RHODA FLEMING, complete
By George Meredith
BOOK 1. I. THE KENTISH FAMILY II. QUEEN ANNE'S FARM III. SUGGESTS THE MIGHT OF THE MONEY DEMON IV. THE TEXT FROM SCRIPTURE V. THE SISTERS MEET VI. EDWARD AND ALGERNON VII. GREAT NEWS FROM DAHLIA VIII. INTRODUCES MRS. LOVELL IX. ROBERT INTERVENES X. DAHLIA IS NOT VISIBLE XI. AN INDICATIVE DUET IN A MINOR KEY
BOOK 2. XII. AT THE THEATRE. XIII. THE FARMER SPEAKS XIV. BETWEEN RHODA AND ROBERT XI. A VISIT TO WREXBY HALL XII. AT FAIRLY PARK XVII. A YEOMAN OF THE OLD BREED XVIII. AN ASSEMBLY AT THE PILOT INN XIX. ROBERT SMITTEN LOW XX. MRS. LOVELL SHOWS A TAME BRUTE
BOOK 3. XXI. GIVES A GLIMPSE OF WHAT POOR VILLANIES THE STORY CONTAINS XXII. EDWARD TAKES HIS COURSE XXIII. MAJOR PERCY WARING XXIV. WARBEACH VILLAGE CHURCH XXV. OF THE FEARFUL TEMPTATION WHICH CAME UPON ANTHONY HACKBUT, AND OF HIS MEETING WITH DAHLIA XXVI. IN THE PARK XXVII. CONTAINS A STUDY OF A FOOL IN TROUBLE XXVIII. EDWARD'S LETTER XXIX. FURTHERMORE OF THE FOOL
BOOK 4. XXX. THE EXPIATION XXXI. THE MELTING OF THE THOUSAND XXXII. LA QUESTION D'ARGENT XXXIII. EDWARD'S RETURN XXXIV. FATHER AND SON XXXV. THE NIGHT BEFORE XXXVI. EDWARD MEETS HIS MATCH XXXVII. EDWARD TRIES HIS ELOQUENCE XXXVIII. TOO LATE
BOOK 5. XXXIX. DAHLIA GOES HOME XL. A FREAK OF THE MONEY-DEMON, THAT MAY HAVE BEEN ANTICIPATED XLI. DAHLIA'S FRENZY XLII. ANTHONY IN A COLLAPSE XLIII. RHODA PLEDGES HER HAND XLIV. THE ENEMY APPEARS XLV. THE FARMER IS AWAKENED XLVI. WHEN THE NIGHT IS DARKEST XLVII. DAWN IS NEAR XLVIII. CONCLUSION
Remains of our good yeomanry blood will be found in Kent, developing stiff, solid, unobtrusive men, and very personable women. The distinction survives there between Kentish women and women of Kent, as a true South-eastern dame will let you know, if it is her fortune to belong to that favoured portion of the county where the great battle was fought, in which the gentler sex performed manful work, but on what luckless heads we hear not; and when garrulous tradition is discreet, the severe historic Muse declines to hazard a guess. Saxon, one would presume, since it is thought something to have broken them.
My plain story is of two Kentish damsels, and runs from a home of flowers into regions where flowers are few and sickly, on to where the flowers which breathe sweet breath have been proved in mortal fire.
Mrs. Fleming, of Queen Anne's Farm, was the wife of a yeoman-farmer of the county. Both were of sound Kentish extraction, albeit varieties of the breed. The farm had its name from a tradition, common to many other farmhouses within a circuit of the metropolis, that the ante-Hanoverian lady had used the place in her day as a nursery-hospital for the royal little ones. It was a square three-storied building of red brick, much beaten and stained by the weather, with an ivied side, up which the ivy grew stoutly, topping the roof in triumphant lumps. The house could hardly be termed picturesque. Its aspect had struck many eyes as being very much that of a red-coat sentinel grenadier, battered with service, and standing firmly enough, though not at ease. Surrounding it was a high wall, built partly of flint and partly of brick, and ringed all over with grey lichen and brown spots of bearded moss, that bore witness to the touch of many winds and rains. Tufts of pale grass, and gilliflowers, and travelling stone-crop, hung from the wall, and driblets of ivy ran broadening to the outer ground. The royal Arms were said to have surmounted the great iron gateway; but they had vanished, either with the family, or at the indications of an approaching rust. Rust defiled its bars; but, when you looked through them, the splendour of an unrivalled garden gave vivid signs of youth, and of the taste of an orderly, laborious, and cunning hand.
The garden was under Mrs. Fleming's charge. The joy of her love for it was written on its lustrous beds, as poets write. She had the poetic passion for flowers. Perhaps her taste may now seem questionable. She cherished the old-fashioned delight in tulips; the house was reached on a gravel-path between rows of tulips, rich with one natural blush, or freaked by art. She liked a bulk of colour; and when the dahlia dawned upon our gardens, she gave her heart to dahlias. By good desert, the fervent woman gained a prize at a flower-show for one of her dahlias, and 'Dahlia' was the name uttered at the christening of her eldest daughter, at which all Wrexby parish laughed as long as the joke could last. There was laughter also when Mrs. Fleming's second daughter received the name of 'Rhoda;' but it did not endure for so long a space, as it was known that she had taken more to the solitary and reflective reading of her Bible, and to thoughts upon flowers eternal. Country people are not inclined to tolerate the display of a passion for anything. They find it as intrusive and exasperating as is, in the midst of larger congregations, what we call genius. For some years, Mrs. Fleming's proceedings were simply a theme for gossips, and her vanity was openly pardoned, until that delusively prosperous appearance which her labour lent to the house, was worn through by the enforced confession of there being poverty in the household. The ragged elbow was then projected in the face of Wrexby in a manner to preclude it from a sober appreciation of the fairness of the face.
Critically, moreover, her admission of great poppy-heads into her garden was objected to. She would squander her care on poppies, and she had been heard to say that, while she lived, her children should be fully fed. The encouragement of flaunting weeds in a decent garden was indicative of a moral twist that the expressed resolution to supply her table with plentiful nourishment, no matter whence it came, or how provided, sufficiently confirmed. The reason with which she was stated to have fortified her stern resolve was of the irritating order, right in the abstract, and utterly unprincipled in the application. She said, 'Good bread, and good beef, and enough of both, make good blood; and my children shall be stout.' This is such a thing as maybe announced by foreign princesses and rulers over serfs; but English Wrexby, in cogitative mood, demanded an equivalent for its beef and divers economies consumed by the hungry children of the authoritative woman. Practically it was obedient, for it had got the habit of supplying her. Though payment was long in arrear, the arrears were not treated as lost ones by Mrs. Fleming, who, without knowing it, possessed one main secret for mastering the custodians of credit. She had a considerate remembrance and regard for the most distant of her debts, so that she seemed to be only always a little late, and exceptionally wrongheaded in theory. Wrexby, therefore, acquiesced in helping to build up her children to stoutness, and but for the blindness of all people, save artists, poets, novelists, to the grandeur of their own creations, the inhabitants of this Kentish village might have had an enjoyable pride in the beauty and robust grace of the young girls,—fair-haired, black-haired girls, a kindred contrast, like fire and smoke, to look upon. In stature, in bearing, and in expression, they were, if I may adopt the eloquent modern manner of eulogy, strikingly above their class. They carried erect shoulders, like creatures not ashamed of showing a merely animal pride, which is never quite apart from the pride of developed beauty. They were as upright as Oriental girls, whose heads are nobly poised from carrying the pitcher to the well. Dark Rhoda might have passed for Rachel, and Dahlia called her Rachel. They tossed one another their mutual compliments, drawn from the chief book of their reading. Queen of Sheba was Dahlia's title. No master of callisthenics could have set them up better than their mother's receipt for making good blood, combined with a certain harmony of their systems, had done; nor could a schoolmistress have taught them correcter speaking. The characteristic of girls having a disposition to rise, is to be cravingly mimetic; and they remembered, and crooned over, till by degrees they adopted the phrases and manner of speech of highly grammatical people, such as the rector and his lady, and of people in story-books, especially of the courtly French fairy-books, wherein the princes talk in periods as sweetly rounded as are their silken calves; nothing less than angelically, so as to be a model to ordinary men.
The idea of love upon the lips of ordinary men, provoked Dahlia's irony; and the youths of Wrexby and Fenhurst had no chance against her secret Prince Florizels. Them she endowed with no pastoral qualities; on the contrary, she conceived that such pure young gentlemen were only to be seen, and perhaps met, in the great and mystic City of London. Naturally, the girls dreamed of London. To educate themselves, they copied out whole pages of a book called the 'Field of Mars,' which was next to the family Bible in size among the volumes of the farmer's small library. The deeds of the heroes of this book, and the talk of the fairy princes, were assimilated in their minds; and as they looked around them upon millers', farmers', maltsters', and tradesmen's sons, the thought of what manner of youth would propose to marry them became a precocious tribulation. Rhoda, at the age of fifteen, was distracted by it, owing to her sister's habit of masking her own dismal internal forebodings on the subject, under the guise of a settled anxiety concerning her sad chance.
In dress, the wife of the rector of Wrexby was their model. There came once to Squire Blancove's unoccupied pew a dazzling vision of a fair lady. They heard that she was a cousin of his third wife, and a widow, Mrs. Lovell by name. They looked at her all through the service, and the lady certainly looked at them in return; nor could they, with any distinctness, imagine why, but the look dwelt long in their hearts, and often afterward, when Dahlia, upon taking her seat in church, shut her eyes, according to custom, she strove to conjure up the image of herself, as she had appeared to the beautiful woman in the dress of grey-shot silk, with violet mantle and green bonnet, rose-trimmed; and the picture she conceived was the one she knew herself by, for many ensuing years.
Mrs. Fleming fought her battle with a heart worthy of her countrywomen, and with as much success as the burden of a despondent husband would allow to her. William John Fleming was simply a poor farmer, for whom the wheels of the world went too fast:—a big man, appearing to be difficult to kill, though deeply smitten. His cheeks bloomed in spite of lines and stains, and his large, quietly dilated, brown ox-eyes, that never gave out a meaning, seldom showed as if they had taken one from what they saw. Until his wife was lost to him, he believed that he had a mighty grievance against her; but as he was not wordy, and was by nature kind, it was her comfort to die and not to know it. This grievance was rooted in the idea that she was ruinously extravagant. The sight of the plentiful table was sore to him; the hungry mouths, though he grudged to his offspring nothing that he could pay for, were an afflicting prospect. "Plump 'em up, and make 'em dainty," he advanced in contravention of his wife's talk of bread and beef.
But he did not complain. If it came to an argument, the farmer sidled into a secure corner of prophecy, and bade his wife to see what would come of having dainty children. He could not deny that bread and beef made blood, and were cheaper than the port-wine which doctors were in the habit of ordering for this and that delicate person in the neighbourhood; so he was compelled to have recourse to secret discontent. The attention, the time, and the trifles of money shed upon the flower garden, were hardships easier to bear. He liked flowers, and he liked to hear the praise of his wife's horticultural skill. The garden was a distinguishing thing to the farm, and when on a Sunday he walked home from church among full June roses, he felt the odour of them to be so like his imagined sensations of prosperity, that the deception was worth its cost. Yet the garden in its bloom revived a cruel blow. His wife had once wounded his vanity. The massed vanity of a silent man, when it does take a wound, desires a giant's vengeance; but as one can scarcely seek to enjoy that monstrous gratification when one's wife is the offender, the farmer escaped from his dilemma by going apart into a turnip-field, and swearing, with his fist outstretched, never to forget it. His wife had asked him, seeing that the garden flourished and the farm decayed, to yield the labour of the farm to the garden; in fact, to turn nurseryman under his wife's direction. The woman could not see that her garden drained the farm already, distracted the farm, and most evidently impoverished him. She could not understand, that in permitting her, while he sweated fruitlessly, to give herself up to the occupation of a lady, he had followed the promptings of his native kindness, and certainly not of his native wisdom. That she should deem herself 'best man' of the two, and suggest his stamping his name to such an opinion before the world, was an outrage.
Mrs. Fleming was failing in health. On that plea, with the solemnity suited to the autumn of her allotted days, she persuaded her husband to advertise for an assistant, who would pay a small sum of money to learn sound farming, and hear arguments in favour of the Corn Laws. To please her, he threw seven shillings away upon an advertisement, and laughed when the advertisement was answered, remarking that he doubted much whether good would come of dealings with strangers. A young man, calling himself Robert Armstrong, underwent a presentation to the family. He paid the stipulated sum, and was soon enrolled as one of them. He was of a guardsman's height and a cricketer's suppleness, a drinker of water, and apparently the victim of a dislike of his species; for he spoke of the great night-lighted city with a horror that did not seem to be an estimable point in him, as judged by a pair of damsels for whom the mysterious metropolis flew with fiery fringes through dark space, in their dreams.
In other respects, the stranger was well thought of, as being handsome and sedate. He talked fondly of one friend that he had, an officer in the army, which was considered pardonably vain. He did not reach to the ideal of his sex which had been formed by the sisters; but Mrs. Fleming, trusting to her divination of his sex's character, whispered a mother's word about him to her husband a little while before her death.
It was her prayer to heaven that she might save a doctor's bill. She died, without lingering illness, in her own beloved month of June; the roses of her tending at the open window, and a soft breath floating up to her from the garden. On the foregoing May-day, she had sat on the green that fronted the iron gateway, when Dahlia and Rhoda dressed the children of the village in garlands, and crowned the fairest little one queen of May: a sight that revived in Mrs. Fleming's recollection the time of her own eldest and fairest taking homage, shy in her white smock and light thick curls. The gathering was large, and the day was of the old nature of May, before tyrannous Eastwinds had captured it and spoiled its consecration. The mill-stream of the neighbouring mill ran blue among the broad green pastures; the air smelt of cream-bowls and wheaten loaves; the firs on the beacon-ridge, far southward, over Fenhurst and Helm villages, were transported nearer to see the show, and stood like friends anxious to renew acquaintance. Dahlia and Rhoda taught the children to perceive how they resembled bent old beggar-men. The two stone-pines in the miller's grounds were likened by them to Adam and Eve turning away from the blaze of Paradise; and the saying of one receptive child, that they had nothing but hair on, made the illustration undying both to Dahlia and Rhoda.
The magic of the weather brought numerous butterflies afield, and one fiddler, to whose tuning the little women danced; others closer upon womanhood would have danced likewise, if the sisters had taken partners; but Dahlia was restrained by the sudden consciousness that she was under the immediate observation of two manifestly London gentlemen, and she declined to be led forth by Robert Armstrong. The intruders were youths of good countenance, known to be the son and the nephew of Squire Blancove of Wrexby Hall. They remained for some time watching the scene, and destroyed Dahlia's single-mindedness. Like many days of gaiety, the Gods consenting, this one had its human shadow. There appeared on the borders of the festivity a young woman, the daughter of a Wrexby cottager, who had left her home and but lately returned to it, with a spotted name. No one addressed her, and she stood humbly apart. Dahlia, seeing that every one moved away from her, whispering with satisfied noddings, wished to draw her in among the groups. She mentioned the name of Mary Burt to her father, supposing that so kind a man would not fail to sanction her going up to the neglected young woman. To her surprise, her father became violently enraged, and uttered a stern prohibition, speaking a word that stained her cheeks. Rhoda was by her side, and she wilfully, without asking leave, went straight over to Mary, and stood with her under the shadow of the Adam and Eve, until the farmer sent a messenger to say that he was about to enter the house. Her punishment for the act of sinfulness was a week of severe silence; and the farmer would have kept her to it longer, but for her mother's ominously growing weakness. The sisters were strangely overclouded by this incident. They could not fathom the meaning of their father's unkindness, coarseness, and indignation. Why, and why? they asked one another, blankly. The Scriptures were harsh in one part, but was the teaching to continue so after the Atonement? By degrees they came to reflect, and not in a mild spirit, that the kindest of men can be cruel, and will forget their Christianity toward offending and repentant women.
Mrs. Fleming had a brother in London, who had run away from his Kentish home when a small boy, and found refuge at a Bank. The position of Anthony Hackbut in that celebrated establishment, and the degree of influence exercised by him there, were things unknown; but he had stuck to the Bank for a great number of years, and he had once confessed to his sister that he was not a beggar. Upon these joint facts the farmer speculated, deducing from them that a man in a London Bank, holding money of his own, must have learnt the ways of turning it over—farming golden ground, as it were; consequently, that amount must now have increased to a very considerable sum. You ask, What amount? But one who sits brooding upon a pair of facts for years, with the imperturbable gravity of creation upon chaos, will be as successful in evoking the concrete from the abstract. The farmer saw round figures among the possessions of the family, and he assisted mentally in this money-turning of Anthony's, counted his gains for him, disposed his risks, and eyed the pile of visionary gold with an interest so remote, that he was almost correct in calling it disinterested. The brothers-in-law had a mutual plea of expense that kept them separate. When Anthony refused, on petition, to advance one hundred pounds to the farmer, there was ill blood to divide them. Queen Anne's Farm missed the flourishing point by one hundred pounds exactly. With that addition to its exchequer, it would have made head against its old enemy, Taxation, and started rejuvenescent. But the Radicals were in power to legislate and crush agriculture, and "I've got a miser for my brother-in-law," said the farmer. Alas! the hundred pounds to back him, he could have sowed what he pleased, and when it pleased him, partially defying the capricious clouds and their treasures, and playing tunefully upon his land, his own land. Instead of which, and while too keenly aware that the one hundred would have made excesses in any direction tributary to his pocket, the poor man groaned at continuous falls of moisture, and when rain was prayed for in church, he had to be down on his knees, praying heartily with the rest of the congregation. It was done, and bitter reproaches were cast upon Anthony for the enforced necessity to do it.
On the occasion of his sister's death, Anthony informed his bereaved brother-in-law that he could not come down to follow the hearse as a mourner. "My place is one of great trust;" he said, "and I cannot be spared." He offered, however, voluntarily to pay half the expenses of the funeral, stating the limit of the cost. It is unfair to sound any man's springs of action critically while he is being tried by a sorrow; and the farmer's angry rejection of Anthony's offer of aid must pass. He remarked in his letter of reply, that his wife's funeral should cost no less than he chose to expend on it. He breathed indignant fumes against "interferences." He desired Anthony to know that he also was "not a beggar," and that he would not be treated as one. The letter showed a solid yeoman's fist. Farmer Fleming told his chums, and the shopkeeper of Wrexby, with whom he came into converse, that he would honour his dead wife up to his last penny. Some month or so afterward it was generally conjectured that he had kept his word.
Anthony's rejoinder was characterized by a marked humility. He expressed contrition for the farmer's misunderstanding of his motives. His fathomless conscience had plainly been reached. He wrote again, without waiting for an answer, speaking of the Funds indeed, but only to pronounce them worldly things, and hoping that they all might meet in heaven, where brotherly love, as well as money, was ready made, and not always in the next street. A hint occurred that it would be a gratification to him to be invited down, whether he could come or no; for holidays were expensive, and journeys by rail had to be thought over before they were undertaken; and when you are away from your post, you never knew who maybe supplanting you. He did not promise that he could come, but frankly stated his susceptibility to the friendliness of an invitation. The feeling indulged by Farmer Fleming in refusing to notice Anthony's advance toward a reconciliation, was, on the whole, not creditable to him. Spite is more often fattened than propitiated by penitence. He may have thought besides (policy not being always a vacant space in revengeful acts) that Anthony was capable of something stronger and warmer, now that his humanity had been aroused. The speculation is commonly perilous; but Farmer Fleming had the desperation of a man who has run slightly into debt, and has heard the first din of dunning, which to the unaccustomed imagination is fearful as bankruptcy (shorn of the horror of the word). And, moreover, it was so wonderful to find Anthony displaying humanity at all, that anything might be expected of him. "Let's see what he will do," thought the farmer in an interval of his wrath; and the wrath is very new which has none of these cool intervals. The passions, do but watch them, are all more or less intermittent.
As it chanced, he acted sagaciously, for Anthony at last wrote to say that his home in London was cheerless, and that he intended to move into fresh and airier lodgings, where the presence of a discreet young housekeeper, who might wish to see London, and make acquaintance with the world, would be agreeable to him. His project was that one of his nieces should fill this office, and he requested his brother-in-law to reflect on it, and to think of him as of a friend of the family, now and in the time to come. Anthony spoke of the seductions of London quite unctuously. Who could imagine this to be the letter of an old crabbed miser? "Tell her," he said, "there's fruit at stalls at every street-corner all the year through—oysters and whelks, if she likes—winkles, lots of pictures in shops—a sight of muslin and silks, and rides on omnibuses—bands of all sorts, and now and then we can take a walk to see the military on horseback, if she's for soldiers." Indeed, he joked quite comically in speaking of the famous horse-guards—warriors who sit on their horses to be looked at, and do not mind it, because they are trained so thoroughly. "Horse-guards blue, and horse-guards red," he wrote—"the blue only want boiling." There is reason to suppose that his disrespectful joke was not original in him, but it displayed his character in a fresh light. Of course, if either of the girls was to go, Dahlia was the person. The farmer commenced his usual process of sitting upon the idea. That it would be policy to attach one of the family to this chirping old miser, he thought incontestable. On the other hand, he had a dread of London, and Dahlia was surpassingly fair. He put the case to Robert, in remembrance of what his wife had spoken, hoping that Robert would amorously stop his painful efforts to think fast enough for the occasion. Robert, however, had nothing to say, and seemed willing to let Dahlia depart. The only opponents to the plan were Mrs. Sumfit, a kindly, humble relative of the farmer's, widowed out of Sussex, very loving and fat; the cook to the household, whose waist was dimly indicated by her apron-string; and, to aid her outcries, the silently-protesting Master Gammon, an old man with the cast of eye of an antediluvian lizard, the slowest old man of his time—a sort of foreman of the farm before Robert had come to take matters in hand, and thrust both him and his master into the background. Master Gammon remarked emphatically, once and for all, that "he never had much opinion of London." As he had never visited London, his opinion was considered the less weighty, but, as he advanced no further speech, the sins and backslidings of the metropolis were strongly brought to mind by his condemnatory utterance. Policy and Dahlia's entreaties at last prevailed with the farmer, and so the fair girl went up to the great city.
After months of a division that was like the division of her living veins, and when the comfort of letters was getting cold, Rhoda, having previously pledged herself to secresy, though she could not guess why it was commanded, received a miniature portrait of Dahlia, so beautiful that her envy of London for holding her sister away from her, melted in gratitude. She had permission to keep the portrait a week; it was impossible to forbear from showing it to Mrs. Sumfit, who peeped in awe, and that emotion subsiding, shed tears abundantly. Why it was to be kept secret, they failed to inquire; the mystery was possibly not without its delights to them. Tears were shed again when the portrait had to be packed up and despatched. Rhoda lived on abashed by the adorable new refinement of Dahlia's features, and her heart yearned to her uncle for so caring to decorate the lovely face.
One day Rhoda was at her bed-room window, on the point of descending to encounter the daily dumpling, which was the principal and the unvarying item of the midday meal of the house, when she beheld a stranger trying to turn the handle of the iron gate. Her heart thumped. She divined correctly that it was her uncle. Dahlia had now been absent for very many months, and Rhoda's growing fretfulness sprang the conviction in her mind that something closer than letters must soon be coming. She ran downstairs, and along the gravel-path. He was a little man, square-built, and looking as if he had worn to toughness; with an evident Sunday suit on: black, and black gloves, though the day was only antecedent to Sunday.
"Let me help you, sir," she said, and her hands came in contact with his, and were squeezed.
"How is my sister?" She had no longer any fear in asking.
"Now, you let me through, first," he replied, imitating an arbitrary juvenile. "You're as tight locked in as if you was in dread of all the thieves of London. You ain't afraid o' me, miss? I'm not the party generally outside of a fortification; I ain't, I can assure you. I'm a defence party, and a reg'lar lion when I've got the law backing me."
He spoke in a queer, wheezy voice, like a cracked flute, combined with the effect of an ill-resined fiddle-bow.
"You are in the garden of Queen Anne's Farm," said Rhoda.
"And you're my pretty little niece, are you? 'the darkie lass,' as your father says. 'Little,' says I; why, you needn't be ashamed to stand beside a grenadier. Trust the country for growing fine gals."
"You are my uncle, then?" said Rhoda. "Tell me how my sister is. Is she well? Is she quite happy?"
"Dahly?" returned old Anthony, slowly.
"Yes, yes; my sister!" Rhoda looked at him with distressful eagerness.
"Now, don't you be uneasy about your sister Dahly." Old Anthony, as he spoke, fixed his small brown eyes on the girl, and seemed immediately to have departed far away in speculation. A question recalled him.
"Is her health good?"
"Ay; stomach's good, head's good, lungs, brain, what not, all good. She's a bit giddy, that's all."
"In her head?"
"Ay; and on her pins. Never you mind. You look a steady one, my dear. I shall take to you, I think."
"But my sister—" Rhoda was saying, when the farmer came out, and sent a greeting from the threshold,—
"Here he is, brother William John."
"Surely, and so he is, at last." The farmer walked up to him with his hand out.
"And it ain't too late, I hope. Eh?"
"It's never too late—to mend," said the farmer.
"Eh? not my manners, eh?" Anthony struggled to keep up the ball; and in this way they got over the confusion of the meeting after many years and some differences.
"Made acquaintance with Rhoda, I see," said the farmer, as they turned to go in.
"The 'darkie lass' you write of. She's like a coal nigh a candle. She looks, as you'd say, 't' other side of her sister.' Yes, we've had a talk."
"Just in time for dinner, brother Tony. We ain't got much to offer, but what there is, is at your service. Step aside with me."
The farmer got Anthony out of hearing a moment, questioned, and was answered: after which he looked less anxious, but a trifle perplexed, and nodded his head as Anthony occasionally lifted his, to enforce certain points in some halting explanation. You would have said that a debtor was humbly putting his case in his creditor's ear, and could only now and then summon courage to meet the censorious eyes. They went in to Mrs. Sumfit's shout that the dumplings were out of the pot: old Anthony bowed upon the announcement of his name, and all took seats. But it was not the same sort of dinner-hour as that which the inhabitants of the house were accustomed to; there was conversation.
The farmer asked Anthony by what conveyance he had come. Anthony shyly, but not without evident self-approbation, related how, having come by the train, he got into conversation with the driver of a fly at a station, who advised him of a cart that would be passing near Wrexby. For threepennyworth of beer, he had got a friendly introduction to the carman, who took him within two miles of the farm for one shilling, a distance of fifteen miles. That was pretty good!
"Home pork, brother Tony," said the farmer, approvingly.
"And home-made bread, too, brother William John," said Anthony, becoming brisk.
"Ay, and the beer, such as it is." The farmer drank and sighed.
Anthony tried the beer, remarking, "That's good beer; it don't cost much."
"It ain't adulterated. By what I read of your London beer, this stuff's not so bad, if you bear in mind it's pure. Pure's my motto. 'Pure, though poor!'"
"Up there, you pay for rank poison," said Anthony. "So, what do I do? I drink water and thank 'em, that's wise."
"Saves stomach and purse." The farmer put a little stress on 'purse.'
"Yes, I calculate I save threepence a day in beer alone," said Anthony.
"Three times seven's twenty-one, ain't it?"
Mr. Fleming said this, and let out his elbow in a small perplexity, as Anthony took him up: "And fifty-two times twenty-one?"
"Well, that's, that's—how much is that, Mas' Gammon?" the farmer asked in a bellow.
Master Gammon was laboriously and steadily engaged in tightening himself with dumpling. He relaxed his exertions sufficiently to take this new burden on his brain, and immediately cast it off.
"Ah never thinks when I feeds—Ah was al'ays a bad hand at 'counts. Gi'es it up."
"Why, you're like a horse that never was rode! Try again, old man," said the farmer.
"If I drags a cart," Master Gammon replied, "that ain't no reason why I should leap a gate."
The farmer felt that he was worsted as regarded the illustration, and with a bit of the boy's fear of the pedagogue, he fought Anthony off by still pressing the arithmetical problem upon Master Gammon; until the old man, goaded to exasperation, rolled out thunderingly,—
"If I works fer ye, that ain't no reason why I should think fer ye," which caused him to be left in peace.
"Eh, Robert?" the farmer transferred the question; "Come! what is it?"
Robert begged a minute's delay, while Anthony watched him with hawk eyes.
"I tell you what it is—it's pounds," said Robert.
This tickled Anthony, who let him escape, crying: "Capital! Pounds it is in your pocket, sir, and you hit that neatly, I will say. Let it be five. You out with your five at interest, compound interest; soon comes another five; treat it the same: in ten years—eh? and then you get into figures; you swim in figures!"
"I should think you did!" said the farmer, winking slyly.
Anthony caught the smile, hesitated and looked shrewd, and then covered his confusion by holding his plate to Mrs. Sumfit for a help. The manifest evasion and mute declaration that dumpling said "mum" on that head, gave the farmer a quiet glow.
"When you are ready to tell me all about my darlin', sir," Mrs. Sumfit suggested, coaxingly.
"After dinner, mother—after dinner," said the farmer.
"And we're waitin', are we, till them dumplings is finished?" she exclaimed, piteously, with a glance at Master Gammon's plate.
"After dinner we'll have a talk, mother."
Mrs. Sumfit feared from this delay that there was queer news to be told of Dahlia's temper; but she longed for the narrative no whit the less, and again cast a sad eye on the leisurely proceedings of Master Gammon. The veteran was still calmly tightening. His fork was on end, with a vast mouthful impaled on the prongs. Master Gammon, a thoughtful eater, was always last at the meal, and a latent, deep-lying irritation at Mrs. Sumfit for her fidgetiness, day after day, toward the finish of the dish, added a relish to his engulfing of the monstrous morsel. He looked at her steadily, like an ox of the fields, and consumed it, and then holding his plate out, in a remorseless way, said, "You make 'em so good, marm."
Mrs. Sumfit, fretted as she was, was not impervious to the sound sense of the remark, as well as to the compliment.
"I don't want to hurry you, Mas' Gammon," she said; "Lord knows, I like to see you and everybody eat his full and be thankful; but, all about my Dahly waitin',—I feel pricked wi' a pin all over, I do; and there's my blessed in London," she answered, "and we knowin' nothin' of her, and one close by to tell me! I never did feel what slow things dumplin's was, afore now!"
The kettle simmered gently on the hob. Every other knife and fork was silent; so was every tongue. Master Gammon ate and the kettle hummed. Twice Mrs. Sumfit sounded a despairing, "Oh, deary me!" but it was useless. No human power had ever yet driven Master Gammon to a demonstration of haste or to any acceleration of the pace he had chosen for himself. At last, she was not to be restrained from crying out, almost tearfully,—
"When do you think you'll have done, Mas' Gammon?"
Thus pointedly addressed, Master Gammon laid down his knife and fork. He half raised his ponderous, curtaining eyelids, and replied,—
"When I feels my buttons, marm."
After which he deliberately fell to work again.
Mrs. Sumfit dropped back in her chair as from a blow.
But even dumplings, though they resist so doggedly for a space, do ultimately submit to the majestic march of Time, and move. Master Gammon cleared his plate. There stood in the dish still half a dumpling. The farmer and Rhoda, deeming that there had been a show of inhospitality, pressed him to make away with this forlorn remainder.
The vindictive old man, who was as tight as dumpling and buttons could make him, refused it in a drooping tone, and went forth, looking at none. Mrs. Sumfit turned to all parties, and begged them to say what more, to please Master Gammon, she could have done? When Anthony was ready to speak of her Dahlia, she obtruded this question in utter dolefulness. Robert was kindly asked by the farmer to take a pipe among them. Rhoda put a chair for him, but he thanked them both, and said he could not neglect some work to be done in the fields. She thought that he feared pain from hearing Dahlia's name, and followed him with her eyes commiseratingly.
"Does that young fellow attend to business?" said Anthony.
The farmer praised Robert as a rare hand, but one affected with bees in his nightcap,—who had ideas of his own about farming, and was obstinate with them; "pays you due respect, but's got a notion as how his way of thinking's better 'n his seniors. It's the style now with all young folks. Makes a butt of old Mas' Gammon; laughs at the old man. It ain't respectful t' age, I say. Gammon don't understand nothing about new feeds for sheep, and dam nonsense about growing such things as melons, fiddle-faddle, for 'em. Robert's a beginner. What he knows, I taught the young fellow. Then, my question is, where's his ideas come from, if they're contrary to mine? If they're contrary to mine, they're contrary to my teaching. Well, then, what are they worth? He can't see that. He's a good one at work—I'll say so much for him."
Old Anthony gave Rhoda a pat on the shoulder.
"Pipes in the middle of the day's regular revelry," ejaculated Anthony, whose way of holding the curved pipe-stem displayed a mind bent on reckless enjoyment, and said as much as a label issuing from his mouth, like a figure in a comic woodcut of the old style:—"that's," he pursued, "that's if you haven't got to look up at the clock every two minutes, as if the devil was after you. But, sitting here, you know, the afternoon's a long evening; nobody's your master. You can on wi' your slippers, up wi' your legs, talk, or go for'ard, counting, twicing, and three-timesing; by George! I should take to drinking beer if I had my afternoons to myself in the city, just for the sake of sitting and doing sums in a tap-room; if it's a big tap-room, with pew sort o' places, and dark red curtains, a fire, and a smell of sawdust; ale, and tobacco, and a boy going by outside whistling a tune of the day. Somebody comes in. 'Ah, there's an idle old chap,' he says to himself, (meaning me), and where, I should like to ask him, 'd his head be if he sat there dividing two hundred and fifty thousand by forty-five and a half!"
The farmer nodded encouragingly. He thought it not improbable that a short operation with these numbers would give the sum in Anthony's possession, the exact calculation of his secret hoard, and he set to work to stamp them on his brain, which rendered him absent in manner, while Mrs. Sumfit mixed liquor with hot water, and pushed at his knee, doubling in her enduring lips, and lengthening her eyes to aim a side-glance of reprehension at Anthony's wandering loquacity.
Rhoda could bear it no more.
"Now let me hear of my sister, uncle," she said.
"I'll tell you what," Anthony responded, "she hasn't got such a pretty sort of a sweet blackbirdy voice as you've got."
The girl blushed scarlet.
"Oh, she can mount them colours, too," said Anthony.
His way of speaking of Dahlia indicated that he and she had enough of one another; but of the peculiar object of his extraordinary visit not even the farmer had received a hint. Mrs. Sumfit ventured to think aloud that his grog was not stiff enough, but he took a gulp under her eyes, and smacked his lips after it in a most convincing manner.
"Ah! that stuff wouldn't do for me in London, half-holiday or no half-holiday," said Anthony.
"Why not?" the farmer asked.
"I should be speculating—deep—couldn't hold myself in: Mexicans, Peroovians, Venzeshoolians, Spaniards, at 'em I should go. I see bonds in all sorts of colours, Spaniards in black and white, Peruvians—orange, Mexicans—red as the British army. Well, it's just my whim. If I like red, I go at red. I ain't a bit of reason. What's more, I never speculate."
"Why, that's safest, brother Tony," said the farmer.
"And safe's my game—always was, always will be! Do you think"—Anthony sucked his grog to the sugar-dregs, till the spoon settled on his nose—"do you think I should hold the position I do hold, be trusted as I am trusted? Ah! you don't know much about that. Should I have money placed in my hands, do you think—and it's thousands at a time, gold, and notes, and cheques—if I was a risky chap? I'm known to be thoroughly respectable. Five and forty years I've been in Boyne's Bank, and thank ye, ma'am, grog don't do no harm down here. And I will take another glass. 'When the heart of a man!'—but I'm no singer."
Mrs. Sumfit simpered, "Hem; it's the heart of a woman, too: and she have one, and it's dying to hear of her darlin' blessed in town, and of who cuts her hair, and where she gets her gownds, and whose pills—"
The farmer interrupted her irritably.
"Divide a couple o' hundred thousand and more by forty-five and a half," he said. "Do wait, mother; all in good time. Forty-five and a-half, brother Tony; that was your sum—ah!—you mentioned it some time back—half of what? Is that half a fraction, as they call it? I haven't forgot fractions, and logareems, and practice, and so on to algebrae, where it always seems to me to blow hard, for, whizz goes my head in a jiffy, as soon as I've mounted the ladder to look into that country. How 'bout that forty-five and a half, brother Tony, if you don't mind condescending to explain?"
"Forty-five and a half?" muttered Anthony, mystified.
"Oh, never mind, you know, if you don't like to say, brother Tony." The farmer touched him up with his pipe-stem.
"Five and a half," Anthony speculated. "That's a fraction you got hold of, brother William John,—I remember the parson calling out those names at your wedding: 'I, William John, take thee, Susan;' yes, that's a fraction, but what's the good of it?"
"What I mean is, it ain't forty-five and half of forty-five. Half of one, eh? That's identical with a fraction. One—a stroke—and two under it."
"You've got it correct," Anthony assented.
"How many thousand divide it by?"
"Divide what by, brother William John? I'm beat."
"Ah! out comes the keys: lockup everything; it's time!" the farmer laughed, rather proud of his brother-in-law's perfect wakefulness after two stiff tumblers. He saw that Anthony was determined with all due friendly feeling to let no one know the sum in his possession.
"If it's four o'clock, it is time to lock up," said Anthony, "and bang to go the doors, and there's the money for thieves to dream of—they can't get a-nigh it, let them dream as they like. What's the hour, ma'am?"
"Not three, it ain't," returned Mrs. Sumfit; "and do be good creatures, and begin about my Dahly, and where she got that Bumptious gownd, and the bonnet with blue flowers lyin' by on the table: now, do!"
"And she wears lavender gloves like a lady," Mrs. Sumfit was continuing.
Rhoda stamped on her foot.
"Oh! cruel!" the comfortable old woman snapped in pain, as she applied her hand to the inconsolable fat foot, and nursed it. "What's roused ye, you tiger girl? I shan't be able to get about, I shan't, and then who's to cook for ye all? For you're as ignorant as a raw kitchen wench, and knows nothing."
"Come, Dody, you're careless," the farmer spoke chidingly through Mrs. Sumfit's lamentations.
"She stops uncle Anthony when he's just ready, father," said Rhoda.
"Do you want to know?" Anthony set his small eyes on her: "do you want to know, my dear?" He paused, fingering his glass, and went on: "I, Susan, take thee, William John, and you've come of it. Says I to myself, when I hung sheepish by your mother and by your father, my dear, says I to myself, I ain't a marrying man: and if these two, says I, if any progeny comes to 'em—to bless them, some people'd say, but I know what life is, and what young ones are—if—where was I? Liquor makes you talk, brother William John, but where's your ideas? Gone, like hard cash! What I meant was, I felt I might some day come for'ard and help the issue of your wife's weddin', and wasn't such a shady object among you, after all. My pipe's out."
Rhoda stood up, and filled the pipe, and lit it in silence. She divined that the old man must be allowed to run on in his own way, and for a long time he rambled, gave a picture of the wedding, and of a robbery of Boyne's Bank: the firm of Boyne, Burt, Hamble, and Company. At last, he touched on Dahlia.
"What she wants, I can't make out," he said; "and what that good lady there, or somebody, made mention of—how she manages to dress as she do! I can understand a little goin' a great way, if you're clever in any way; but I'm at my tea"—Anthony laid his hand out as to exhibit a picture. "I ain't a complaining man, and be young, if you can, I say, and walk about and look at shops; but, I'm at my tea: I come home rather tired there's the tea-things, sure enough, and tea's made, and, maybe, there's a shrimp or two; she attends to your creature comforts. When everything's locked up and tight and right, I'm gay, and ask for a bit of society: well, I'm at my tea: I hear her foot thumping up and down her bed-room overhead: I know the meaning of that: I'd rather hear nothing: down she runs: I'm at my tea, and in she bursts."—Here followed a dramatic account of Dahlia's manner of provocation, which was closed by the extinction of his pipe.
The farmer, while his mind still hung about thousands of pounds and a certain incomprehensible division of them to produce a distinct intelligible total, and set before him the sum of Anthony's riches, could see that his elder daughter was behaving flightily and neglecting the true interests of the family, and he was chagrined. But Anthony, before he entered the house, had assured him that Dahlia was well, and that nothing was wrong with her. So he looked at Mrs. Sumfit, who now took upon herself to plead for Dahlia: a young thing, and such a handsome creature! and we were all young some time or other; and would heaven have mercy on us, if we were hard upon the young, do you think? The motto of a truly religious man said, try 'em again. And, maybe, people had been a little hard upon Dahlia, and the girl was apt to take offence. In conclusion, she appealed to Rhoda to speak up for her sister. Rhoda sat in quiet reserve.
She was sure her sister must be justified in all she did but the picture of the old man coming from his work every night to take his tea quite alone made her sad. She found herself unable to speak, and as she did not, Mrs. Sumfit had an acute twinge from her recently trodden foot, and called her some bitter names; which was not an unusual case, for the kind old woman could be querulous, and belonged to the list of those whose hearts are as scales, so that they love not one person devotedly without a corresponding spirit of opposition to another. Rhoda merely smiled.
By-and-by, the women left the two men alone.
Anthony turned and struck the farmer's knee.
"You've got a jewel in that gal, brother William John."
"Eh! she's a good enough lass. Not much of a manager, brother Tony. Too much of a thinker, I reckon. She's got a temper of her own too. I'm a bit hurt, brother Tony, about that other girl. She must leave London, if she don't alter. It's flightiness; that's all. You mustn't think ill of poor Dahly. She was always the pretty one, and when they know it, they act up to it: she was her mother's favourite."
"Ah! poor Susan! an upright woman before the Lord."
"She was," said the farmer, bowing his head.
"And a good wife," Anthony interjected.
"None better—never a better; and I wish she was living to look after her girls."
"I came through the churchyard, hard by," said Anthony; "and I read that writing on her tombstone. It went like a choke in my throat. The first person I saw next was her child, this young gal you call Rhoda; and, thinks I to myself, you might ask me, I'd do anything for ye—that I could, of course."
The farmer's eye had lit up, but became overshadowed by the characteristic reservation.
"Nobody'd ask you to do more than you could," he remarked, rather coldly.
"It'll never be much," sighed Anthony.
"Well, the world's nothing, if you come to look at it close," the farmer adopted a similar tone.
"What's money!" said Anthony.
The farmer immediately resumed his this-worldliness:
"Well, it's fine to go about asking us poor devils to answer ye that," he said, and chuckled, conceiving that he had nailed Anthony down to a partial confession of his ownership of some worldly goods.
"What do you call having money?" observed the latter, clearly in the trap. "Fifty thousand?"
"Whew!" went the farmer, as at a big draught of powerful stuff.
Mr. Fleming took this second gulp almost contemptuously, but still kindly.
"Come," quoth Anthony, "ten thousand's not so mean, you know. You're a gentleman on ten thousand. So, on five. I'll tell ye, many a gentleman'd be glad to own it. Lor' bless you! But, you know nothing of the world, brother William John. Some of 'em haven't one—ain't so rich as you!"
"Or you, brother Tony?" The farmer made a grasp at his will-o'-the-wisp.
"Oh! me!" Anthony sniggered. "I'm a scraper of odds and ends. I pick up things in the gutter. Mind you, those Jews ain't such fools, though a curse is on 'em, to wander forth. They know the meaning of the multiplication table. They can turn fractions into whole numbers. No; I'm not to be compared to gentlemen. My property's my respectability. I said that at the beginning, and I say it now. But, I'll tell you what, brother William John, it's an emotion when you've got bags of thousands of pounds in your arms."
Ordinarily, the farmer was a sensible man, as straight on the level of dull intelligence as other men; but so credulous was he in regard to the riches possessed by his wife's brother, that a very little tempted him to childish exaggeration of the probable amount. Now that Anthony himself furnished the incitement, he was quite lifted from the earth. He had, besides, taken more of the strong mixture than he was ever accustomed to take in the middle of the day; and as it seemed to him that Anthony was really about to be seduced into a particular statement of the extent of the property which formed his respectability (as Anthony had chosen to put it), he got up a little game in his head by guessing how much the amount might positively be, so that he could subsequently compare his shrewd reckoning with the avowed fact. He tamed his wild ideas as much as possible; thought over what his wife used to say of Anthony's saving ways from boyhood, thought of the dark hints of the Funds, of many bold strokes for money made by sagacious persons; of Anthony's close style of living, and of the lives of celebrated misers; this done, he resolved to make a sure guess, and therefore aimed below the mark.
Money, when the imagination deals with it thus, has no substantial relation to mortal affairs. It is a tricksy thing, distending and contracting as it dances in the mind, like sunlight on the ceiling cast from a morning tea-cup, if a forced simile will aid the conception. The farmer struck on thirty thousand and some odd hundred pounds—outlying debts, or so, excluded—as what Anthony's will, in all likelihood, would be sworn under: say, thirty thousand, or, safer, say, twenty thousand. Bequeathed—how? To him and to his children. But to the children in reversion after his decease? Or how? In any case, they might make capital marriages; and the farm estate should go to whichever of the two young husbands he liked the best. Farmer Fleming asked not for any life of ease and splendour, though thirty thousand pounds was a fortune; or even twenty thousand. Noblemen have stooped to marry heiresses owning no more than that! The idea of their having done so actually shot across him, and his heart sent up a warm spring of tenderness toward the patient, good, grubbing old fellow, sitting beside him, who had lived and died to enrich and elevate the family. At the same time, he could not refrain from thinking that Anthony, broad-shouldered as he was, though bent, sound on his legs, and well-coloured for a Londoner, would be accepted by any Life Insurance office, at a moderate rate, considering his age. The farmer thought of his own health, and it was with a pang that he fancied himself being probed by the civil-speaking Life Insurance doctor (a gentleman who seems to issue upon us applicants from out the muffled folding doors of Hades; taps us on the chest, once, twice, and forthwith writes down our fateful dates). Probably, Anthony would not have to pay a higher rate of interest than he.
"Are you insured, brother Tony?" the question escaped him.
"No, I ain't, brother William John;" Anthony went on nodding like an automaton set in motion. "There's two sides to that. I'm a long-lived man. Long-lived men don't insure; that is, unless they're fools. That's how the Offices thrive."
"Case of accident?" the farmer suggested.
"Oh! nothing happens to me," replied Anthony.
The farmer jumped on his legs, and yawned.
"Shall we take a turn in the garden, brother Tony?"
"With all my heart, brother William John."
The farmer had conscience to be ashamed of the fit of irritable vexation which had seized on him; and it was not till Anthony being asked the date of his birth, had declared himself twelve years his senior, that the farmer felt his speculations to be justified. Anthony was nearly a generation ahead. They walked about, and were seen from the windows touching one another on the shoulder in a brotherly way. When they came back to the women, and tea, the farmer's mind was cooler, and all his reckonings had gone to mist. He was dejected over his tea.
"What is the matter, father?" said Rhoda.
"I'll tell you, my dear," Anthony replied for him. "He's envying me some one I want to ask me that question when I'm at my tea in London."
Mr. Fleming kept his forehead from his daughter's good-night kiss until the room was cleared, after supper, and then embracing her very heartily, he informed her that her uncle had offered to pay her expenses on a visit to London, by which he contrived to hint that a golden path had opened to his girl, and at the same time entreated her to think nothing of it; to dismiss all expectations and dreams of impossible sums from her mind, and simply to endeavour to please her uncle, who had a right to his own, and a right to do what he liked with his own, though it were forty, fifty times as much as he possessed—and what that might amount to no one knew. In fact, as is the way with many experienced persons, in his attempt to give advice to another, he was very impressive in lecturing himself, and warned that other not to succumb to a temptation principally by indicating the natural basis of the allurement. Happily for young and for old, the intense insight of the young has much to distract or soften it. Rhoda thanked her father, and chose to think that she had listened to good and wise things.
"Your sister," he said—"but we won't speak of her. If I could part with you, my lass, I'd rather she was the one to come back."
"Dahlia would be killed by our quiet life now," said Rhoda.
"Ay," the farmer mused. "If she'd got to pay six men every Saturday night, she wouldn't complain o' the quiet. But, there—you neither of you ever took to farming or to housekeeping; but any gentleman might be proud to have one of you for a wife. I said so when you was girls. And if, you've been dull, my dear, what's the good o' society? Tea-cakes mayn't seem to cost money, nor a glass o' grog to neighbours; but once open the door to that sort o' thing and your reckoning goes. And what I said to your poor mother's true. I said: Our girls, they're mayhap not equals of the Hollands, the Nashaws, the Perrets, and the others about here—no; they're not equals, because the others are not equals o' them, maybe."
The yeoman's pride struggled out in this obscure way to vindicate his unneighbourliness and the seclusion of his daughters from the society of girls of their age and condition; nor was it hard for Rhoda to assure him, as she earnestly did, that he had acted rightly.
Rhoda, assisted by Mrs. Sumfit, was late in the night looking up what poor decorations she possessed wherewith to enter London, and be worthy of her sister's embrace, so that she might not shock the lady Dahlia had become.
"Depend you on it, my dear," said Mrs. Sumfit, "my Dahly's grown above him. That's nettles to your uncle, my dear. He can't abide it. Don't you see he can't? Some men's like that. Others 'd see you dressed like a princess, and not be satisfied. They vary so, the teasin' creatures! But one and all, whether they likes it or not, owns a woman's the better for bein' dressed in the fashion. What do grieve me to my insidest heart, it is your bonnet. What a bonnet that was lying beside her dear round arm in the po'trait, and her finger up making a dimple in her cheek, as if she was thinking of us in a sorrowful way. That's the arts o' being lady-like—look sad-like. How could we get a bonnet for you?"
"My own must do," said Rhoda.
"Yes, and you to look like lady and servant-gal a-goin' out for an airin'; and she to feel it! Pretty, that'd be!"
"She won't be ashamed of me," Rhoda faltered; and then hummed a little tune, and said firmly—"It's no use my trying to look like what I'm not."
"No, truly;" Mrs. Sumfit assented. "But it's your bein' behind the fashions what hurt me. As well you might be an old thing like me, for any pleasant looks you'll git. Now, the country—you're like in a coalhole for the matter o' that. While London, my dear, its pavement and gutter, and omnibus traffic; and if you're not in the fashion, the little wicked boys of the streets themselves 'll let you know it; they've got such eyes for fashions, they have. And I don't want my Dahly's sister to be laughed at, and called 'coal-scuttle,' as happened to me, my dear, believe it or not—and shoved aside, and said to—'Who are you?' For she reely is nice-looking. Your uncle Anthony and Mr. Robert agreed upon that."
Rhoda coloured, and said, after a time, "It would please me if people didn't speak about my looks."
The looking-glass probably told her no more than that she was nice to the eye, but a young man who sees anything should not see like a mirror, and a girl's instinct whispers to her, that her image has not been taken to heart when she is accurately and impartially described by him.
The key to Rhoda at this period was a desire to be made warm with praise of her person. She beheld her face at times, and shivered. The face was so strange with its dark thick eyebrows, and peculiarly straight-gazing brown eyes; the level long red under-lip and curved upper; and the chin and nose, so unlike Dahlia's, whose nose was, after a little dip from the forehead, one soft line to its extremity, and whose chin seemed shaped to a cup. Rhoda's outlines were harder. There was a suspicion of a heavenward turn to her nose, and of squareness to her chin. Her face, when studied, inspired in its owner's mind a doubt of her being even nice to the eye, though she knew that in exercise, and when smitten by a blush, brightness and colour aided her claims. She knew also that her head was easily poised on her neck; and that her figure was reasonably good; but all this was unconfirmed knowledge, quickly shadowed by the doubt. As the sun is wanted to glorify the right features of a landscape, this girl thirsted for a dose of golden flattery. She felt, without envy of her sister, that Dahlia eclipsed her: and all she prayed for was that she might not be quite so much in the background and obscure.
But great, powerful London—the new universe to her spirit—was opening its arms to her. In her half sleep that night she heard the mighty thunder of the city, crashing, tumults of disordered harmonies, and the splendour of the lamp-lighted city appeared to hang up under a dark-blue heaven, removed from earth, like a fresh planet to which she was being beckoned.
At breakfast on the Sunday morning, her departure was necessarily spoken of in public. Robert talked to her exactly as he had talked to Dahlia, on the like occasion. He mentioned, as she remembered in one or two instances, the names of the same streets, and professed a similar anxiety as regarded driving her to the station and catching the train. "That's a thing which makes a man feel his strength's nothing," he said. "You can't stop it. I fancy I could stop a four-in-hand at full gallop. Mind, I only fancy I could; but when you come to do with iron and steam, I feel like a baby. You can't stop trains."
"You can trip 'em," said Anthony, a remark that called forth general laughter, and increased the impression that he was a man of resources.
Rhoda was vexed by Robert's devotion to his strength. She was going, and wished to go, but she wished to be regretted as well; and she looked at him more. He, on the contrary, scarcely looked at her at all. He threw verbal turnips, oats, oxen, poultry, and every possible melancholy matter-of-fact thing, about the table, described the farm and his fondness for it and the neighbourhood; said a farmer's life was best, and gave Rhoda a week in which to be tired of London.
She sneered in her soul, thinking "how little he knows of the constancy in the nature of women!" adding, "when they form attachments."
Anthony was shown at church, in spite of a feeble intimation he expressed, that it would be agreeable to him to walk about in the March sunshine, and see the grounds and the wild flowers, which never gave trouble, nor cost a penny, and were always pretty, and worth twenty of your artificial contrivances.
"Same as I say to Miss Dahly," he took occasion to remark; "but no!—no good. I don't believe women hear ye, when you talk sense of that kind. 'Look,' says I, 'at a violet.' 'Look,' says she, 'at a rose.' Well, what can ye say after that? She swears the rose looks best. You swear the violet costs least. Then there you have a battle between what it costs and how it looks."
Robert pronounced a conventional affirmative, when called on for it by a look from Anthony. Whereupon Rhoda cried out,—
"Dahlia was right—she was right, uncle."
"She was right, my dear, if she was a ten-thousander. She wasn't right as a farmer's daughter with poor expectations.—I'd say humble, if humble she were. As a farmer's daughter, she should choose the violet side. That's clear as day. One thing's good, I admit; she tells me she makes her own bonnets, and they're as good as milliners', and that's a proud matter to say of your own niece. And to buy dresses for herself, I suppose, she's sat down and she made dresses for fine ladies. I've found her at it. Save the money for the work, says I. What does she reply—she always has a reply: 'Uncle, I know the value of money better. 'You mean, you spend it,' I says to her. 'I buy more than it's worth,' says she. And I'll tell you what, Mr. Robert Armstrong, as I find your name to be, sir; if you beat women at talking, my lord! you're a clever chap."
Robert laughed. "I give in at the first mile."
"Don't think much of women—is that it, sir?"
"I'm glad to say I don't think of them at all."
"Do you think of one woman, now, Mr. Robert Armstrong?"
"I'd much rather think of two."
"And why, may I ask?"
"Now, I don't exactly see that," said Anthony.
"You set one to tear the other," Robert explained.
"You're a Grand Turk Mogul in your reasonings of women, Mr. Robert Armstrong. I hope as your morals are sound, sir?"
They were on the road to church, but Robert could not restrain a swinging outburst.
He observed that he hoped likewise that his morals were sound.
"Because," said Anthony, "do you see, sir, two wives—"
"No, no; one wife," interposed Robert. "You said 'think about;' I'd 'think about' any number of women, if I was idle. But the woman you mean to make your wife, you go to at once, and don't 'think about' her or the question either."
"You make sure of her, do you, sir?"
"No: I try my luck; that is all."
"Suppose she won't have ye?"
"Then I wait for her."
"Suppose she gets married to somebody else?"
"Well, you know, I shouldn't cast eye on a woman who was a fool."
"Well, upon my—" Anthony checked his exclamation, returning to the charge with, "Just suppose, for the sake of supposing—supposing she was a fool, and gone and got married, and you thrown back'ard on one leg, starin' at the other, stupified-like?"
"I don't mind supposing it," said Robert. "Say, she's a fool. Her being a fool argues that I was one in making a fool's choice. So, she jilts me, and I get a pistol, or I get a neat bit of rope, or I take a clean header with a cannon-ball at my heels, or I go to the chemist's and ask for stuff to poison rats,—anything a fool'd do under the circumstances, it don't matter what."
Old Anthony waited for Rhoda to jump over a stile, and said to her,—
"He laughs at the whole lot of ye."
"Who?" she asked, with betraying cheeks.
"This Mr. Robert Armstrong of yours."
"Of mine, uncle!"
"He don't seem to care a snap o' the finger for any of ye."
"Then, none of us must care for him, uncle."
"Now, just the contrary. That always shows a young fellow who's attending to his business. If he'd seen you boil potatoes, make dumplings, beds, tea, all that, you'd have had a chance. He'd have marched up to ye before you was off to London."
"Saying, 'You are the woman.'" Rhoda was too desperately tickled by the idea to refrain from uttering it, though she was angry, and suffering internal discontent. "Or else, 'You are the cook,'" she muttered, and shut, with the word, steel bars across her heart, calling him, mentally, names not justified by anything he had said or done—such as mercenary, tyrannical, and such like.
Robert was attentive to her in church. Once she caught him with his eyes on her face; but he betrayed no confusion, and looked away at the clergyman. When the text was given out, he found the place in his Bible, and handed it to her pointedly—"There shall be snares and traps unto you;" a line from Joshua. She received the act as a polite pawing civility; but when she was coming out of church, Robert saw that a blush swept over her face, and wondered what thoughts could be rising within her, unaware that girls catch certain meanings late, and suffer a fiery torture when these meanings are clear to them. Rhoda called up the pride of her womanhood that she might despise the man who had dared to distrust her. She kept her poppy colour throughout the day, so sensitive was this pride. But most she was angered, after reflection, by the doubts which Robert appeared to cast on Dahlia, in setting his finger upon that burning line of Scripture. It opened a whole black kingdom to her imagination, and first touched her visionary life with shade. She was sincere in her ignorance that the doubts were her own, but they lay deep in unawakened recesses of the soul; it was by a natural action of her reason that she transferred and forced them upon him who had chanced to make them visible.
When young minds are set upon a distant object, they scarcely live for anything about them. The drive to the station and the parting with Robert, the journey to London, which had latterly seemed to her secretly-distressed anticipation like a sunken city—a place of wonder with the waters over it—all passed by smoothly; and then it became necessary to call a cabman, for whom, as he did her the service to lift her box, Rhoda felt a gracious respect, until a quarrel ensued between him and her uncle concerning sixpence;—a poor sum, as she thought; but representing, as Anthony impressed upon her understanding during the conflict of hard words, a principle. Those who can persuade themselves that they are fighting for a principle, fight strenuously, and maybe reckoned upon to overmatch combatants on behalf of a miserable small coin; so the cabman went away discomfited. He used such bad language that Rhoda had no pity for him, and hearing her uncle style it "the London tongue," she thought dispiritedly of Dahlia's having had to listen to it through so long a season. Dahlia was not at home; but Mrs. Wicklow, Anthony's landlady, undertook to make Rhoda comfortable, which operation she began by praising dark young ladies over fair ones, at the same time shaking Rhoda's arm that she might not fail to see a compliment was intended. "This is our London way," she said. But Rhoda was most disconcerted when she heard Mrs. Wicklow relate that her daughter and Dahlia were out together, and say, that she had no doubt they had found some pleasant and attentive gentleman for a companion, if they had not gone purposely to meet one. Her thoughts of her sister were perplexed, and London seemed a gigantic net around them both.
"Yes, that's the habit with the girls up here," said Anthony; "that's what fine bonnets mean."
Rhoda dropped into a bitter depth of brooding. The savage nature of her virgin pride was such that it gave her great suffering even to suppose that a strange gentleman would dare to address her sister. She half-fashioned the words on her lips that she had dreamed of a false Zion, and was being righteously punished. By-and-by the landlady's daughter returned home alone, saying, with a dreadful laugh, that Dahlia had sent her for her Bible; but she would give no explanation of the singular mission which had been entrusted to her, and she showed no willingness to attempt to fulfil it, merely repeating, "Her Bible!" with a vulgar exhibition of simulated scorn that caused Rhoda to shrink from her, though she would gladly have poured out a multitude of questions in the ear of one who had last been with her beloved. After a while, Mrs. Wicklow looked at the clock, and instantly became overclouded with an extreme gravity.
"Eleven! and she sent Mary Ann home for her Bible. This looks bad. I call it hypocritical, the idea of mentioning the Bible. Now, if she had said to Mary Ann, go and fetch any other book but a Bible!"
"It was mother's Bible," interposed Rhoda.
Mrs. Wicklow replied: "And I wish all young women to be as innocent as you, my dear. You'll get you to bed. You're a dear, mild, sweet, good young woman. I'm never deceived in character."
Vaunting her penetration, she accompanied Rhoda to Dahlia's chamber, bidding her sleep speedily, or that when her sister came they would be talking till the cock crowed hoarse.
"There's a poultry-yard close to us?" said Rhoda; feeling less at home when she heard that there was not.
The night was quiet and clear. She leaned her head out of the window, and heard the mellow Sunday evening roar of the city as of a sea at ebb. And Dahlia was out on the sea. Rhoda thought of it as she looked at the row of lamps, and listened to the noise remote, until the sight of stars was pleasant as the faces of friends. "People are kind here," she reflected, for her short experience of the landlady was good, and a young gentleman who had hailed a cab for her at the station, had a nice voice. He was fair. "I am dark," came a spontaneous reflection. She undressed, and half dozing over her beating heart in bed, heard the street door open, and leaped to think that her sister approached, jumping up in her bed to give ear to the door and the stairs, that were conducting her joy to her: but she quickly recomposed herself, and feigned sleep, for the delight of revelling in her sister's first wonderment. The door was flung wide, and Rhoda heard her name called by Dahlia's voice, and then there was a delicious silence, and she felt that Dahlia was coming up to her on tiptoe, and waited for her head to be stooped near, that she might fling out her arms, and draw the dear head to her bosom. But Dahlia came only to the bedside, without leaning over, and spoke of her looks, which held the girl quiet.
"How she sleeps! It's a country sleep!" Dahlia murmured. "She's changed, but it's all for the better. She's quite a woman; she's a perfect brunette; and the nose I used to laugh at suits her face and those black, thick eyebrows of hers; my pet! Oh, why is she here? What's meant by it? I knew nothing of her coming. Is she sent on purpose?"
Rhoda did not stir. The tone of Dahlia's speaking, low and almost awful to her, laid a flat hand on her, and kept her still.
"I came for my Bible," she heard Dahlia say. "I promised mother—oh, my poor darling mother! And Dody lying in my bed! Who would have thought of such things? Perhaps heaven does look after us and interfere. What will become of me? Oh, you pretty innocent in your sleep! I lie for hours, and can't sleep. She binds her hair in a knot on the pillow, just as she used to in the old farm days!"
Rhoda knew that her sister was bending over her now, but she was almost frigid, and could not move.
Dahlia went to the looking-glass. "How flushed I am!" she murmured. "No; I'm pale, quite white. I've lost my strength. What can I do? How could I take mother's Bible, and run from my pretty one, who expects me, and dreams she'll wake with me beside her in the morning! I can't—I can't If you love me, Edward, you won't wish it."
She fell into a chair, crying wildly, and muffling her sobs. Rhoda's eyelids grew moist, but wonder and the cold anguish of senseless sympathy held her still frost-bound. All at once she heard the window open. Some one spoke in the street below; some one uttered Dahlia's name. A deep bell swung a note of midnight.
"Go!" cried Dahlia.
The window was instantly shut.
The vibration of Dahlia's voice went through Rhoda like the heavy shaking of the bell after it had struck, and the room seemed to spin and hum. It was to her but another minute before her sister slid softly into the bed, and they were locked together.
Boyne's bank was of the order of those old and firmly fixed establishments which have taken root with the fortunes of the country—are honourable as England's name, solid as her prosperity, and even as the flourishing green tree to shareholders: a granite house. Boyne himself had been disembodied for more than a century: Burt and Hamble were still of the flesh; but a greater than Burt or Hamble was Blancove—the Sir William Blancove, Baronet, of city feasts and charities, who, besides being a wealthy merchant, possessed of a very acute head for banking, was a scholarly gentleman, worthy of riches. His brother was Squire Blancove, of Wrexby; but between these two close relatives there existed no stronger feeling than what was expressed by open contempt of a mind dedicated to business on the one side, and quiet contempt of a life devoted to indolence on the other. Nevertheless, Squire Blancove, though everybody knew how deeply he despised his junior for his city-gained title and commercial occupation, sent him his son Algernon, to get the youth into sound discipline, if possible. This was after the elastic Algernon had, on the paternal intimation of his colonel, relinquished his cornetcy and military service. Sir William received the hopeful young fellow much in the spirit with which he listened to the tales of his brother's comments on his own line of conduct; that is to say, as homage to his intellectual superiority. Mr. Algernon was installed in the Bank, and sat down for a long career of groaning at the desk, with more complacency than was expected from him. Sir William forwarded excellent accounts to his brother of the behaviour of the heir to his estates. It was his way of rebuking the squire, and in return for it the squire, though somewhat comforted, despised his clerkly son, and lived to learn how very unjustly he did so. Adolescents, who have the taste for running into excesses, enjoy the breath of change as another form of excitement: change is a sort of debauch to them. They will delight infinitely in a simple country round of existence, in propriety and church-going, in the sensation of feeling innocent. There is little that does not enrapture them, if you tie them down to nothing, and let them try all. Sir William was deceived by his nephew. He would have taken him into his town-house; but his own son, Edward, who was studying for the Law, had chambers in the Temple, and Algernon, receiving an invitation from Edward, declared a gentle preference for the abode of his cousin. His allowance from his father was properly contracted to keep him from excesses, as the genius of his senior devised, and Sir William saw no objection to the scheme, and made none. The two dined with him about twice in the month.
Edward Blancove was three-and-twenty years old, a student by fits, and a young man given to be moody. He had powers of gaiety far eclipsing Algernon's, but he was not the same easy tripping sinner and flippant soul. He was in that yeasty condition of his years when action and reflection alternately usurp the mind; remorse succeeded dissipation, and indulgences offered the soporific to remorse. The friends of the two imagined that Algernon was, or would become, his evil genius. In reality, Edward was the perilous companion. He was composed of better stuff. Algernon was but an airy animal nature, the soul within him being an effervescence lightly let loose. Edward had a fatally serious spirit, and one of some strength. What he gave himself up to, he could believe to be correct, in the teeth of an opposing world, until he tired of it, when he sided as heartily with the world against his quondam self. Algernon might mislead, or point his cousin's passions for a time; yet if they continued their courses together, there was danger that Algernon would degenerate into a reckless subordinate—a minister, a valet, and be tempted unknowingly to do things in earnest, which is nothing less than perdition to this sort of creature.
But the key to young men is the ambition, or, in the place of it, the romantic sentiment nourished by them. Edward aspired to become Attorney-General of these realms, not a judge, you observe; for a judge is to the imagination of youthful minds a stationary being, venerable, but not active; whereas, your Attorney-General is always in the fray, and fights commonly on the winning side,—a point that renders his position attractive to sagacious youth. Algernon had other views. Civilization had tried him, and found him wanting; so he condemned it. Moreover, sitting now all day at a desk, he was civilization's drudge. No wonder, then, that his dream was of prairies, and primeval forests, and Australian wilds. He believed in his heart that he would be a man new made over there, and always looked forward to savage life as to a bath that would cleanse him, so that it did not much matter his being unclean for the present.
The young men had a fair cousin by marriage, a Mrs. Margaret Lovell, a widow. At seventeen she had gone with her husband to India, where Harry Lovell encountered the sword of a Sikh Sirdar, and tried the last of his much-vaunted swordsmanship, which, with his skill at the pistols, had served him better in two antecedent duels, for the vindication of his lovely and terrible young wife. He perished on the field, critically admiring the stroke to which he owed his death. A week after Harry's burial his widow was asked in marriage by his colonel. Captains, and a giddy subaltern likewise, disputed claims to possess her. She, however, decided to arrest further bloodshed by quitting the regiment. She always said that she left India to save her complexion; "and people don't know how very candid I am," she added, for the colonel above-mentioned was wealthy,—a man expectant of a title, and a good match, and she was laughed at when she thus assigned trivial reasons for momentous resolutions. It is a luxury to be candid; and perfect candour can do more for us than a dark disguise.
Mrs. Lovell's complexion was worth saving from the ravages of an Indian climate, and the persecution of claimants to her hand. She was golden and white, like an autumnal birch-tree—yellow hair, with warm-toned streaks in it, shading a fabulously fair skin. Then, too, she was tall, of a nervous build, supple and proud in motion, a brilliant horsewoman, and a most distinguished sitter in an easy drawing-room chair, which is, let me impress upon you, no mean quality. After riding out for hours with a sweet comrade, who has thrown the mantle of dignity half-way off her shoulders, it is perplexing, and mixed strangely of humiliation and ecstasy, to come upon her clouded majesty where she reclines as upon rose-hued clouds, in a mystic circle of restriction (she who laughed at your jokes, and capped them, two hours ago) a queen.
Between Margaret Lovell and Edward there was a misunderstanding, of which no one knew the nature, for they spoke in public very respectfully one of the other. It had been supposed that they were lovers once; but when lovers quarrel, they snarl, they bite, they worry; their eyes are indeed unveiled, and their mouths unmuzzled. Now Margaret said of Edward: "He is sure to rise; he has such good principles." Edward said of Margaret: "She only wants a husband who will keep her well in hand." These sentences scarcely carried actual compliments when you knew the speakers; but outraged lovers cannot talk in that style after they have broken apart. It is possible that Margaret and Edward conveyed to one another as sharp a sting as envenomed lovers attempt. Gossip had once betrothed them, but was now at fault. The lady had a small jointure, and lived partly with her uncle, Lord Elling, partly with Squire Blancove, her aunt's husband, and a little by herself, which was when she counted money in her purse, and chose to assert her independence. She had a name in the world. There is a fate attached to some women, from Helen of Troy downward, that blood is to be shed for them. One duel on behalf of a woman is a reputation to her for life; two are notoriety. If she is very young, can they be attributable to her? We charge them naturally to her overpowering beauty. It happened that Mrs. Lovell was beautiful. Under the light of the two duels her beauty shone as from an illumination of black flame. Boys adored Mrs. Lovell. These are moths. But more, the birds of air, nay, grave owls (who stand in this metaphor for whiskered experience) thronged, dashing at the apparition of terrible splendour. Was it her fault that she had a name in the world?
Mrs. Margaret Lovell's portrait hung in Edward's room. It was a photograph exquisitely coloured, and was on the left of a dark Judith, dark with a serenity of sternness. On the right hung another coloured photograph of a young lady, also fair; and it was a point of taste to choose between them. Do you like the hollowed lily's cheeks, or the plump rose's? Do you like a thinnish fall of golden hair, or an abundant cluster of nut-brown? Do you like your blonde with limpid blue eyes, or prefer an endowment of sunny hazel? Finally, are you taken by an air of artistic innocence winding serpentine about your heart's fibres; or is blushing simplicity sweeter to you? Mrs. Lovell's eyebrows were the faintly-marked trace of a perfect arch. The other young person's were thickish, more level; a full brown colour. She looked as if she had not yet attained to any sense of her being a professed beauty: but the fair widow was clearly bent upon winning you, and had a shy, playful intentness of aspect. Her pure white skin was flat on the bone; the lips came forward in a soft curve, and, if they were not artistically stained, were triumphantly fresh. Here, in any case, she beat her rival, whose mouth had the plebeian beauty's fault of being too straight in a line, and was not trained, apparently, to tricks of dainty pouting.
It was morning, and the cousins having sponged in pleasant cold water, arranged themselves for exercise, and came out simultaneously into the sitting-room, slippered, and in flannels. They nodded and went through certain curt greetings, and then Algernon stepped to a cupboard and tossed out the leather gloves. The room was large and they had a tolerable space for the work, when the breakfast-table had been drawn a little on one side. You saw at a glance which was the likelier man of the two, when they stood opposed. Algernon's rounded features, full lips and falling chin, were not a match, though he was quick on his feet, for the wary, prompt eyes, set mouth, and hardness of Edward. Both had stout muscle, but in Edward there was vigour of brain as well, which seemed to knit and inform his shape without which, in fact, a man is as a ship under no command. Both looked their best; as, when sparring, men always do look.
"Now, then," said Algernon, squaring up to his cousin in good style, "now's the time for that unwholesome old boy underneath to commence groaning."
"Step as light as you can," replied Edward, meeting him with the pretty motion of the gloves.
"I'll step as light as a French dancing-master. Let's go to Paris and learn the savate, Ned. It must be a new sensation to stand on one leg and knock a fellow's hat off with the other."
"Stick to your fists."
"Hang it! I wish your fists wouldn't stick to me so."
"You talk too much."
"Gad, I don't get puffy half so soon as you."
"I want country air."
"You said you were going out, old Ned."
"I changed my mind."
Saying which, Edward shut his teeth, and talked for two or three hot minutes wholly with his fists. The room shook under Algernon's boundings to right and left till a blow sent him back on the breakfast-table, shattered a cup on the floor, and bespattered his close flannel shirt with a funereal coffee-tinge.
"What the deuce I said to bring that on myself, I don't know," Algernon remarked as he rose. "Anything connected with the country disagreeable to you, Ned? Come! a bout of quiet scientific boxing, and none of these beastly rushes, as if you were singling me out of a crowd of magsmen. Did you go to church yesterday, Ned? Confound it, you're on me again, are you?"
And Algernon went on spouting unintelligible talk under a torrent of blows. He lost his temper and fought out at them; but as it speedily became evident to him that the loss laid him open to punishment, he prudently recovered it, sparred, danced about, and contrived to shake the room in a manner that caused Edward to drop his arms, in consideration for the distracted occupant of the chambers below. Algernon accepted the truce, and made it peace by casting off one glove.
"There! that's a pleasant morning breather," he said, and sauntered to the window to look at the river. "I always feel the want of it when I don't get it. I could take a thrashing rather than not on with the gloves to begin the day. Look at those boats! Fancy my having to go down to the city. It makes me feel like my blood circulating the wrong way. My father'll suffer some day, for keeping me at this low ebb of cash, by jingo!"
He uttered this with a prophetic fierceness.
"I cannot even scrape together enough for entrance money to a Club. It's sickening! I wonder whether I shall ever get used to banking work? There's an old clerk in our office who says he should feel ill if he missed a day. And the old porter beats him—bangs him to fits. I believe he'd die off if he didn't see the house open to the minute. They say that old boy's got a pretty niece; but he don't bring her to the office now. Reward of merit!—Mr. Anthony Hackbut is going to receive ten pounds a year extra. That's for his honesty. I wonder whether I could earn a reputation for the sake of a prospect of ten extra pounds to my salary. I've got a salary! hurrah! But if they keep me to my hundred and fifty per annum, don't let them trust me every day with the bags, as they do that old fellow. Some of the men say he's good to lend fifty pounds at a pinch.—Are the chops coming, Ned?"
"The chops are coming," said Edward, who had thrown on a boating-coat and plunged into a book, and spoke echoing.
"Here's little Peggy Lovell." Algernon faced this portrait. "It don't do her justice. She's got more life, more change in her, more fire. She's starting for town, I hear."
"She is starting for town," said Edward.
"How do you know that?" Algernon swung about to ask.
Edward looked round to him. "By the fact of your not having fished for a holiday this week. How did you leave her yesterday, Algy? Quite well, I hope."
The ingenuous face of the young gentleman crimsoned.
"Oh, she was well," he said. "Ha! I see there can be some attraction in your dark women."
"You mean that Judith? Yes, she's a good diversion." Edward gave a two-edged response. "What train did you come up by last night?"
"The last from Wrexby. That reminds me: I saw a young Judith just as I got out. She wanted a cab. I called it for her. She belongs to old Hackbut of the Bank—the old porter, you know. If it wasn't that there's always something about dark women which makes me think they're going to have a moustache, I should take to that girl's face."
Edward launched forth an invective against fair women.
"What have they done to you-what have they done?" said Algernon.
"My good fellow, they're nothing but colour. They've no conscience. If they swear a thing to you one moment, they break it the next. They can't help doing it. You don't ask a gilt weathercock to keep faith with anything but the wind, do you? It's an ass that trusts a fair woman at all, or has anything to do with the confounded set. Cleopatra was fair; so was Delilah; so is the Devil's wife. Reach me that book of Reports."
"By jingo!" cried Algernon, "my stomach reports that if provision doesn't soon approach——why don't you keep a French cook here, Ned? Let's give up the women, and take to a French cook."
Edward yawned horribly. "All in good time. It's what we come to. It's philosophy—your French cook! I wish I had it, or him. I'm afraid a fellow can't anticipate his years—not so lucky!"
"By Jove! we shall have to be philosophers before we breakfast!" Algernon exclaimed. "It's nine. I've to be tied to the stake at ten, chained and muzzled—a leetle-a dawg! I wish I hadn't had to leave the service. It was a vile conspiracy against me there, Ned. Hang all tradesmen! I sit on a stool, and add up figures. I work harder than a nigger in the office. That's my life: but I must feed. It's no use going to the office in a rage."
"Will you try on the gloves again?" was Edward's mild suggestion.
Algernon thanked him, and replied that he knew him. Edward hit hard when he was empty.
They now affected patience, as far as silence went to make up an element of that sublime quality. The chops arriving, they disdained the mask. Algernon fired his glove just over the waiter's head, and Edward put the ease to the man's conscience; after which they sat and ate, talking little. The difference between them was, that Edward knew the state of Algernon's mind and what was working within it, while the latter stared at a blank wall as regarded Edward's.
"Going out after breakfast, Ned?" said Algernon. "We'll walk to the city together, if you like."
Edward fixed one of his intent looks upon his cousin. "You're not going to the city to-day?"
"The deuce, I'm not!"
"You're going to dance attendance on Mrs. Lovell, whom it's your pleasure to call Peggy, when you're some leagues out of her hearing."
Algernon failed to command his countenance. He glanced at one of the portraits, and said, "Who is that girl up there? Tell us her name. Talking of Mrs. Lovell, has she ever seen it?"
"If you'll put on your coat, my dear Algy, I will talk to you about Mrs. Lovell." Edward kept his penetrative eyes on Algernon. "Listen to me: you'll get into a mess there."
"If I must listen, Ned, I'll listen in my shirt-sleeves, with all respect to the lady."
"Very well. The shirt-sleeves help the air of bravado. Now, you know that I've what they call 'knelt at her feet.' She's handsome. Don't cry out. She's dashing, and as near being a devil as any woman I ever met. Do you know why we broke? I'll tell you. Plainly, because I refused to believe that one of her men had insulted her. You understand what that means. I declined to be a chief party in a scandal."
"Declined to fight the fellow?" interposed Algernon. "More shame to you!"
"I think you're a year younger than I am, Algy. You have the privilege of speaking with that year's simplicity. Mrs. Lovell will play you as she played me. I acknowledge her power, and I keep out of her way. I don't bet; I don't care to waltz; I can't keep horses; so I don't lose much by the privation to which I subject myself."
"I bet, I waltz, and I ride. So," said Algernon, "I should lose tremendously."
"You will lose, mark my words."
"Is the lecture of my year's senior concluded?" said Algernon.
"Yes; I've done," Edward answered.
"Then I'll put on my coat, Ned, and I'll smoke in it. That'll give you assurance I'm not going near Mrs. Lovell, if anything will."
"That gives me assurance that Mrs. Lovell tolerates in you what she detests," said Edward, relentless in his insight; "and, consequently, gives me assurance that she finds you of particular service to her at present."
Algernon had a lighted match in his hand. He flung it into the fire. "I'm hanged if I don't think you have the confounded vanity to suppose she sets me as a spy upon you!"
A smile ran along Edward's lips. "I don't think you'd know it, if she did."
"Oh, you're ten years older; you're twenty," bawled Algernon, in an extremity of disgust. "Don't I know what game you're following up? Isn't it clear as day you've got another woman in your eye?"
"It's as clear as day, my good Algy, that you see a portrait hanging in my chambers, and you have heard Mrs. Lovell's opinion of the fact. So much is perfectly clear. There's my hand. I don't blame you. She's a clever woman, and like many of the sort, shrewd at guessing the worst. Come, take my hand. I tell you, I don't blame you. I've been little dog to her myself, and fetched and carried, and wagged my tail. It's charming while it lasts. Will you shake it?"
"Your tail, man?" Algernon roared in pretended amazement.
Edward eased him back to friendliness by laughing. "No; my hand."
They shook hands.
"All right," said Algernon. "You mean well. It's very well for you to preach virtue to a poor devil; you've got loose, or you're regularly in love."
"Virtue! by heaven!" Edward cried; "I wish I were entitled to preach it to any man on earth."
His face flushed. "There, good-bye, old fellow," he added.
"Go to the city. I'll dine with you to-night, if you like; come and dine with me at my Club. I shall be disengaged."
Algernon mumbled a flexible assent to an appointment at Edward's Club, dressed himself with care, borrowed a sovereign, for which he nodded his acceptance, and left him.
Edward set his brain upon a book of law.
It may have been two hours after he had sat thus in his Cistercian stillness, when a letter was delivered to him by one of the Inn porters. Edward read the superscription, and asked the porter who it was that brought it. Two young ladies, the porter said.
These were the contents:—
"I am not sure that you will ever forgive me. I cannot forgive myself when I think of that one word I was obliged to speak to you in the cold street, and nothing to explain why, and how much I love, you. Oh! how I love you! I cry while I write. I cannot help it. I was a sop of tears all night long, and oh! if you had seen my face in the morning. I am thankful you did not. Mother's Bible brought me home. It must have been guidance, for in my bed there lay my sister, and I could not leave her, I love her so. I could not have got down stairs again after seeing her there; and I had to say that cold word and shut the window on you. May I call you Edward still? Oh, dear Edward, do make allowance for me. Write kindly to me. Say you forgive me. I feel like a ghost to-day. My life seems quite behind me somewhere, and I hardly feel anything I touch. I declare to you, dearest one, I had no idea my sister was here. I was surprised when I heard her name mentioned by my landlady, and looked on the bed; suddenly my strength was gone, and it changed all that I was thinking. I never knew before that women were so weak, but now I see they are, and I only know I am at my Edward's mercy, and am stupid! Oh, so wretched and stupid. I shall not touch food till I hear from you. Oh, if, you are angry, write so; but do write. My suspense would make you pity me. I know I deserve your anger. It was not that I do not trust you, Edward. My mother in heaven sees my heart and that I trust, I trust my heart and everything I am and have to you. I would almost wish and wait to see you to-day in the Gardens, but my crying has made me such a streaked thing to look at. If I had rubbed my face with a scrubbing-brush, I could not look worse, and I cannot risk your seeing me. It would excuse you for hating me. Do you? Does he hate her? She loves you. She would die for you, dear Edward. Oh! I feel that if I was told to-day that I should die for you to-morrow, it would be happiness. I am dying—yes, I am dying till I hear from you.