THE MATING OF LYDIA
MRS. HUMPHRY WARD
TO R. J. S.
"Aye, it's a bit dampish," said Dixon, as he brought a couple more logs to replenish a fire that seemed to have no heart for burning.
The absurd moderation of the statement irritated the person to whom it was addressed.
"What I'm thinkin'"—said Mrs. Dixon, impatiently, as she moved to the window—"is that they'll mappen not get here at all! The watter'll be over t' road by Grier's mill. And yo' know varra well, it may be runnin' too fasst to get t' horses through—an' they'd be three pussons inside, an' luggage at top."
"Aye, they may have to goa back to Pengarth—that's varra possible."
"An' all t' dinner spoilin', an' t' fires wastin'—for nowt." The speaker stood peering discontentedly into the gloom without: "But you'll not trouble yoursen, Tammas, I daursay."
"Well, I'm not Godamighty to mak' t' rain gie over," was the man's cheerful reply, as he took the bellows to the damp wood which lay feebly crackling and fizzing on the wide hearth. His exertions produced a spasmodic flame, which sent flickering tongues of light through the wide spaces and shadows of the hall. Otherwise the deepening gloom of the October evening was lightened only by the rays of one feebly burning lamp standing apparently in a corridor or gallery just visible beyond a richly pillared archway which led from the hall to the interior of the house. Through this archway could be seen the dim ascending lines of a great double staircase; while here and there a white carved doorway or cornice glimmered from the darkness.
A stately Georgian house, built in a rich classical style, and dating from 1740: so a trained eye would have interpreted the architectural and decorative features faintly disclosed by lamp and fire. But the house and its contents—the house and its condition—were strangely at war. Everywhere the seemly lines and lovely ornament due to its original builders were spoilt or obliterated by the sordid confusion to which some modern owner had brought it. It was not a house apparently, so far as its present use went, but a warehouse. There was properly speaking no furniture in it; only a multitude of packing-cases, boxes of all shapes and sizes, piled upon or leaning against each other. The hall was choked with them, so that only a gangway a couple of yards wide was left, connecting the entrance door with the gallery and staircase. And any one stepping into the gallery, which with its high arched roof ran the whole length of the old house, would have seen it also disfigured in the same way. The huge deal cases stood on bare boards; the splendid staircase was carpetless. Nothing indeed could have been more repellant than the general aspect, the squalid disarray of Threlfall Tower, as seen from the inside, on this dreary evening.
The fact impressed itself on Mrs. Dixon as she turned back from the window toward her husband.
She looked round her sulkily.
"Well, I've done my best, Tammas, and I daursay yo' have too. But it's not a place to bring a leddy to—an' that's the truth."
"Foaks mun please theirsels," said Dixon with the same studied mildness as before. Then, having at last made the logs burn, as he hoped, with some brightness, he proceeded to sweep up the wide stone hearth. "Is t' rooms upstairs finished?"
"Aye—hours ago." His wife dropped with a weary gesture upon a chair near the fire. "Tammas, yo' know it's a queer thing awthegither! What are they coomin' here for at all?"
"Well, master's coom into t' property, an' I'm thinkin' it's nobbut his dooty to coom an' see it. It's two year sen he came into 't; an' he's done nowt but tak' t' rents, an' turn off men, an' clutter up t' house wi' boxes, iver sense. It's time, I'm thinkin', as he did coom an' luke into things a bit."
Thomas rose from his knees, and stood warming himself at the fire, while he looked pensively round him. He was as tired as his wife, and quite as mistrustful of what might be before them; but he was not going to confess it. He was a lean and gaunt fellow, blue-eyed and broad-shouldered, of a Cumbria type commonly held to be of Scandinavian origin. His eye was a little wandering and absent, and the ragged gray whiskers which surrounded his countenance emphasized the slight incoherence of its expression. Quiet he was and looked. But his wife knew him for one of the most incurably obstinate of men; the inveterate critic moreover of everything and every one about him, beginning with herself. This trait of his led her unconsciously to throw most of her remarks to him into the form of questions, as offering less target to criticism than other forms of statement. As for instance:
"Tammas, did yo' hear me say what I'd gotten from Mr. Tyson?"
"That the mistress was an Eye-talian."
"Aye—by the mother—an' popish, besides."
Mrs. Dixon sighed.
"How far 'ull it be to t' chapel at Scargill Fell?"
"Nine mile. She'll not be for takkin' much notice of her Sunday dooties I'm thinkin'."
"An' yo' unnerstan' she'll be juist a yoong thing? An't' baby only juist walkin'."
Dixon nodded. Suddenly there was a sound in the corridor—a girl's laugh, and a rush of feet. Thomas started slightly, and his wife observed him as sharply as the dim light permitted.
"Thyrza!" she raised her voice peremptorily. "What are you doing there?"
Another laugh, and the girl from whom it came ran forward into the lamp-light, threading her way through the packing-cases, and followed by a small fox-terrier who was jumping round her.
"Doin'? There's nowt more to do as I know on. An' I'm most droppin'."
So saying the girl jumped lightly on one of the larger packing-cases and sat there, her feet dangling.
Mrs. Dixon looked at her with disapproval, but held her tongue. Thyrza was not strictly her underling, though she was helping in the housework. She was the daughter of the small farmer who had been for years the tenant of part of the old house, and had only just been evicted in preparation for the return of the owner of the property with his foreign wife. If Thyrza were too much scolded she would take her ways home, and, as her parents spoilt her, she would not be coerced into returning. And how another "day-girl" was to be found in that remote place, where, beyond the farm, a small house belonging to the agent, and a couple of cottages, the nearest house to the Tower was at least three miles away, Mrs. Dixon did not know.
"My word! what a night!" said Thyrza with another laugh a little stifled by the sweets she had just transferred from her pocket to her mouth. "They'll be drowned oot afore they get here."
As she spoke, a wild gust flung itself over the house, as though trying its strength against the doors and windows, and the rain swished against the panes.
"Are t' fires upstairs burnin' reet?" asked Mrs. Dixon severely. She had already told Thyrza half a dozen times that day that such a greed for sweet things as she displayed would ruin her digestion and her teeth; and it ruffled a dictatorial temper to be taken no more notice of than if she were a duck quacking in the farmyard.
"Aye, they're burnin'," said Thyrza, with a shrug. Then she looked round her with a toss of her decidedly graceful head. "But it's a creepy old place howivver. I'd not live here if I was paid. What does Muster Melrose want wi' coomin' here? He's got lots o' money, Mr. Tyson says. He'll nivver stay. What was the use o' turnin' father out, an' makkin' a lot o' trouble?"
"This house is not a farmin' house," said Dixon slowly, surveying the girl, as she sat on the packing-case swinging her feet, her straw-coloured hair and pink cotton dress making a spot of pleasant colour in the darkness as the lamp-light fell on them. "It's a house for t' gentry."
"Well, then, t' gentry might clean it up an' put decent furnishin's into 't," said Thyrza defiantly. "Not a bit o' paperin' doon anywhere—juist two three rooms colour-washed, as yo' med do 'em at t' workhouse. An' that big hole in t' dinin'-room ceilin', juist as 'twas—and such shabby sticks o' things upstairs an' down as I nivver see! I'll have a good sight better when I get married, I know!"
Contempt ran sharply through the girl's tone.
As she ceased speaking a step was heard in the corridor. Thyrza leapt to the ground, Mrs. Dixon picked up her brush and duster, and Dixon resumed his tending of the fire.
A man in a dripping overcoat and leggings pushed his way rapidly through the cases, looking round him with an air of worried authority.
"I don't call that much of a fire, Dixon."
"I've been at it, sir, for near an hour."
"You've got some damp wood. What about the drawing-room?"
He threw open a door on the right. The others followed him in.
The open door revealed a room of singular architectural charm; an oval room panelled in dark oak, with a stucco ceiling, in free Italianate design. But within its stately and harmonious walls a single oil lamp, of the cheapest and commonest pattern, emitting a strong smell of paraffin, threw its light upon furniture, quite new, that most seaside lodgings would have disdained; viz., a cheap carpet of a sickly brown, leaving edges of bare boards between itself and the wainscot; an ugly "suite" covered with crimson rep, such as only a third-rate shop in a small provincial town could have provided; with a couple of tables, and a "chiffonier," of the kind that is hawked on barrows in an East End street.
Mr. Tyson looked at the room uneasily. He had done his best with the ridiculous sum provided; but of course it was all wrong.
He passed on silently through a door in the wainscoting of the drawing-room. The others again followed, Thyrza's mouth twitching with laughter.
Another large room, almost dark, with a few guttering candles on the table. Mrs. Dixon went hastily to the fire and stirred it up. Then a dining-table spread for supper was seen, and a few chairs. Everything here was as cheap and nasty as in the drawing-room, including the china and glass on the table.
Thyrza pointed to the ceiling.
"That's a pity howivver!" she said. "Yo' might ha' had it mended up a bit, Mr. Tyson. Why t' rats will be coomin' through!"
She spoke with the pert assurance of a pretty girl who is only playing the servant "to oblige." The agent looked irritably at the ugly gap in the fine tracing overhead, and then at Thyrza.
"Mind your own business, please, Miss Thyrza!" And he walked quickly on toward a farther door.
Thyrza flushed, and made a face at him as he turned his back. The Dixons followed the agent into the next room, Mrs. Dixon throwing behind her an injunction to Thyrza to run upstairs and give a last look to the bedrooms.
"Why isn't there a light here?" said the agent impatiently. He struck one from some matches in his pocket, and Mrs. Dixon hastily brought a candle from a huge writing-table standing in the middle of the floor.
Except for that writing-table, and some fine eighteenth-century bookcases, brass-latticed, which ran round the walls, fitting their every line and moulding with delicate precision, the room was entirely empty. Moreover, the bookcases did not hold a single book, and the writing-table was bare. But for any person of taste, looking round him in the light of the candle which Mrs. Dixon held, the room was furnished. All kinds of human and civilized suggestion breathed from the table and the bookcases. The contriving mind, with all its happy arts for the cheating and adorning of life, was to be felt.
Mr. Tyson took it differently.
"Look here!"—he said peremptorily to Mrs. Dixon—"you mind what you're doing with that table. It's worth a mint of money."
The Dixons looked at it curiously, but coldly. To them it was nothing but a writing-table with drawers made out of a highly polished outlandish wood, with little devices of gilt rails, and drawer-furnishings, and tiny figures, and little bits of china "let in," which might easily catch a duster, thought Mrs. Dixon, and "mak' trooble." That it had belonged to a French dramatist under Louis Quinze, and then to a French Queen; that the plaques were Sevres, and the table as a whole beyond the purse of any but a South African or American man of money, was of course nothing to her.
"It bets me," said Dixon, in the tone of one making conversation, "why Muster Melrose didn't gie us orders to unpack soom more o' them cases. Summat like thatten"—he pointed to the table—"wud ha' lukit fine i' the drawin'-room."
Tyson made no reply. He was a young man of strong will and taciturn habit; and he fully realized that if he once began discussing with Dixon the various orders received from Mr. Edmund Melrose with regard to his home-coming, during the preceding weeks, the position that he, Tyson, intended to maintain with regard to that gentleman would not be made any easier. If you happened by mischance to have accepted an appointment to serve and represent a lunatic, and you discovered that you had done so, there were only two things to do, either to hold on, or "to chuck it." But George Tyson, whose father and grandfather had been small land agents before him, of the silent, honest, tenacious Cumbria sort, belonged to a stock which had never resigned anything, till at least the next step was clear; and the young man had no intention whatever of "chucking it." But to hold on certainly meant patience, and as few words as might be.
So he only stopped to give one more anxious look round the table to see that no scratches had befallen it in the process of unpacking, gave orders to Mrs. Dixon to light yet another fire in the room, which struck exceedingly chill, and then left them for a final tour round the ground-floor, heaping on coals everywhere with a generous hand. On this point alone—the point of warmth—had Mr. Melrose's letters shown a disposition to part with money, in ordinary domestic way. "The odiousness of your English climate is only matched by the absurdity of your English grates," he had written, urbanely, from Paris. "Get the house up to sixty, if you can. And get a man over from Carlisle to put in a furnace. I can see him the day after we arrive. My wife is Italian, and shivers already at the thought of Cumbria."
Sixty indeed! In this dank rain from the northeast, and on this high ground, not a passage in the house could be got above forty-six; and the sitting-rooms were alternately stifling and vaultlike.
"Well, I didn't build the house!" thought the agent with a quiet exasperation in his mind, the result of much correspondence; and having completed his tour of inspection, which included the modest supper now cooking according to Mr. Melrose's orders—Mrs. Melrose had had nothing to do with it—in the vast and distant kitchen, the young man hung up his wet overcoat, sat himself down by the hall fire, drew a newspaper from his pocket, and deliberately applied himself to it, till the carriage should arrive.
Meanwhile through the rain and wind outside, the expected owner of Threlfall Tower and his wife and child were being driven through the endless and intricate lanes which divided the main road between Keswick and Pengarth from the Tower.
The carriage contained Mr. Melrose, Mrs. Melrose, their infant daughter aged sixteen months, and her Italian nurse, Anastasia Doni.
There was still some gray light left, but the little lady who sat dismally on her husband's right, occasionally peering through the window, could make nothing of the landscape, because of the driving scuds of rain which drenched the carriage windows, as though in their mad charges from the trailing clouds in front, they disputed every inch of the miry way with the newcomers. From the wet ground itself there seemed to rise a livid storm-light, reflecting the last gleams of day, and showing the dreary road winding ahead, dim and snakelike through intermittent trees.
"Edmund!" said the lady suddenly, in a high thin voice, as though the words burst from her—"If the water by that mill they talked about is really over the road, I shall get out at once!"
"What?—into it?" The gentleman beside her laughed. "I don't remember, my dear, that swimming is one of your accomplishments. Do you propose to hang the baby round your neck?"
"Of course I should take her too! I won't run any risks at all with her! It would be simply wicked to take such a small child into danger." But there was a fretful desperation in the tone, as of one long accustomed to protest in vain.
Mr. Melrose laughed once more—carelessly, as though it were not worth while to dispute the matter; and the carriage went on—battling, as it seemed, with the storm.
"I never saw such an awful place in my life!" said the wife's voice again—with the same note of explosion—after an interval. "It's horrible—just horrible! All the way from Pengarth we've hardly seen a house, or a light!—and we've been driving nearly an hour. You don't expect me to live here, Edmund!" The tone was hysterical.
"Don't be a fool, Netta! Doesn't it ever rain in your infernal country, eh? This is my property, my dear, worse luck! I regret it—but here we are. Threlfall has got to be my home—so I suppose it'll be yours too."
"You could let or sell it, Edmund!—you know you could—if you cared a farthing about making me happy."
"I have every reason to think it will suit me perfectly—and you too."
The tone of the man which, hitherto, though mocking had been in the main indulgent, had suddenly, harshly, changed. The wife dropped into the corner of the carriage among her furs and wraps, and said no more.
In another quarter of an hour the carriage turned a corner of the road, and came upon a tall building, of which the high irregular outline was just visible through the growing darkness. In front of it stood a group of men with lanterns, and the carriage stopped beside them.
A noise of tongues arose, and Mr. Melrose let down the window.
"Is this where the road is flooded?" he asked of a stout man in a whitish coat and cap who had come forward to speak to the coachman.
"Aye, sir—but you'll get through. In an hour's time, mebbe ye couldn't do it. The water fro' the mill-race is over t' road, but it's nobbut a foot deep as yet. Yo'll do it varra well—but yo'd best not lose time!"
"Edmund!"—screamed the voice from inside—"Edmund!—let me out—let me out at once—I shall stay here with baby for the night."
Mr. Melrose took no notice whatever.
"Can you send those men of yours alongside us—in case there is any danger of the coachman losing the road?" he said, addressing the man.
"Aye, they'll keep along t' bank with the lanterns. Noa fear, missis, noa fear!"
Another scream from inside. Mr. Melrose shut the window abruptly, and the coachman whipped up his horses.
"Let me get out, Edmund!—I will not go on!"
Melrose brought a hand of iron down on his wife's wrist.
"Be quiet, Netta! Of all the little idiots!—There now, the brat's begun!"—for the poor babe, awakened, had set up a wail. "Damn it!"—he turned fiercely to the nurse—"Keep it quiet, will you?"
On swayed the carriage, the water splashing against the wheels. Carried by the two labourers who walked along a high bank beside the road, a couple of lanterns threw their wavering light on the flooded highway, the dripping, wind-lashed trees, the steaming horses. The yellow rays showed the whirling eddies of autumnal leaves, and found fantastic reflection in the turbid water through which the horses were struggling. Presently—after half a mile or so—a roar on the right hand. Mrs. Melrose screamed again, only to be once more savagely silenced by her husband. It was the roar of the mill-race approaching the weir, over which it was rushing in sheets of foam. The swollen river, a thunderous whiteness beside the road, seemed every moment as if it must break through the raised bank, and sweep carriage and horses into its own abyss of fury. Mrs. Melrose was now too terrified to cry out. She sat motionless and quivering, her baby on her lap, her white pointed face and straining eyes touched every now and then by a ghostly gleam from the lanterns. Beside her—whispering occasional words in Italian to her mistress—sat the Italian nurse, pale too, but motionless, a woman from the Campagna, of a Roman port and dignity, who would have scorned to give the master whom she detested any excuse for dubbing her a weakling.
But the horses pulled bravely, the noise and the flood were left behind, and a bit of ascending road brought the travellers on to dry land again.
The carriage stopped. The two labourers who had guided them approached the window, which Melrose had let down.
"Yo'll do now!" they shouted with cheerful faces. "You've nobbut to do but keep straight on, an' yo'll be at t' Tower in a coople o' miles."
"Thank you, my men, thank you. Here's a drink for you," said Melrose, stretching out his hand.
The foremost labourer took the coin and held it to the lantern. He burst into rough laughter.
"Saxpence! My word, Jim!—here's a gentleman wot's free wi' his muny. Saxpence! Two men—and two lanterns—fur t' best part of a mile! We're goin' cheap to-night, Jim. Gude meet to yer, sir, an' next time yo' may droon for me!"
"Saxpence!" The lad behind also applied his lantern to the coin. "Gie it me, Bob!" And raising it with a scornful gesture he flung it into the river. Then standing still, with their hands on their hips, the light from the lanterns on the ground breaking over their ruddy rain-washed faces, they poured out a stream of jeers in broad Cumbrian, from which the coachman, angrily urged on by Melrose, escaped as quickly as he could.
"Insolent boors!" said Melrose as men and flood disappeared from view. "What did we want with them after all? It was only a device for bleeding us."
Mrs. Melrose awoke from her trance of terror with a quavering breath. She did not understand what had passed, nor a word of what the labourers had said; and in her belief over the peril escaped, and her utter fatigue, she gave the child to Anastasia, lay back, and closed her eyes. A sudden and blessed sleep fell upon her for a few minutes; from which she was roused all too soon by grating wheels and strange voices.
"Here we are, Netta—look alive!" said Melrose. "Put something round the child, Anastasia. We have to walk through this court. No getting up to the door. Find some umbrellas!"
The two women and the child descended. From the open house-door figures came hurrying down a flagged path, through an untidy kitchen garden, to the gate in a low outer wall in front of which the carriage had drawn up.
Netta Melrose grasped the nurse's arm, and spoke in wailing Italian, as she held an umbrella over the child.
"What a place, Anastasia!—what a place! It looks like a prison! I shall die here—I know I shall!"
Her terrified gaze swept over the old red sandstone house rising dark and grim against the storm, and over the tangled thickets of garden dank with rain.
But the next moment she was seized by the strong hands of Mrs. Dixon and Thyrza, who half led, half carried, her into the hall of the Tower, while Dixon and young Tyson did the same for the nurse and baby.
* * * * *
"A very interesting old place, built by some man with a real fine taste! As far as I can see, it will hold my collections very well."
The new owner of Threlfall Tower was standing in the drawing-room with his back to the fire, alternately looking about him with an eager curiosity, and rubbing his hands in what appeared to be satisfaction. The agent surveyed him.
Edmund Melrose at that moment—some thirty years ago—was a tall and remarkably handsome man of fifty, with fine aquiline features deeply grooved and cut, a delicate nostril, and a domed forehead over which fell thick locks of black hair. He looked what he was—a man of wealth and family, spoilt by long years of wandering and irresponsible living, during which an inherited eccentricity and impatience of restraint had developed into traits and manners which seemed as natural to himself as they were monstrous in the sight of others. He had so far treated the agent with the scantest civility during their progress through the house; and Tyson's northern blood had boiled more than once.
But the inspection of the house had apparently put its owner in a good temper, and he seemed to be now more genially inclined. He lit a cigarette and offered Tyson one. Upstairs the child could be heard wailing. Its mother and nurse were no doubt ministering to it. Mrs. Melrose, so far as Tyson had observed her arrival, had cast hasty and shivering looks round the comfortlessness of the hall and drawing-room; had demanded loudly that some of the cases encumbering the hall and passages should be removed or unpacked at once, and had then bade Mrs. Dixon take her and the child to their rooms, declaring that she was nearly dead and would sup upstairs and go to bed. She seemed to Tyson to be a rather pretty woman, very small and dark, with a peevish, excitable manner; and it was evident that her husband paid her little or no attention.
"I can't altogether admire your taste in carpets, Tyson," said Melrose, presently, with a patronizing smile, his eyes fastening on the monstrosity in front of him.
The young man flushed.
"Your cheque, sir, was not a big one, and I had to make it go a long way. It was no good trying the expensive shops."
"Oh, well!—I daresay Mrs. Melrose can put up with it. And what about that sofa?" The speaker tried it—"Hm—not exactly Sybaritic—but very fair, very fair! Mrs. Melrose will get used to it."
"Mrs. Melrose, sir, I fear, will find this place a bit lonesome, and out of the way."
"Well, it is not exactly Piccadilly," laughed Melrose. "But a woman that has her child is provided for. How can she be dull? I ask you"—he repeated in a louder and rather hectoring voice—"how can she possibly be dull?"
Tyson murmured something inaudible, adding to it—"And you, sir? Are you a sportsman?"
Melrose threw up his hands contemptuously. "The usual British question! What barbarians we are! It may no doubt seem to you extraordinary—but I really never want to kill anything—except sometimes, perhaps,—a dealer. My amusements"—he pointed to two large cases at the end of the room—"are pursued indoors."
"You will arrange your collections?"
"Perhaps, yes—perhaps, no. When I want something to do, I may begin unpacking. But I shall be in no hurry. Any way it would take me months."
"Is it mostly furniture you have sent home, sir?"
"Oh, Lord, no! Clocks, watches, ironwork, china, stuffs, brasses—something of everything. A few pictures—no great shakes—as yet. But some day I may begin to buy them in earnest. Meanwhile, Tyson—economy!"—he lifted a monitory finger. "All my income is required—let me inform you at once—for what is my hobby—my passion—my mania, if you like—the collecting of works of art. I have gradually reduced my personal expenditures to a minimum, and it must be the same with this estate. No useless outlay of any kind. Every sixpence will be important to me."
"Some of the cottages are in a very bad state, Mr. Melrose."
"Paradises, I'll be bound, compared to some of the places I have been living among, in Italy. Don't encourage people to complain; that's the great point. Encourage them, my dear sir, to make the best of things—to take life cheerfully."
Certain cottages on the estate presented themselves to the agent's mind. He lifted his eyebrows imperceptibly, and let the subject drop, inquiring instead whether his employer meant to reside at the Tower during the whole or the greater part of the year.
Melrose smiled. "I shall always spend the winter here—arranging—cataloguing—writing." Again the cigarette, held in very long, thin fingers, described a wide semicircle in the dim light, as though to indicate the largeness of the speaker's thoughts. "But in March or April, I take flight from here—I return to the chase. To use a hunting metaphor, in the summer I kill—and store. In the winter I consume—ruminate—chew the cud. Do you follow my metaphor?"
"Not precisely," said Tyson, looking at him with a quiet antagonism. "I suppose you mean you buy things and send them home?"
Melrose nodded. "Every dealer in Europe knows me by now—and expects me. They put aside their best things for me. And I prefer to hunt in summer—even in the hot countries. Heat has no terror, for me; and there are fewer of your damned English and American tourists about."
"I see." Tyson hesitated a moment, then said: "And I suppose, sir, Mrs. Melrose goes with you?"
"Not at all! You cannot go dragging babies about Europe any more than is absolutely necessary. Mrs. Melrose will make her home here, and will no doubt become very much attached to this charming old house. By the way, what neighbours are there?"
"Practically none, sir."
"But there is a church—and I suppose a parson?"
"Not resident. The clergyman from Gimmers Wick comes over alternate Sundays."
"H'm. Then I don't see why I was asked to contribute to church repairs. What's the good of keeping the place up at all?"
"The people here, sir, set great store both by their church and their services. They have been hoping, now that you and Mrs. Melrose have come to live here, that you might perhaps be willing to pay some suitable man to take the full duty."
Melrose laughed aloud.
"I? Good Heavens! I pay a parson to read me the English Church services! Well, I don't wish to inflict my religious opinions upon any one, Tyson; but I may as well tell you that they don't run at all in the direction of parsons. And Mrs. Melrose—why I told you she was a Catholic—a Roman Catholic. What does she want with a church? But a parson's wife might have been useful. By the way, I thought I saw a nice-looking girl when we arrived, who has since disappeared."
"That was Thyrza Smart, sir—the daughter of Smart, the farmer."
"Excellent! Mrs. Melrose shall make friends with her."
"And of course, sir, both Pengarth and Keswick are within a drive."
"Oh, that's no good," said Melrose, easily. "We shall have no carriage."
The agent stared. "No carriage? I am afraid in that case you will find it very difficult getting about. There are no flys anywhere near that you can hire."
"What do we want with them?" Melrose lit another cigarette. "I may have a horse—possibly. And of course there's the light cart I told you to get. We can't trust these things"—he pointed to the packages in the room—"to irresponsible people."
"The cart, sir, has been constantly at work. But—it won't exactly suit Mrs. Melrose." Tyson smiled discreetly.
"Oh! leave that to me—leave that to me!" said Melrose with an answering good humour. "Stable and carriage expenses are the deuce. There never was a coachman yet that didn't rob his employer. Well, thank you; I'm glad to have had this talk with you, and now, I go to bed. Beastly cold, I must say, this climate of yours!"
And with a very evident shiver the speaker buttoned the heavy fur coat he had never yet taken off more closely round him.
"What about that man from Carlisle—and the furnace?" he inquired sharply.
"He comes to-morrow, sir. I could not get him here earlier. I fear it will be an expensive job."
"No matter. With my work, I cannot risk incessant attacks of rheumatism. The thing must be done, and done well. Good-night to you, Tyson."
Mr. Melrose waved a dismissing hand. "We shall resume our discussion to-morrow."
The agent departed. Melrose, left solitary, remained standing a while before the fire, examining attentively the architecture and decorations of the room, so far as the miserable light revealed them. Italian, no doubt, the stucco work of the ceiling, with its embossed nymphs and cupids, its classical medallions. Not of the finest kind or period, but very charming—quite decorative. The house had been built on the site of an ancient border fortess, toward the middle of the eighteenth century, by the chief of a great family, from whose latest representative, his mother's first cousin, Edmund Melrose had now inherited it. Nothing could be more curious than its subsequent history. For it was no sooner finished, in a pure Georgian style, and lavishly incrusted in all its principal rooms with graceful decoration, than the man who built it died. His descendants, who had plenty of houses in more southern and populous regions, turned their backs upon the Tower, refused to live in it, and, failing to find a tenant of the gentry class, let part of it to the farmer, and put in a gardener as caretaker. Yet a certain small sum had always been allowed for keeping it in repair, and it was only within the last few years that dilapidation had made head.
Melrose took up the lamp, and carried it once more through the ground-floor of the Tower. Save for the dying fires, and the sputtering lamp, everything was dark and still in the spacious house. The storm was dying down in fitful gusts that seemed at intervals to invade the shadowy spaces of the corridor, driving before them the wisps of straw and paper that had been left here and there by the unpacking of the great writing-table. There could be no ghosts in the house, for nothing but a fraction of it had ever sheltered life; yet from its architectural beauty there breathed a kind of dumb, human protest against the disorderly ill-treatment to which it had been subjected.
In spite of his excitement and pre-occupation, Melrose felt it, and presently he turned abruptly, and went upstairs, still carrying the lamp; through the broad upper passage answering to the corridor below, where doors in deep recesses, each with its classical architrave, and its carved lintels, opened from either side. The farthest door on the right he had been shown as that of his wife's room; he opened one nearer, and let himself into his dressing-room, where Anastasia had taken care to light the fire, which no north country-woman would have thought of lighting for a mere man.
Putting the lamp down in the dressing-room, he pushed open his wife's door, and looked in. She was apparently asleep, and the child beside her. The room struck cold, and, by a candle in a basin, he saw that it was littered from end to end with the contents of two or three trunks that were standing open. The furniture was no less scanty and poor than in the sitting-rooms, and the high panelled walls closing in upon the bed gave a dungeonlike aspect to the room.
A momentary pity for his wife, brought to this harsh Cumbrian spot, from the flowers and sun, the Bacchic laughter and colour of a Tuscan vintage, shot through Melrose. But his will silenced it. "She will get used to it," he said to himself again, with dry determination. Then he turned on his heel. The untidiness of his wife's room, her lack of method and charm, and the memory of her peevishness on the journey disgusted him. There was a bed in his dressing-room; and he was soon soundly asleep there.
But his wife was not asleep, and she had been well aware of his presence on her threshold. While he stood there, she had held her breath, "willing" him to go away again; possessed by a silent passion of rage and repulsion. When he closed the door behind him, she lay wide awake, trembling at all the night sounds in the house, lost in a thousand terrors and wild regrets.
Suddenly, with a crash the casement window at the farther end of the room burst open under an onset of wind, Netta only just stifled the scream on her lips. She sat up, her teeth chattering. It was awful; but she must get up and shut it. Shivering, she crept out of bed, threw a shawl round her, and made one flight across the floor, possessed with a mad alarm lest the candle, which was flickering in the draught, should go out, and leave her in darkness.
But now that the window was open she saw, as she approached, that the night was not dark. There was a strong moonlight outside, and when she reached the window she drew in her breath. For there, close upon her, as it seemed, like one of her own Apennines risen and stalking through the night, towered a great mountain, cloud-wreathed, and gashed with vast ravines. The moon was shining on it between two chasing clouds, and the light and shade of the great spectacle, its illumined slopes, and impenetrable abysses, were at once magnificent and terrible.
Netta shut the window with groping, desperate hands, and rushed back to bed. Never had she felt so desolate, so cut off from all that once made her poor little life worth living. Yet, though she cried for a few minutes in sheer self-pity, it was not long before she too was asleep.
The day after the Melroses' arrival at the Tower was once more a day of rain—not now the tempestuous storm rain which had lashed the mill stream to fury, and blustered round the house as they stepped into it, but one of those steady, gray, and featureless downpours that Westmoreland and Cumbria know so well. The nearer mountains which were wholly blotted out, and of the far Helvellyn range and the Derwentwater hills not a trace emerged. All colour had gone from the grass and the autumn trees; a few sheep and a solitary pony in the fields near the house stood forlorn and patient under the deluge; heaven and earth met in one fusion of rain just beyond the neglected garden that filled the front court; while on three sides of the house, and penetrating through every nook and corner of it, there rose, from depths far below, the roar of the stream which circled the sandstone rock whereon the Tower was built.
Mrs. Melrose came down late. She descended the stairs slowly, rubbing her cold hands together, and looking forlornly about her. She wore a dress of some straw-coloured stuff, too thin for the climate of a Cumbria autumn, and round her singularly small and fleshless neck, a wisp of black velvet. The top of the head was rather flat, and the heavy dark hair, projecting stiffly on either side of the face, emphasized at once the sharpness of the little bony chin, the general sallowness of complexion, and the remarkable size and blackness of the eyes. There was something snakelike about the flat head, and the thin triangular face; an effect which certainly belied the little lady, for there was nothing malicious or sinister in her personality.
She had not yet set eyes on her husband, who had risen early, and could now be heard giving directions to some one in the library to her right—a carpenter apparently, since there was hammering going on. She supposed she must find out something about the kitchen and the servants. Anastasia had brought up her breakfast that morning, with a flushed face, muttering complaint against the woman downstairs. A terror struck through her. If Anastasia should desert her—should give notice!
Timidly she pushed open the door of the big kitchen, and prepared to play the mistress. Mrs. Dixon was standing at the kitchen table with a pastry-board before her, making a meat pie. She greeted her new mistress civilly, though guardedly, and went on with what she was doing.
"Are you going to cook for us?" asked Mrs. Melrose, helplessly.
"That's what I unnerstood fro' Muster Tyson, ma'am."
"Then I came to speak to you about dinner."
"Thank you, ma'am, but Muster Melrose gave me the orders a good while sen. There was a cart goin' into Pengarth."
Pengarth was the nearest country town, some eight miles away.
Mrs. Melrose coloured.
"I must tell you what the baby requires," she said, drawing herself up.
Mrs. Dixon looked at the speaker impassively, over her spectacles.
Mrs. Melrose hurriedly named a patent food—some special biscuits—bananas.
"Yo' can have the milk yo' want fro' t' farm," said Mrs. Dixon slowly, in reply; "but there's nowt of aw them things i' t' house as I knows on."
"Then we must send for them."
Mrs. Dixon shook her head.
"There won't be anoother cart goin' in till t' day after to-morrow."
"I can't have the baby neglected!" exclaimed Mrs. Melrose, with sudden shrillness, looking angrily at the rugged face and figure before her.
"Mebbe yo'd go an talk to t' master?" suggested Mrs. Dixon, not without, as it seemed to Netta, a touch of slyness in eyes and voice. Of course they all knew by now that she was a cipher—that she was not to count. Edmund had been giving all the orders—in his miserly cheese-paring way. No comforts!—no conveniences!—not even bare necessaries, for herself and the child. Yet she knew very well that her husband was a rich man.
She turned and went in search of him, making her way with difficulty through the piles of boxes. What could be in them all? Edmund must have been buying for years. Every now and then as she stooped to look at the labels pasted upon them, she caught names well known to her. Orbatelli, Via dei Bardi 13, Firenze; Bianchi, Via Mazzini 12, Lucca; Fratelli Masai, Via Manzoni, Pisa. And everywhere the recurrent word—Antichita.
How she hated the word!—how she hated the associations linked with it, and with the names on the boxes. They were bound up with a score of humbling memories, the memories of her shabby, struggling youth. She thought of her father—the needy English artist, Robert Smeath, with just a streak, and no more than a streak, of talent, who had become rapidly "Italianate" in the Elizabethan sense—had dropped, that is, the English virtues, without ever acquiring the Italian. He had married her mother, a Florentine girl, the daughter of a small impiegato living in one of the dismal new streets leading out of Florence on the east, and had then pursued a shifting course between the two worlds, the English and the Italian, ordering his household and bringing up his children in Italian fashion, while he was earning his keep and theirs, not at all by the showy pictures in his studio which no one would buy, but as jackal in antichita, to the richer English and American tourists. He kept a greedy eye on the artistic possessions still remaining in the hands of impoverished native owners; he knew the exact moment of debt and difficulty in which to bring a foreign gold to bear; he was an adept in all the arts by which officials are bribed, and pictures are smuggled. And sometimes these accomplishments of his resulted in large accessions of cash, so that all the family lived on the fat of the land, bought gorgeous attire, and went to Livorno, or Viareggio, or the Adriatic coast, for the summer. And sometimes there was no luck, and therefore no money. Owners became unkindly patriotic and would not sell. Or some promising buyer, after nibbling for months, went off finally unhooked. Then the apartment in the Via Giugno showed the stress of hard times. The girls wore their old clothes to rags; the mother did all the work of the house in a bedgown and slippers; and the door of the apartment was never opened more than a few inches to any applicant, lest creditors should get in.
And the golden intervals got fewer, and the poverty more persistent, as the years went on. Till at last, by the providence—or malice—of the gods, a rich and apparently prodigal Englishman, Edmund Melrose, hungry for antichita of all sorts, arrived on the scene. Smeath became rapidly the bond-slave of Melrose, in the matter of works of art. The two made endless expeditions together to small provincial towns, to remote villas in the Apuan or Pisan Alps, to palazzi in Verona, or Lucca, or Siena. Melrose indeed had not been long in finding out that the little artist was both a poor judge and a bad agent. Netta's cheek always flamed when she thought of her father's boastings and blunderings, and of the way in which Edmund had come to treat him. And now the Smeath family were just as poor as ever again. Her little sisters had scarcely a dress to their backs; and she was certain her mother was both half-starved and over-worked. Edmund had not been at all kind to them since her marriage—not at all!
How had he come to marry her? She was well aware that it was an extraordinary proceeding on his part. He was well born on both sides, and, by common report among the English residents in Florence, enormously rich, though his miserly habits had been very evident even in the first days of their acquaintance. He might no doubt have married anybody he pleased; if he would only have taken the trouble. But nothing would induce him to take any trouble—socially. He resented the demands and standards of his equals; turned his back entirely on normal English society at home and abroad; and preferred, it seemed, to live with his inferiors, where his manners might be as casual, and his dress as careless as he pleased. The queer evenings and the queer people in their horrid little flat had really amused him. Then he had been ill, and mama had nursed him; and she, Netta, had taken him a pot of carnations while he was still laid up; and so on. She had been really pretty in those days; much prettier than she had ever been since the baby's birth. She had been attractive too, simply because she was young, healthy, talkative, and forthcoming; goaded always by the hope of marriage, and money, and escape from home. His wooing had been of the most despotical and patronizing kind; not the kind that a proud girl would have put up with. Still there had been wooing; a few presents; a frugal cheque for the trousseau; and a honeymoon fortnight at Sorrento.
Why had he done it?—just for a whim?—or to spite his English family, some member of which would occasionally turn up in Florence and try to put in claims upon him—claims which infuriated him? He was the most wilful and incalculable of men; caring nothing, apparently, one day for position and conventionality, and boasting extravagantly of his family and ancestors the next.
"He was rather fond of me—for a little," she thought to herself wearily, as she stood at the hall window, looking out into the rain. At the point which things had now reached she knew very well that she meant nothing at all to him. He would not beat her, or starve her, or even, perhaps, desert her. Such behaviour would disturb his existence as much as hers; and he did not mean to be disturbed. She might go her own way—she and the child; he would give her food and lodging and clothes, of a sort, so long as she did not interfere with his tastes, or spend his money.
Then, suddenly, while she stood wrathfully pondering, a gust of anger rose—childish anger, such as she had shown the night before, when she had tried to get out of the carriage. She turned, ran down the corridor to the door which she understood was the door of his study—and entered with a burst.
"Edmund!—I want to speak to you!"
Melrose, who was hanging, frowning and absorbed, over a carpenter who was freeing what seemed to be an old clock from the elaborate swathings of paper and straw in which it had been packed, looked up with annoyance.
"Can't you see, Netta, that I'm very busy?"
"I can't help it!—it's about baby."
With a muttered "D—n!" Melrose came toward her.
"What on earth do you want?"
Netta looked at him defiantly.
"I want to be told whenever the cart goes into Pengarth—there were lots of things to get for baby. And I must have something here that I can drive myself. We can't be cut off from everything."
"Give your orders to Mrs. Dixon then about the cart," said Melrose angrily. "What has it to do with me? As for a carriage, I have no money to spend on any nonsense of the kind. We can do perfectly well without it."
"I only want a little pony-cart—you could get it second-hand for ten or twelve pounds—and the farmer has got a pony."
She looked at him—sallow, and frowning.
Melrose pushed her into the passage and drew the door to, behind him, so that the carpenter might not hear.
"Ten or twelve pounds! Do you expect I get money off the hedges? Can't you be content here like a reasonable woman, without getting me into debt?"
Netta laughed and tossed her head.
"You shouldn't leave your business letters about!"
"What do you mean?"
"There was a cheque among your papers one day last week!—I saw it before you could hide it away. It was for L3,000—a dividend from something—a coal mine, I think. And the week before you had another—"
Her husband's eyes shed lightnings.
"I'll not have you prying into my affairs!" he said violently. "All I have is wanted—and more."
"And nothing of course—to give me—your wife!—for any comforts or pleasures! That never enters into your head!"
Her voice came thickly already. Her chest began to heave.
"There now—crying again!" said Melrose, turning on his heel. "Can't you sometimes thank your stars you're not starving in Florence, and just put up with things a little?"
Netta restrained herself.
"So I would"—she said, choking—"if—"
For all answer, she turned and hurried away toward the hall. Melrose looked after her with what appeared like exasperation, then suddenly recaptured himself, smoothed his brow, and, returning to the study, gave himself with unruffled zest and composure to the task of unpacking the Boule clock.
Netta repaired to the drawing-room, and threw herself on to the uncomfortable sofa, struggling with her tears. For about a fortnight after her marriage she had imagined herself in love with Melrose; then when the personal illusion was gone, the illusion of position and wealth persisted. He might be queer, and behave queerly in Italy. But when they returned to England she would find herself the wife of a rich English gentleman, and the gingerbread would once more be gilt. Alack! a few weeks in a poor London Lodging with no money to spend on the shops which tempted her woman's cupidity at every step; Edmund's final refusal, first laughing, then stubborn, to present her to "my devilish relations"; the complete indifference shown to her wishes as to the furnishings of the Tower; these various happenings had at last brought her to an unwelcome commerce with the bare truth. She had married a selfish eccentric, who had chosen her for a caprice and was now tired of her. She had not a farthing, nor any art or skill by which to earn one. Her family was as penniless as herself. There was nothing for it but to submit. But her temper and spirits had begun steadily to give way.
Firenze! As she sat in her cheerless drawing-room, hating its ugly shabbiness, and penetrated with the damp chill of the house, there swept through her a vision of the Piazza del Duomo, as she had last seen it on a hot September evening. A blaze of light—delicious all-prevailing warmth—the moist bronzed faces of the men—the girls with the look of physical content that comes in hot countries with the evening—the sun flooding with its last gold, now the new marbles of the facciata, now the alabaster and bronze of the Baptistery, and now the moving crowds—the flowers-baskets—the pigeons—
She lifted her eyes with a sobbing breath, and saw the gray cloud-curtain—the neglected garden—the solitary pony in the field—with the shafts of rain striking across it. Despair stirred in her—the physical nostalgia of the south. A happy heart might have silenced the craving nerves; but hers was far from happy.
The door opened. A head was thrust in—the head of a fair-haired girl. There was a pause.
"What do you want?" said Mrs. Melrose, haughtily, determined to assert herself.
Thyrza came in slowly. She held a bunch of dripping Michaelmas daisies.
"Shall I get a glass for them? I thowt mebbe you'd like 'em in here."
Netta thanked her ungraciously. She remembered having seen the girl the night before, and Anastasia had mentioned her as the daughter of the Contadino.
Thyrza put the flowers in water, Netta watching her in silence; then going into the hall, she returned with a pair of white lace curtains.
"Shall I put 'em up? It 'ud mebbe be more cheerful."
Netta looked at them languidly.
"Where do they come from?"
"Mr. Tyson brought 'em from Pengarth. He thowt you might like 'em for the drawing-room."
Mrs. Melrose nodded, and Thyrza mounted a chair, and proceeded to put up the curtains, turning an observant eye now and then on the thin-faced lady sitting on the sofa, her long fingers clasped round her knees, and her eyes—so large and staring as to be rather ugly than beautiful in Thyrza's opinion—wandering absently round the room.
"It's a clashy day," Thyrza ventured at last.
"It's a dreadful day," said Mrs. Melrose sharply. "Does it always rain like this?"
"Well, it do rain," was Thyrza's cautious reply. "But there that's better than snowin'—for t' shepherds."
Mrs. Melrose found the girl's voice pleasant, and could not deny that she was pretty, in her rustic way.
"Has your father many sheep?"
"Aye, but they're all gone up to t' fells for t' winter. We had a grand time here in September—at t' dippin'. Yo'd never ha' thowt there was so mony folk about"—the girl went on, civilly, making talk.
"I never saw a single house, or a single light, on the drive from the station last night," said Mrs. Melrose, in her fretful voice. "Where are all the people?"
"Well, there ain't many!" laughed Thyrza. "It's a lonesome place this is. But when it's a shearin', or a dippin', yo' unnerstand, farmin' folk'll coom a long way to help yan anuther."
"Are they all farmers about here?"
"Mostly. Well, there's Duddon Castle!" Thyrza's voice, a little muffled by the tin-tacks in the mouth, came from somewhere near the top of a tall window—"Oh—an' I forgot!—"
In a great hurry the speaker jumped down from her perch, and to Netta's astonishment ran out of the room.
"What is she about?" thought Mrs. Melrose irritably. But the question was hardly framed before Thyrza reappeared, holding out her hand, in which lay some visiting-cards.
"I should ha' given them yo' before."
Mrs. Melrose took them with surprise, and read the name.
"Countess Tatham—who is she?"
"Why it's she that lives at Duddon Castle." Then the girl looked uncertainly at her companion—"Mr. Tyson did tell me she was a relation of Mr. Melrose."
"A relation? I don't know anything about her," said Netta decidedly. "Did she come to call upon me?"
The girl nodded—"She come over—it was last Tuesday—from Duddon, wi' two lovely horses—my, they were beauties! She said she'd come again."
Netta asked questions. Lady Tatham, it seemed, was the great lady of the neighbourhood, and Duddon Castle was a splendid old place, that all the visitors went to see. And there were her cards. Netta's thoughts began to hurry thither and thither, and possibilities began to rise. A relation of Edmund's? She made Thyrza tell her all she knew about Duddon and the Tathams. Visions of being received there, of meeting rich and aristocratic people, of taking her place at last in society, the place that belonged to her as Edmund's wife, in spite of his queer miserly ways, ran again lightly through a mind that often harboured such dreams before—in vain. Her brow cleared. She made Thyrza leave the curtains, and sit down to gossip with her. And Thyrza, though perfectly conscious, as the daughter of a hard-working race, that to sit gossiping at midday was a sinful thing, was none the less willing to sin; and she chattered on in a Westmoreland dialect that grew steadily broader as she felt herself more at ease, till Mrs. Melrose could scarcely follow her.
But she managed to seize on the facts that concerned her. Lady Tatham, it seemed, was a widow, with an only boy, a lad of seven, who was the heir to Duddon Castle, and its great estates. The Castle was ten miles from the Tower.
"How shall I ever get there?" thought Mrs. Melrose, despairingly.
As to other neighbours, they seemed to consist entirely of an old bachelor doctor, about three miles away, and the clergyman of Gimmers Wick and his wife. She was sure to come. But most people were "glad to see the back on her." She had such a poor spirit, and was always complaining.
In the midst of this conversation, the door of the room, which was ajar, slowly opened. Thyrza looked round and saw in the aperture a tiny white figure. It was the Melrose baby, standing silent, wide-eyed, with its fingers in its mouth, and Anastasia behind it. Anastasia, whose look was still thunderous, explained that she was unpacking and could not do with it. The child toddled in to its mother, and Thyrza exclaimed in admiration:
"Oh, you are a little beauty!"
And she caught up one of the brass curtain rings lying on the table, and tried to attract the baby with it. But the little thing took not the smallest notice of the lure. She went straight to her mother, and, leaning against Netta's knee, she turned to stare at Thyrza with an intensity of expression, rare in a child so young. Thyrza, kneeling on the floor, stared back—fascinated. She thought she had never seen anything so lovely. The child had her father's features, etherealized; and great eyes, like her mother, but far more subtly beautiful. Her skin was pale, but of such a texture that Thyrza's roses-and-milk looked rough and common beside it. Every inch of the proud little head was covered with close short curls leaving the white neck free, and the hand lifted to her mouth was of a waxen delicacy.
Netta opened a picture-book that Anastasia had brought down with her. Felicia pushed it away. Netta opened it again. Then the child, snatching it from her, sat down on the floor, and, before Netta could prevent her, tore one of the pages across with a quick, vindictive movement—her eyes sparkling.
"Naughty—! naughty!" said Netta in a scolding voice.
But Thyrza dropped her hand hastily into a gray calico pocket tied round her waist, and again held out something.
"It is only a pear-drop," she said apologetically to Netta. "It won't hurt her."
Felicia snatched at it at once, and sucked it, still flushed with passion. Her mother smiled faintly.
"You like sweets?" she said, childishly, to her companion; "give me one?"
Thyrza eagerly brought out a paper bag from her pocket and Netta put out a pair of thin fingers. She and her sisters had been great consumers of sweet stuff in the small dark Florentine shops. The shared greediness promoted friendship; and by the time Mrs. Dixon put in a reproachful face with a loud—"Thyrza, what be you a doin'?"—Mrs. Melrose knew as much of the Tower, the estate, the farm, and the persons connected with them, as Thyrza's chattering tongue could tell her in the time.
There was nothing, however, very consoling in the information. When Thyrza departed, Mrs. Melrose was left to fret and sigh much as before. The place was odious; she could never endure it. But yet the possible advent of "Countess Tatham" cast a faint ray on the future.
A few days later Lady Tatham appeared. Melrose had been particularly perverse and uncommunicative on the subject. "Like her audacity!"—so Netta had understood his muttered comment, when she took him the cards. He admitted that the lady and he were cousins—the children of first cousins; and that he had once seen a good deal of her. He called her "an audacious woman"; but Mrs. Melrose noticed that he did not forbid her the house; nay, rather that he listened with some attention to Thyrza's report that the lady had promised to call again.
On the afternoon of the call, the skies were clear of rain, though not of cloud. The great gashed mountain to the north which Dixon called Saddleback, while a little Cumbria "guide," produced by Tyson, called it Blencathra, showed sombrely in a gray light; and a November wind was busy stripping what leaves still remained from the woods by the stream and in the hollows of the mountain. Landscape and heavens were of an iron bracingness and bareness; and the beauty in them was not for eyes like Netta's. She had wandered out forlornly on the dank paths descending to the stream. Edmund as usual was interminably busy fitting up one of the lower rooms for some of his minor bric-a-brac—ironwork, small bronzes, watches, and clocks. Anastasia and the baby were out.
Would Anastasia stay? Already she looked ill; she complained of her chest. She had made up her mind to come with the Melroses for the sake of her mother and sister in Rome, who were so miserably poor. Netta felt that she—the mistress—had some security against losing her, in the mere length and cost of the journey. To go home now, before the end of her three months, would swallow up all the nurse had earned; for Edmund would never contribute a farthing. Poor Anastasia! And yet Netta felt angrily toward her for wishing to desert them.
"For of course I shall take her home—in March. We shall all be going then," she said to herself with an emphasis, almost a passion, which yet was full of misgiving.
Suddenly, just as she had returned by a steep path to the dilapidated terrace on the north side of the house—a sound of horses' feet and wheels. Evidently a carriage—a caller. Netta's pulse fluttered. She ran into the house by a side door, and up to her room, where she smoothed her hair anxiously, and lightly powdered her face. There was no time to change her dress, but she took out a feather boa which she kept for great occasions, and prepared to descend with dignity. Oh the stairs she met Mrs. Dixon, who announced "Lady Tatham."
"Find Mr. Melrose, please."
"Oh, he's there, Ma'am, awready."
Netta entered the drawing-room to see her husband pacing up and-down before a strange lady, who sat in one of the crimson armchairs, entirely at her ease.
"So this is your wife, Edmund," said Lady Tatham, as she rose.
"It is. You'll make mock of her no doubt—as you do of me."
"Nonsense! I never make mock of anybody," said a musical voice, rich however through all its music in a rather formidable significance. The owner of it turned toward Netta.
"I hope, Mrs. Melrose, that you will like Cumbria?"
Netta, accustomed to Edmund's "queerness," and determined to hold her own, settled herself deliberately opposite her visitor, and was soon complaining in her shrill voice of the loneliness of the place and the damp of the climate. Melrose never once looked at his wife. He was paler than usual, with an eager combative aspect, quite new to Netta. He seemed for once to be unsure of his ground—both to expect attack, even to provoke it—and to shrink from it. His eyes were fixed upon Lady Tatham, and followed her every movement.
Attention was certainly that lady's due; and it failed her rarely. She had beauty—great beauty; and a personality that refused to be overlooked. Her dress showed in equal measure contempt for mere fashion, and a close study of effect. The lines of her long cloak of dull blue cloth, with its garnishings of sable, matched her stately slenderness well; and the close-fitting cap over the coiled hair conveyed the same impression of something perfectly contrived and wholly successful. Netta thought at first that she was "made up," so dazzling was the white and pink, and then doubted. The beauty of the face reminded one, perhaps, of the beauty of a boy—of some clear-eyed, long-chinned athlete—masterfully simple—a careless conqueror.
How well she and Edmund seemed to know each other! That was the strange, strange thing in Netta's eyes. Presently she sat altogether silent while they talked. Melrose still walking up and down—casting quick glances at his guest. Lady Tatham gave what seemed to be family news—how "John" had been sent to Teheran—and "George" was to be military secretary in Dublin—and "Barbara" to the astonishment of everybody had consented to be made a Woman of the Bedchamber—"poor Queen!"—how Reginald Pratt had been handsomely turned out of the Middleswick seat, and was probably going to "rat" to an Opposition that promised more than the Government—that Cecilia's eldest girl—"a pretty little minx"—had been already presented, and was likely to prove as skilful a campaigner for a husband as her mother before her—that "Gerald" had lost heavily at Newmarket, and was now a financial nuisance, borrowing from everybody in the family—and so on, and so on.
Melrose received these various items of information half scornfully, half greedily; it might have been guessed that his interest in the teller was a good deal keener than his interest in the things told. The conversation revealed to Netta phases in her husband's existence wholly unknown to her. So Edmund had been in Rome—for two or three years—in the Embassy! That she had never known. He seemed also to have been an English member of Parliament for a time. In any case he had lived, apparently for years, like other men of his kind—shooting, racing, visiting, travelling, fighting, elections. She could not fit the facts to which both alluded with her own recollections of the misanthrope who had first made acquaintance with her and her family in Florence three years before this date; and her bewilderment grew.
As for the others, they had soon, it seemed, completely forgotten the thin sallow-faced wife, who sat with her back to the window, restlessly twisting her rings.
Presently Melrose stopped abruptly—in front of Lady Tatham.
"Where is Edith?" He bent forward peremptorily, his hand on the table, his eyes on the lady's face.
"At the Cape with her husband."
"Has she found him out yet?"
"There's nothing to find out. He's an excellent fellow."
"A stupid prig," said Melrose passionately. "Well, you did it!—You did it!"
"Yes, I did it." Lady Tatham rose quietly. She had paled, and after a minute's hesitation she held out her hand to Melrose. "Suppose, Edmund, we bury the hatchet. I should like to be friends with you and your wife, if you would allow it?"
The change of manner was striking. Up to this moment Lady Tatham had been, so to speak, the aggressor, venturing audaciously on ground which she knew to be hostile—from bravado?—or for some hidden reason? But she spoke now with seriousness—even with a touch of womanly kindness.
Melrose looked at her furiously.
"Lady Tatham, I advise you to leave us alone!"
She sighed, met his eyes a moment, gravely, then turned to Netta.
"Mrs. Melrose, your husband and I have an old quarrel. He wanted to marry my sister. I prevented it. She is married now—and he is married. Why shouldn't we make friends?"
"Quarrels are very foolish!" said Netta, sententiously, straightening her small shoulders. But she dared not look at Melrose.
"Well, tell him so," laughed Lady Tatham. "And come and see me at Duddon Castle."
"Thank you! I should like to!" cried Netta.
"My wife has no carriage, Lady Tatham."
"Oh, Edmund—we might hire something," said his wife imploringly.
"I do not permit it," he said resolutely. "Good-bye, Lady Tatham. You are like all women—you think the cracked vase will hold water. It won't."
"What are you going to do here, Edmund?"
"I am a collector—and works of art amuse me."
"And I can do nothing—for you—or your wife?"
"Nothing. I am sorry if you feel us on your mind. Don't. I would have gone farther from you, if I could. But seven miles—are seven miles."
Lady Tatham coloured. She shook hands with Netta.
Melrose held the door open for her. She swept through the hall, and hurried into her carriage. She and Melrose touched hands ceremoniously, and the brougham with its fine roan horses was soon out of sight.
A miserable quarrel followed between the husband and wife. Netta, dissolved in hysterical weeping, protested that she was a prisoner and an exile, that Edmund had brought her from Italy to this dreary place to kill her, that she couldn't and wouldn't endure it, and that return to Italy she must and would, if she had to beg her way. It was cruel to shut her up in that awful house, to deny her the means of getting about, to treat people who wished to be kind to her as Edmund had treated Lady Tatham. She was not a mere caterpillar to be trodden on. She would appeal to the neighbours—she would go home to her parents, etcetera—etcetera.
Melrose at first tried to check her by sarcasm—a banter that stung where it lit. But when she would not be checked, when she followed him into his study, wailing and accusing, a whirlwind of rage developed in the man, and he denounced her with a violence and a brutality which presently cowed her. She ran shivering upstairs to Anastasia and the baby, bolted her door, and never reappeared till, twenty-four hours later, she crept down white and silent, to find a certain comfort in Thyrza's rough ministrations. Melrose seemed to be, perhaps, a trifle ashamed of his behaviour; and they patched up a peace over the arrangements for the heating of the house on which for once he had the grace to consult her.
The winter deepened, and Christmas came. On the mountain-tops the snow lay deep, and when Netta—who on many days never left the house—after walking a while up and down the long corridor for the sake of exercise, would sink languidly on the seat below its large western window, she looked out upon a confusion of hills near and far, drawn in hard white upon an inky sky. To the south the Helvellyn range stretched in bold-flung curves and bosses; in the far distance rose the sharper peaks of Derwentwater; while close at hand Blencathra with its ravines, and all the harsh splendour of its white slopes and black precipices, alternately fascinated and repelled the little Southerner, starved morally and physically for lack of sun.
Even for Cumbria it was a chill and sunless winter. No bracing frosts, and persistent northwesterly winds. Day after day the rain, which was snow on the heights, poured down. Derwentwater and Bassenthwaite rose till they mingled in one vast lake. The streams thundered from the fells; every road was a water-course.
Netta lost flesh and appetite. She was a discontented and ailing woman, and the Dixons could not but notice her fragile state. Mrs. Dixon thought her "nobbut a silly sort of body," but would sometimes try to cook what pleased her, or let Anastasia use the kitchen fire for "gnocchi" or "risotto" or other queer messes; which, however, when they appeared, were generally more relished by the master than the mistress.
Dixon, perceiving no signs of any desire on Netta's part to attend the "papish" chapel ten miles away, began to plot for her soul. His own life was in the little Methodist chapel to which he walked four miles every Sunday, wet or fine. In the summer he had accompanied the minister and one or two class leaders in a drive through the hayfields, shouting to the haymakers—"We're going to heaven!—won't you come with us!"—and he had been known to spend five hours at a stretch on his knees wrestling for the salvation of a drunken friend, in the village of Threlkeld. But Netta baffled him. Sometimes he would come home from chapel, radiant, and would take her a bunch of holly for the table by way of getting into conversation with her. "It was fine to-day, Missis! There was three found peace. And the congregation was grand! There was four attorneys—two of 'em from as far as Pengarth." And he would lend her tracts—and even offer, good man, to borrow a "shandrey" from a neighbour, and drive her himself to the chapel service. But Netta only smiled or yawned at him; and as for the tracts, she hid them under the few sofa cushions the house possessed.
Mr. Tyson, the agent, came to the house as seldom as he could, that he might not quarrel with his employer before it was to his own interest to do so. Netta discovered that he pitied her; and once or twice, drawing on the arts of flirtation, with which the Florentine woman is always well acquainted, she complained to him of her loneliness and her husband's unkindness. But his north-country caution protected him from any sentimentalizing, however innocent. And before the end of the winter Netta detested him. Meanwhile she and Anastasia lived for one hope only. From many indications it was plain that Melrose was going south in March. The women were determined not to stay behind him. But, instinctively, they never raised the subject, so as not to risk a struggle prematurely.
Meanwhile Melrose passed a winter wholly satisfactory to himself. The partial unpacking of his collections was an endless source of amusement and pleasure. But his curious egotism showed itself very plainly in the business. He made no attempt at artistic arrangement, though there was some classification. As fast as one room was filled—the vacant packing-cases turned on their sides, serving to exhibit what they had once contained—he would begin upon another. And woe to Mrs. Dixon or Thyrza if they attempted any cleaning in one of his rooms! The collections were for himself only, and for the few dealers or experts to whom he chose to show them. And the more hugger-mugger they were, the less he should be pestered to let people in to see them. Occasionally he would rush up to London to attend what he called a "high puff sale"—or to an auction in one of the northern towns, and as he always bought largely, purchases kept arriving, and the house at the end of the winter was in a scarcely less encumbered and disorderly condition than it had been at the beginning. The few experts from the Continent or America, whom he did admit, were never allowed a word of criticism of the collections. If they ventured to differ from Melrose as to the genuineness or the age of a bronze or a marble, an explosion of temper and a speedy dismissal awaited them.
One great stroke of luck befel him in February which for a time put him in high good-humour. He bought at York—very cheaply—a small bronze Hermes, which some fifteenth-century documents in his own possession, purchased from a Florentine family the year before, enabled him to identify with great probability as the work of one of the rarest and most famous of the Renaissance sculptors. He told no one outside the house, lest he should be plagued to exhibit it, but he could not help boasting of it to Netta and Anastasia.
"That's what comes of having an eye! It's worth a thousand guineas of it's worth a penny. And those stupid idiots let me have it for twenty-two pounds!"
"A thousand guineas!" Gradually the little bronze became to Netta the symbol of all that money could have bought for her—and all she was denied; Italy, freedom, the small pleasures she understood, and the salvation of her family, now in the direst poverty. There were moments when she could have flung it passionately out of the window into the stream a hundred feet below. But she was to find another use for it.
March arrived. And one day Anastasia came to tell her mistress that she had received orders to pack Mr. Melrose's portmanteaus for departure.
Netta brooded all day, sitting silent and pale in the window-seat, with some embroidery which she never touched on her knee. Outside, not a sign of spring! A bitter north wind was blowing which had blanched all colour from the hills, and there was ice on the edges of the streams. Thyrza was away in Carlisle, helping an aunt. There was no one in the house but Mrs. Dixon, and a deaf old woman from one of the labourer's cottages; attached to the farm, who had come in to help her. The poor babe had a cold, and could be heard fretfully crying and coughing in her nursery.
And before Netta's inward eye there stretched the interminable days and weeks ahead, no less than the interminable weeks and months she had already lived through, in this discomfort of body, and this loneliness of spirit.
After supper she walked resolutely into her husband's littered study and demanded that she and Anastasia and the baby should go with him to the Continent. He, she understood, would stop in Paris. She and the child would push on to Florence, where she could stay the summer with her people, at no greater cost than at the Tower. The change was necessary both for her and Felicia, and go she would.
Melrose flatly and violently refused. What did she want better than the Tower? She had as much service, and as much luxury as her antecedents entitled her to; and he neither could nor would provide her with anything more. He was heavily in debt, and had no money to spend on railway tickets. And he entirely disapproved of her relations, especially of her father, who might any day find himself "run in" by the Italian authorities for illicit smuggling of pictures out of the country. He declined to allow his child to become familiar with such a circle.
Netta listened to him with tight lips, her pale face strangely flushed. When she saw that her appeal was quite fruitless she went away, and she and Anastasia sat up whispering together far into the night.
Early next morning Melrose departed, leaving a letter for his wife, in which he informed her that he had left money with Mr. Tyson for the household expenses, and for the few shillings he supposed she would want as pocket money. He advised her to be out a great deal, and assured her that the Cumbria summer, when it came, was delightful. And he signed himself "your affectionate husband, Edmund Melrose."
Mrs. Dixon went into Pengarth for shopping on the fly which conveyed Melrose to the station, and was to come out by carrier. After their departure there was no one left in the house but the deaf old woman. Netta and her maid preceeded to carry out a plan they had been long maturing. Anastasia had a few pounds left of her Christmas wages; enough to carry them to London; and for the rest, they had imagined an excellent device.
The bronze Hermes had been left by Melrose in a cupboard in a locked room on the first floor. When Mrs. Dixon came back that night, she discovered that Mrs. Melrose, with her child and maid had quitted the house. They had apparently harnessed the cart and horse themselves, and had driven into Pengarth, taking a labourer with them to bring the cart home. They had carried all their personal belongings away with them; and, after a while, Mrs. Dixon, poking about, discovered that the door of one of the locked rooms had been forced.
She also noticed, in one of the open drawers of Mrs. Melrose's bedroom, a photograph, evidently forgotten, lying face downward. Examining it, she saw that it was a picture of Netta, with the baby, taken apparently in Italy during the preceding summer. The Cumbrian woman, shrewdly observant like all her race, was struck by the tragic differences between the woman of the picture and the little blighted creature who had just made a flitting from the Tower.
She showed the photograph to her husband, returned it to the drawer, and thought no more about it.
News was of course sent to Mr. Melrose in Paris, and within three days he had come rushing back to the Tower, beside himself with rage and grief, not at all, as George Tyson soon assured himself, for the loss of his wife and child, but entirely for the theft of the priceless Florentine bronze, a loss which he had suspected on the first receipt of the news of the forced door, and verified at once on his arrival.
He stood positively aghast at Netta's perfidy and wickedness, and he wrote at once to the apartment in the Via Giugno, to denounce her in the most emphatic terms. As she had chosen to steal one of his most precious possessions, which she had of course converted into money, she had no further claim on him whatever, and he broke off all relations with her. Eighty pounds a year would be paid by his lawyers to a Florentine lawyer, whom he named, for his daughter's maintenance, so long as Netta left him unmolested. But he desired to hear and see no more of persons who reminded him of the most tragical event of his history as a collector, as well as of the utter failure of his married life. Henceforth they were strangers to each other, and she might arrange her future as she pleased.
The letter was answered by Mrs. Robert Smeath in the third person, and all communications ceased. As a matter of fact the Smeath family were infinitely relieved by Melrose's letter, which showed that he did not intend to take any police steps to recover the bronze or its value. Profiting by the paternal traditions, Netta had managed the sale of the Hermes in London, where, owing to Melrose's miserly hiding of it, it was quite unknown, with considerable skill. It had realized a small fortune, and she had returned, weary, ill, but triumphant, to the apartment in the Via Giugno.
Twelve months later, Melrose had practically forgotten that he had ever known her. He returned for the winter, to Threlfall, and entered upon a course of life which gradually made him the talk and wonder of the countryside. The rooms occupied by Netta and her child were left just as he had found them when he returned after her flight. He had turned the key on them then, and nobody had since entered them. Tyson wondered whether it was sentiment, or temper; and gave it for the latter.
The years passed away. Melrose's hair turned from black to gray; Thyrza married a tradesman in Carlisle and presented him with a large family; the Dixons, as cook and manservant, gradually fitted themselves more and more closely to the queer conditions of life in the Tower, and grew old in the service of a master whose eccentricities became to them, in process of time, things to be endured without comment, like disagreeable facts of climate. In Dixon, his Methodist books, his Bible, and his weekly chapel maintained those forces of his character which were—and always continued to be—independent of Melrose; and Melrose knew his own interests well enough not to interfere with an obstinate man's religion. While Tyson, after five years, passed on triumphantly to a lucrative agency in the Dukeries, having won a reputation for tact and patience in the impossible service of a mad master, which would carry him through life. Melrose, being Melrose, found it hopeless to replace him satisfactorily; and, as he continued to buy land greedily year after year, the neglected condition of his immense estate became an ever-increasing scandal to the county.
Meanwhile, for some years after the departure of Netta, Lady Tatham was obliged for reason of health to spend the winters on the Riviera, and she and her boy were only at Duddon for the summer months. Intercourse between her and her cousin Edmund Melrose was never renewed, and her son grew up in practical ignorance of the relationship. When, however, the lad was nearing the end of his Eton school days Duddon became once more the permanent home, summer and winter, of mother and son, and young Lord Tatham, curly-haired, good-humoured, and good-hearted, became thenceforward the favourite and princeling of the countryside. On the east and north, the Duddon estates marched with Melrose's property. Occasions of friction constantly arose, but the determination on each side to have no more communication with the other than was absolutely necessary generally composed any nascent dispute; so long at least as Lady Tatham and a very diplomatic agent were in charge.
But at the age of twenty-four, Harry Tatham succeeded to the sole management of his estates, and his mother soon realized that her son was not likely to treat their miserly neighbour with the same patience as herself.
And with the changes in human life, went changes even more subtle and enduring in the Cumbria county itself. Those were times of crisis for English agriculture. Wheat-lands went back to pasture; and a surplus population, that has found its way for generations to the factory towns, began now to turn toward the great Canadian spaces beyond the western sea. Only the mountains still rose changeless and eternal, at least to human sense; "ambitious for the hallowing" of moon and sun; keeping their old secrets, and their perpetual youth.
And after twenty years Threlfall Tower became the scene of another drama, whereof what has been told so far is but the prologue.
It was a May evening, and Lydia Penfold, spinster, aged twenty-four, was sketching in St. John's Vale, that winding valley which, diverging from the Ambleside-Keswick road in an easterly direction, divides the northern slopes of the Helvellyn range from the splendid mass of Blencathra.
So beautiful was the evening, so ravishing under its sway were heaven and earth, that Lydia's work went but slowly. She was a professional artist, to whom guineas were just as welcome as to other people; and she had very industrious and methodical views of her business. But she was, before everything, one of those persons who thrill under the appeal of beauty to a degree that often threatens or suspends practical energy. Save for the conscience in her, she could have lived from day to day just for the moments of delight, the changes in light and shade, in colour and form, that this beautiful world continually presents to senses as keen as hers. Lydia's conscience, however, was strong; though on this particular evening it did little or nothing to check the sheer sensuous dreaming that had crept over her.
The hand that held her palette had dropped upon her knee, her eyes were lifted to the spectacle before her, and her lips, slightly parted, breathed in pleasure.
She looked on a pair of mountains of which one, torn and seamed from top to toe as though some vast Fafnir of the prime had wreaked his dragon rage upon it, fronted her sheer, rimmed with gold where some of its thrusting edges still caught the sunset, but otherwise steeped in purple shades already prophesying night; while the other, separated from the first by a gap, yet grouping with it, ran slanting away to the northwest, offering to the eyes only a series of lovely foreshortened planes, rising from the valley, one behind the other, sweeping upward and backward to the central peak of Skiddaw, and ablaze with light from base to summit.
The evenings in the north are long. It was past seven on this May day; yet Lydia knew that the best of the show was still to come; she waited for the last act, and refused to think of supper. That golden fusion of all the upper air; that "intermingling of Heaven's pomp," spread on the great slopes of Skiddaw—red and bronze and purple, shot through each other, and glorified by excess of light; that sharpness of the larch green on the lower slopes; that richness of the river fields; that shining pageantry of cloud, rising or sinking with the mountain line: pondering these things, absorbing them, she looked at her drawing from time to time in a smiling despair; the happy despair of the artist, who amid the failure of to-day looks forward with passion to the effort of to-morrow.
Youth and natural joy possessed her.
What scents from the river-bank, under the softly breathing wind which had sprung up with the sunset! The girl brought her eyes down, and saw a bank of primroses, and beyond, in the little copse on the farther side of the stream, a gleam of blue, where the wild hyacinth spread among the birches. While close to her, at her very feet, ran the stream, with its slipping, murmuring water, its stones splashed with white, purple, and orange, its still reaches paved with evening gold.
"What a mercy I wrote that letter!" she said to herself, with a sigh of content. She was thinking of a proposal that had come to her a few days before this date, to take a post as drawing mistress in a Brighton school. The salary was tempting; and, at the moment, money was more than usually scarce in the family purse. Her mother's eyes had looked at her wistfully.
Yet she had refused; with a laughing bravado that had concealed some inward qualms.
Whereupon the gods had immediately and scandalously rewarded her. She had sold four of her drawings at a Liverpool exhibition for twenty pounds; and there were lying beside her on the grass some agreeable press notices just arrived, most of which she already knew by heart.
Twenty pounds! That would pay the half year's rent. And there were three other drawings in a London show that might very well sell too. Why not—now the others had sold? Meanwhile she—thank the Lord!—had saved herself, as a fish from the hook. She was still free; free to draw, free to dream. She had not bartered her mountains for a salary. Instead of crocodile walks, two and two, with a score of stupid schoolgirls, here she was, still roaming the fells, the same happy vagabond as before. She hugged her liberty. And at the same time she promised herself that her mother should have a new shawl and a new cap for Whitsuntide.
Those at present in use came near in Lydia's opinion to being a family disgrace.
The last act of the great spectacle rushed on; and again the artist held her breath enthralled. The gold on Skiddaw was passing into rose; and over the greenish blue of the lower sky, webs of crimson cirrhus spun themselves. The stream ran fire; and far away the windows of a white farm blazed. Lydia seized a spare sketching-block lying on the grass, and began to note down a few "passages" in the sky before her.
Suddenly a gust came straying down the valley. It blew the press-cuttings which had dropped from her lap toward the stream. One of them fell in, the others, long flapping things, hung caught in a tuft of grass. Lydia sprang up, with an exclamation of annoyance, and went to the rescue. Dear, dear!—the longest and best notice, which spoke of her work as "agreeable and scholarly, showing, at tunes, more than a touch of high talent"—was quietly floating away. She must get it back. Her mother had not yet read it—not yet purred over it. And it was most desirable she should read it, so as to get rid thereby of any lingering doubt about the horrid school and its horrid proposal.
But alack! the slip of newspaper was already out of reach, speeded by a tiny eddy toward a miniature rapid in the middle of the beck. Lydia, clinging with one hand to a stump of willow, caught up a stick lying on the bank with the other, and, hanging over the stream, tried to head back the truant. All that happened was that her foot slipping on a pebble went flop into the shallow water, and part of her dress followed it.
It was not open to Lydia to swear, and she had no time for the usual feminine exclamations before she heard a voice behind her.
"Allow me—can I be of any use?"
She turned in astonishment, extricating her wet foot, and clambered back on to the bank. A young man stood there, civilly deferential. His bicycle lay on the grass at the edge of the road, which was only a few steps away.
"I saw you slip in, and thought perhaps I might help. You were trying to reach something, weren't you?"
"It doesn't matter, thank you," said Lydia, whose cheeks had gone pink.
The young man looked at her, and became still more civil.
"What was it? That piece of paper? Oh, I'll get it in a moment."
And splashing from stone to stone in the river-bed, he had soon reached a point where, with the aid of Lydia's stick, the bedraggled cutting was soon fished out and returned to its owner. Lydia thanked him.
"But you've wet both your feet!" She looked at them, with concern. "Won't it be very uncomfortable, bicycling?"
"I haven't far to go. Oh, by the way, I was just looking out for somebody to ask—about this road—and I couldn't see a soul, till just as I came out of the little wood there"—he pointed—"I saw you—slipping in."
They both laughed. Lydia returned to her camp stool, and began to put up her sketching things.
"What is it you want to know?"
"Is this the road for Whitebeck?"
"Yes, certainly. You come to a bridge and the village is on the other side."
"Thank you. I don't know these parts. But what an awfully jolly valley!" He waved a hand toward it. "And what do you think I saw about a mile higher up?" He had picked up his bicycle from the grass, and stood leaning easily upon it. She could not but observe that he was tall and slim and handsome. A tourist, no doubt; she could not place him as an inhabitant.
"I know!" she said smiling. "You saw the otter hounds. They passed me an hour ago. Have they caught him?"
"Who? the otter? Lord, no! He got right away from them—up a tributary stream."
"Good!" said Lydia, as she shut her painting-box.
The young man hesitated. He had clearly no right to linger any longer, but, as the girl before him seemed to him one of the most delicious creatures he had ever seen, he did linger.
"I wonder if I might ask you another question? Can you tell me whether that fine old house over there is Duddon Castle?"
"Duddon Castle!" Lydia lifted her eyebrows. "Duddon Castle is seven miles away. That place is called Threlfall Tower. Were you going to Duddon?"
"No. But"—he hesitated—"I know young Tatham a little. I should like to have seen his house. But, that's a fine old place, isn't it?" He looked with curiosity at the pile of building rising beyond a silver streak of river, amid the fresh of the May woods.
"Well—yes—in some ways," said Lydia, dubiously. "Don't you know who lives there?"
"Not the least. I am a complete stranger here. I say, do let me do that up for you?" And, letting his bicycle fall, the young man seized the easel which had still to be taken to pieces and put into its case.
Lydia shot a wavering look at him. He ought certainly to have departed by now, and she ought to be snubbing him. But the expression on his sunburnt face as he knelt on the grass, unscrewing her easel, seemed so little to call for snubbing that instead she gave him further information; interspersed with directions to him as to what to do and what not to do with her gear.
"It belongs to a Mr. Melrose. Did you never hear of him?"
"Never. Why should I?"
"Not from the Tathams?"
"No. You see I only knew Tatham at college—in my last year. He was a good deal junior to me. And I have never stayed with them at Duddon—though they kindly asked me—years ago."
The girl beside him took not the smallest notice of his information. She was busy packing up brushes and paints, and her next remark showed him subtly that she did not mean to treat him as an acquaintance of the Tathams, whom she probably knew, but was determined to keep him to his role of stranger and tourist.
"You had better look at Threlfall as you pass. It has a splendid situation."
"I will. But why ought I to have heard of the gentleman? I forget his name."
"Mr. Melrose? Oh, well—he's a legend about here. We all talk about him."
"What's wrong with him? Is he a nuisance?—or a lunatic?"