boy, my boy, how could you leave me without a word!"
"Perhaps this step was taken with your connivance after all?" said Sir Timothy, suspiciously. He could not follow her rapid changes of mood, and had listened resentfully to her defence of her son.
"Timothy!" said Lady Mary, trembling, "when have I ever been disloyal to you in word or deed?"
"Never, I hope," said Sir Timothy. His voice shook a little. "I do not doubt you for a moment, Mary. But you spoke with such strange vehemence, so unlike your usual propriety of manner."
She broke into a wild laugh which pained and astonished him.
"Did I? I must have forgotten myself for a moment."
"You must, indeed. Pray be calm. I understand that this must be a terrible shock to you."
"It is not a shock," said Lady Mary, defiantly. "I glory in it. I—I wish him to go. Oh, Peter, my darling!"
She hid her face in her hands.
"It would be more to the purpose," said Sir Timothy, "to consider what is to be done."
"Could we stop him?" she cried eagerly, and then changed once more. "No, no; I wouldn't if I could. He would never forgive me."
"Of course, we cannot stop him," said Sir Timothy. He raised his voice as he was wont when he was angry. Canon Birch, in the drawing-room, heard the loud threatening tones, and was thankful for the door which shut him from Sir Timothy's presence. "He has laid his plans for thwarting my known wishes too well. I do not know what might be said if we stopped him. I—I won't have my name made a laughing-stock. I am a Crewys, and the honour of the family lies in my hands. I can't give the world a right to suspect a Crewys of cowardice, by preventing his departure on active service. We have fought before—in a better cause."
"We won't discuss the cause," said Lady Mary, gently. When Sir Timothy began to shout, she always grew calm. "Then you will not telegraph to my cousin Ferries?"
"Ferries ought to have written to me, and not taken the word of a mere boy, like Peter," stormed Sir Timothy. "But the fact is, I never flattered Ferries as he expected; it is not my way to natter any one; and consequently he took a dislike to me. He must have known what my views are. I am sure he did it on purpose."
"It was natural he should believe Peter, and I don't think he knows you well enough to dislike you," said Lady Mary, simply. "He has only seen you twice, Timothy."
"That was evidently sufficient," said Sir Timothy, meaning to be ironical, and unaware that he was stating a plain fact. "I shall certainly not telegraph to tell him that my son has lied to him, well as Peter deserves that I should do so."
"Oh, don't, don't; you are so hard!" she said piteously. "If you'd only listened to him when he implored you to let him go, we could have made his last days at home all they should be. He's been hiding in London, poor Peter; getting his outfit by stealth, ashamed, whilst other boys are being feted and praised by their people, proud of earning so early their right to be considered men. And—and he's only a boy. And he said himself, all's fair in love and war. Indeed, Timothy, it is an exceptional case."
"Mary, your weakness is painful, and your idolatry of Peter will bring its own punishment. The part of his deception that should pain you most is the want of heart he has displayed," said Sir Timothy, bitterly.
"And doesn't it?" she said, with a pathetic smile. "But one oughtn't to expect too much heart from a boy, ought one? It's—it's not a healthy sign. You said once you were glad he wasn't sentimental, like me."
"I should have wished him to exhibit proper feeling on proper occasions. His present triumph over my authority involves his departure to certain danger and possible death, without even affording us the opportunity of bidding him farewell. He is ready and willing to leave us thus."
Lady Mary uttered a stifled scream. "But I won't let him. How can you think his mother will let him go like that?"
"How can you help it?"
She pressed her trembling hands to her forehead. "I will think. There is a way. There are plenty of ways. I can drive to the junction—it's not much further than Brawnton—and catch the midnight express, and get to Southampton by daybreak. I know it can be done. Ash will look out the trains. Why do you look at me like that? You're not going to stop my going, are you? You're not going to try and stop me, are you? For you won't succeed. Oh yes, I know I've been an obedient wife, Timothy. But I—I defied you once before for Peter's sake; when he was such a little boy, and you wanted to punish him—don't you remember?"
"Don't talk so, Mary," said Sir Timothy, almost soothingly. Her vehemence really alarmed and distressed him. "It is not like you to talk like this. You will be sorry—afterwards," he said; and his voice softened.
She responded instantly. She came closer to him, and took his big shaking hand into her gentle clasp.
"I should be sorry afterwards," she said, "and so would you. Even you would be sorry, Timothy, if anything happened to Peter. I'll try and not make any more excuses for him, if you like. I know he's not a child now. He's almost a man; and men seem to me to grow harsh and unloving as they grow older. I try, now and then, to shut my eyes and see him as he once was; but all the time I know that the little boy who used to be Peter has gone away for ever and ever and ever. If he had died when he was little he would always have been my little boy, wouldn't he? But, thank God, he didn't die. He's going to be a great strong man, and a brave soldier, and—and all I've ever wanted him to be—when he's got over these wilful days of boyhood. But he mustn't go without his father's blessing and his mother's kiss."
"He has chosen to do so, Mary," said Sir Timothy, coldly.
She clung to him caressingly. "But you're going to forgive him before he goes, Timothy. There's no time to be angry before he goes. It may be too late to-morrow."
"It may be too late to-morrow," repeated Sir Timothy, heavily.
He resented, in a dull, self-pitying fashion, the fact that his wife's thoughts were so exclusively fixed on Peter, in her ignorance of his own more immediate danger.
"Don't think I'm blind to his faults," urged Lady Mary, "only I can laugh at them better than you can, because I know all the while that at the very bottom of his heart he's only my baby Peter after all. He's not—God bless him—he's not the dreary, cold-blooded, priggish boy he sometimes pretends to be. Don't remember him like that now, Timothy. Think of that morning in June—that glorious, sunny morning in June, when you knelt by the open window in my room and thanked God because you had a son. Think of that other summer day when we couldn't bear even to look at the roses because little Peter was so ill, and we were afraid he was going back to heaven."
Her soft, rapid words touched Sir Timothy to a vague feeling of pity for her, and for Peter, and for himself. But the voice of the charmer, charm she never so wisely, had no power, after all, to dispel the dark cloud that was hanging over him.
The sorrow gave way to a keener anxiety. The calmness of mind which the great surgeon had prescribed—the placid courage, largely aided by dulness of imagination, which had enabled poor Sir Timothy to keep in the very background of his thoughts all apprehensions for the morrow—where were they?
He repressed with an effort the emotion which threatened to master him, and forced himself to be calm. When he spoke again his voice sounded not much less measured and pompous than usual.
"My dear, you are agitating yourself and me. Let us confine ourselves to the subject in hand."
Lady Mary dropped the unresponsive hand she held so warmly pressed between her own, and stepped back.
"Ah, forgive me!" she said in clear tones. "It's so difficult to—"
"To be exactly what you wish. To be always on guard. My feelings broke bounds for once."
"Calm yourself," said Sir Timothy. "And besides, so far as I am concerned, your pleading for Peter is unnecessary."
"You have forgiven him?" she cried joyfully, yet almost incredulously.
He paused, and then said with solemnity: "I have forgiven him, Mary. It is not the moment for me to cherish resentment, least of all against my only son."
"Ah, thank God! Then you will come to Southampton?"
"That is impossible. But I will telegraph my forgiveness and the blessing which he has not sought that he may receive it before the ship sails."
"I am grateful to you for doing even so much as that, Timothy, and for not being angry. Then I must go alone?"
"Understand me," said Lady Mary, in a low voice, "for I am in earnest. I have never deceived you. I will not defy you in secret, like Peter; but I will go and bid my only son God-speed, though the whole world conspired to prevent me. I will go!"
There was a pause.
"You speak," said Sir Timothy, resentfully, "as though I had habitually thwarted your wishes."
"Oh, no," said his wife, softly, "you never even found out what they were."
He did not notice the words; it is doubtful whether he heard them.
"It has been my best endeavour to promote your happiness throughout our married life, Mary, so far as I considered it compatible with your highest welfare. I do not pretend I can enter into the high-flown and romantic feelings engendered by your reprehensible habit of novel-reading."
"You've scolded me so often for that," said Lady Mary, half mockingly, half sadly. "Can't we—keep to the subject in hand, as you said just now?"
"I have a reason, a strong reason," said Sir Timothy, "for wishing you to remain at home to-morrow. I had hoped, by concealing it from you, to spare you some of the painful suspense and anxiety which I am myself experiencing."
Lady Mary laughed.
"How like a man to suppose a woman is spared anything by being kept in the dark! I knew something was wrong. Dr. Blundell and Canon Birch are in your confidence, I presume? They kept exchanging glances like two mysterious owls. Your sisters are not, or they would be sighing and shaking their heads. And John—John Crewys? Oh, he is a lawyer. When does a visitor ever come here except on business? He has something to do with it. Ah, to advise you for nothing over your purchase of the Crown lands! You have got into some difficulty over that, or something of the kind? You brought him down here for some special purpose, I am sure; but I did not know him well enough, and I knew you too well, to ask why."