THE SQUIRE'S DAUGHTER
Being the First Book in the Chronicles of the Clintons
BY ARCHIBALD MARSHALL
NEW YORK DODD, MEAD AND COMPANY 1920
Published October, 1912 by DODD, MEAD AND COMPANY
TO ANSTEY GUTHRIE
I A Court Ball
II In the Bay of Biscay
III The Clintons of Kencote
IV Clintons Young and Old
V Melbury Park
VI A Good Long Talk
VII The Rector
VIII By the Lake
IX The Question of Marriage
X Town Versus Country
XI A Wedding
XII Food and Raiment
XIII Ronald Mackenzie
XIV The Plunge
XVI The Pursuit
XVII The Contest
XVIII After the Storm
XIX The Whole House Upset
XX Mrs. Clinton
XXI Cicely's Return
XXII The Life
A COURT BALL
"I recollect the time," said the Squire, "when two women going to a ball were a big enough load for any carriage. You may say what you like about crinolines, but I've seen some very pretty women in them in my time."
There were three people in the carriage passing slowly up the Mall in the string, with little jerks and progressions. They were the Squire himself, Mrs. Clinton, and Cicely, and they were on their way to a Court Ball.
The Squire, big, florid, his reddish beard touched with grey falling over the red and gold of his Deputy-Lieutenant's uniform, sat back comfortably beside his wife, who was dressed in pale lavender silk, with diamonds in her smooth, grey-yellow hair. She was short and rather plump. Her grey eyes, looking out on the violet of the night sky, the trees, and the crowd of hilarious onlookers who had not been invited to Buckingham Palace, had a patient and slightly wistful expression. She had not spoken since the carriage had left the quiet hotel in which they were staying for their fortnight in London.
Cicely sat on the back seat of the carriage. On such an occasion as this she might have been expected to be accorded the feminine privilege of sitting at the side of her mother, but it had not occurred to the Squire to offer it to her. She was a pretty girl, twenty-two years of age, with a fair skin and abundant brown hair. She was dressed in costly white satin, her gown simply cut. As she had stood before her glass, while her mother's maid had held for her her light evening cloak, her beautiful neck and shoulders had seemed warmly flushed by contrast with the dead pallor of the satin. She also had hardly spoken since they had driven off from their hotel, which was so quiet and private that it was hardly like an hotel, and where some of the servants had stood in the hall to see them get into their carriage, just as they might have done at home at Kencote.
It was a great occasion for Cicely. Her brothers—Dick, who was in the Grenadier Guards, and Humphrey, who was in the Foreign Office—were well enough used to the scenes of splendour offered by a London season, but Cicely had hardly ever been in London at all. She had been brought up four years before to be presented, and had been taken home again immediately. She had seen nothing of London gaieties, either then or since. Now she was to enjoy such opportunities of social intercourse as might be open to the daughter of a rich squire who had had all he wanted of town life thirty years before, and had lived in his country house ever since. A fortnight was as long as the Squire cared to be away from Kencote, even in the month of June; and a fortnight was to be the extent of Cicely's London season. This was to be the crowning night of it.
The Squire chattered on affably. He had had a good dinner and had not been hurried over it, or afterwards. That was the worst of those theatres, he would say; they didn't give you time even to drink your glass of wine; and he had not been affable with his wife and daughter the evening before, when driving to the play. But now he was rather pleased with himself. He did not care for all this sort of thing, of course; he had had quite enough of it as a subaltern, dancing about London all night, and going everywhere—all very well for a young fellow, but you got tired of it. Still, there was a certain flavour about a Court Ball, even for a one-time subaltern in the Blues, who had taken part in everything that was going on. Other people scrambled for such things—they had to if they wanted them, and why they should want them if they didn't come to them naturally, the Squire couldn't tell. To a man of the importance of Edward Clinton of Kencote, they came as a matter of course, and he accepted them as his due, but was pleased, too, at having his social importance recognised in such a way, without his stirring a finger. As a matter of cold fact, a finger had been stirred to procure this particular honour, although it had not been his. But of that he was not aware.
The carriage drove slowly with the rest into the big court-yard, where a military band was playing bright music. Cicely suddenly felt exhilarated and expectant. They drove up before the great entrance, red-carpeted, brightly lit, and went through the hall up the stairs into the cloak-room. Cicely had a flush on her cheeks now as she waited for her mother, who seemed to be taking an interminable time to settle her lace and her jewels. Mrs. Clinton looked her over and her eyes brightened a little. "Are you nervous, darling?" she asked; and Cicely said, "No, mother, not a bit." The scent of flowers was in her nostrils, the strains of the music expectantly in her ears. She was going to dance in a royal palace, and she was such a country mouse that she was excited at the prospect of seeing royalty at close quarters. She had been far too nervous to take in anything when she had been presented, and that had been four years ago.
They went out and found the Squire waiting for them. He did not ask them, as he generally did, why they had been so long.
They seemed to go through interminable wide corridors, decorated in red and gold, with settees against the walls and beautiful pictures hanging above them, but came at last to the great ball-room.
Cicely drew her breath as she entered. This was better than the Meadshire County Ball, or the South Meadshire Hunt Ball. The women were mostly in white, or pale colours, but their jewels were beyond anything she had ever imagined. The lights from the great lustre chandeliers seemed to be reflected in those wonderful clusters and strings and devices of sparkling gems. Cold white and cold fire for the women, colour for the men. Scarlet and gold pre-dominated, but there were foreign attaches in uniforms of pale blue and silver, and other unfamiliar colours, eastern robes and dresses encrusted with jewels or richly embroidered in silks. It was gorgeous, a scene from fairyland.
There was a sudden ebbing of the tide of chatter. The band in the gallery began to play "God save the King." Doors were thrown open at the end of the great room, and the royal party came in slowly, passed down the open space on the red carpet between the lines of bowing and curtseying guests, and took their places on the dais. Cicely gazed her fill at them. They were just as she had seen them a hundred times in pictures in the illustrated papers, but more royal, and yet, more human.
They danced their opening quadrille, and after that every one could dance. But of all the people there Cicely knew no one who would be likely to dance with her. She sat by her mother on one of the raised settees that ran in four rows the length of the room. The Squire had found friends and was talking to them elsewhere. Her brother Dick, who she knew was to have been there, she had not yet seen. Everything depended upon him. Surely, people did not come casually late to a Court Ball! If something had prevented his coming at all, it seemed to her that she would have to sit there all the evening.
Her eyes brightened. There was Dick making his way towards them. He looked very smart in his guardsman's uniform, and very much at home with himself, as if the King's ball-room was no more to him than any other ball-room. He was always provokingly leisurely in his movements, and even now he stopped twice to talk to people whom he knew, and stood with them each time as if he would stay there for ever. Really, Dick could be almost as provoking as the Squire, where their womenfolk were concerned.
But at last he came, smiling very pleasantly. "Hullo, mother!" he said. "Hullo, Siskin! Now you've seen the Queen in her parlour, eh? Well, how do you like yourself?"
He was a good-looking fellow, Dick, with his well-shaped, closely cropped head, his well-trained moustache, his broad, straight shoulders and lean waist and hips. He was over thirty, but showed few signs as yet of the passing of youth. It was quite plain by the way he looked at her that he was fond of his sister. She was nearly ten years younger than he and still a child to him, to be patronised and petted, if she was taken notice of at all. He didn't take much notice of his mother, contenting himself with telling her that she "looked as smart as any of 'em." But he stood and talked to Cicely, and his eyes rested on her as if he were proud of her.
In the meantime the delicious strains of a valse were swinging through the great room, and the smooth floor was full of dancers, except in the space reserved for the royalties, where only a few couples were circling. Cicely's feet were moving. "Can't we dance, Dick?" she said.
"Come on," said Dick, "let's have a scurry," and he led her down on to the floor and floated her out into a paradise of music and movement. Dick was the best partner she had ever danced with. He had often snubbed her about her own dancing, but he had danced with her all the same, more than most brothers dance with their sisters, at country balls, which were the only balls she had ever been to. He was a kind brother, according to his lights, and Cicely would have liked to dance with him all the evening.
That, of course, was out of the question. Dick knew plenty of people to dance with to-night, if she didn't. In fact, he seemed to know half the people in the room, although he gave her the impression that he thought Court Balls rather mixed affairs. "Can't be certain of meeting your friends here," he said, and added, "of course," as admitting handsomely that people might be quite entitled to be asked who did not happen to be his friends. "You're not the only country cousins, Siskin," he said, which gave Cicely somehow a higher opinion of herself, his dissociation of himself in this matter of country cousinhood from his family striking her as nothing unreasonable. Indeed, it was not unreasonable with regard to the Clintons, the men taking their part, as a matter of course, in everything to which their birth and wealth entitled them, so long as they cared to do so, the women living, for the most part, at home, in a wide and airy seclusion.
"Want to dance, eh?" said Dick, in answer to her little plea. "All right, I'll bring up some young fellows."
And he did. He brought up a succession of them and delivered them off-hand to his mother and sister with a slight air of authority, doing his duty very thoroughly, as a kind brother should.
Most of them were quite young—as young, or younger than Cicely herself. Some of them wore the uniform of Dick's own regiment, and were presumably under his orders, professionally if not in private life. Some of them were amazingly patronising and self-possessed, and these did not ask Cicely to dance again. She felt, when they returned her to her mother, that she had not been a success with them. Others were boyish and diffident, and with them she got on pretty well. With one, a modest child of nineteen or so with a high-sounding title, she was almost maternally friendly, and he seemed to cling to her as a refuge from a new and bewildering world. They ate ices together—he told her that he had been brought up at home in Ireland under a priest, and had never eaten enough ices at a sitting until he had joined his regiment a fortnight before. He could not dance well, indeed hardly at all, although he confessed to having taken lessons, and his gratitude when Cicely suggested that they should go and look at some of the rooms instead, warmed her heart to him and put their temporary friendship on the best possible footing.
They stayed together during three dances, went out on to the terrace, explored wherever they were permitted to explore, paid two visits to the buffet, and enjoyed themselves much in the same way as if they had been school-children surreptitiously breaking loose from an assembly of grown-ups. The boy became volubly friendly and bubbling over with unexpected humour and high spirits. He tried to persuade Cicely to stay away from the ball-room for a fourth dance. Nobody would miss them, he explained. But she said she must go back, and when they joined the crowd again her partner was haled off with a frightened look to the royal circle, and she found her mother standing up before the seat on which she had sat all the evening searching anxiously for her with her eyes, and her father by her side.
An old man, looking small and shrunken in his heavy uniform, but otherwise full of life and kindliness, with twinkling eyes and a short white beard, was with them, and she breathed a sigh of relief, for if she was not frightened of what her mother might say about her long absence, she rather dreaded the comments her father might be pleased to pass on it. But her kinsman, Lord Meadshire, Lord-Lieutenant of the county, a great magnate in the eyes of the world, was to her just a very kind and playful old man, whose jokes only, because of their inherent feebleness, caused her any discomfort. Cousin Humphrey would preserve her from the results of her fault if she had committed one.
"Well, my dear," he said in an affectionate, rather asthmatical voice, "you've brought us some of the Meadshire roses, eh, what? Hope you're enjoying yourself. If you had come a little earlier, I would have asked you to dance with me."
"Where have you been so long, Cicely?" asked her mother, but the twinkle in Lord Meadshire's eyes showed that a joke was in progress, and he broke in hurriedly, "Forty or fifty years earlier, I mean, my dear," and he chuckled himself into a fit of coughing.
The Squire was not looking quite pleased, but whatever the cause of his displeasure it was not, apparently, Cicely's prolonged absence, for he also asked if she was enjoying herself, and looked at her with some pride and fondness. Going home in the carriage, she learned later that Lord Meadshire, who would have done a great deal more to provide her with social gaiety if he had not been living, now, mostly in retirement with an invalid wife, had procured those commands which had brought them up to London, and are not generally bestowed unasked on the belongings of a country squire, however important he may be in the midst of his own possessions.
Lord Meadshire stayed with them for some little time and pointed out to her some of the notabilities and the less familiar royalties. Then Dick came up and took her away to dance again. After that she sat by her mother's side until the end. She saw the boy with whom she had made friends eying her rather wistfully. He had danced a quadrille with a princess, and the experience seemed so to have shattered his nerve that he was not equal to making his way to her to ask her to bear him company again, and she could not very well beckon him, as she felt inclined to do. The ball became rather dull, although she looked a good deal at the King and Queen and thought how extraordinary it was that she should be in the same room with them.
Before she had quite realised that it had begun, the ball was over. The band played "God save the King" again. Everybody stood up and the royal procession was formed and went away to supper. With the light of royalty eclipsed, her own supper seemed an ordinary affair. At country dances she had shirked it whenever she could, taking advantage of a clearer floor to dance with some willing partner right through a valse or a two-step from beginning to end. After supper she danced once or twice, but as she drove back to the very private hotel at about half-past one, she only felt as if she had not danced nearly enough, and as she undressed she hardly knew whether she had enjoyed herself or not.
IN THE BAY OF BISCAY
On the night on which Cicely Clinton was enjoying herself at the Court Ball, the Punjaub homeward bound from Australia via Colombo and the Suez Canal was steaming through the Bay of Biscay, which, on this night of June had prepared a pleasant surprise for the Punjaub's numerous passengers by lying calm and still under a bright moon.
Two men were leaning over the side of the upper deck, watching the phosphorescent gleam of the water as it slid past beneath them, and talking as intimate friends. They were Ronald Mackenzie, the explorer, returning home after his adventurous two years' expedition into the wilds of Tibet, and Jim Graham, whose home was at Mountfield, three miles away from Kencote, where the Clintons lived. They were not intimate friends, in spite of appearances. They had joined the ship together at Colombo, and found themselves occupying the same cabin. But acquaintanceship ripens so fast on board ship that the most dissimilar characters may adhere to one another for as long as a voyage lasts, although they may never meet again afterwards, nor particularly wish to.
Mackenzie was a tall, ruggedly fashioned man, with greying hair and a keen, bold face. Jim Graham was more slightly built. He had an open, honest look; he was rather deliberate in speech, and apparently in thought, for in conversation he would often pause before speaking, and he sometimes ignored a question altogether, as if he had not heard it, or had not understood it. There were those who called him stupid; but it was usually said of him that he was slow and sure. He had a rather ugly face, but it was that pleasant ugliness which, with a well-knit athletic body, clear eyes and a tanned skin, is hardly distinguishable, in a man, from good looks.
They were talking about London. "I can smell it and see it," said Mackenzie. "I hope it will be raining when I get home. I like the wet pavements, and the lights, and the jostling crowds. Lord! it will be good to see it again. How I've pined for it, back there! But I'll be out of it again in a month. It's no place for a man like me, except to get back to every now and then."
"That's how most of us take it," said Jim, "unless we have to work there. I'm glad I haven't to, though I enjoy it well enough for a week or two, occasionally."
"Do you live in the country all the year round?"
Mackenzie threw him a glance which seemed to take him in from top to toe. "What do you do?" he asked.
Jim Graham paused for a moment before replying. "I have a good deal to do," he said. "I've got my place to look after."
"That doesn't take you all your time, does it?"
"It takes a good deal of it. And I'm on the bench."
"That means sending poor devils to prison for poaching your game, I suppose."
"Not quite that," said Jim, without a smile.
"I suppose what it all does mean is that you live in a big country house and shoot and hunt and fish to your heart's content, with just enough work to keep you contented with yourself. By Jove, some men are lucky! Do you know what my life has been?"
"I know you have been through many adventures and done big things," said Jim courteously.
"Well, I'm obliged to you for putting it like that. Seems to me I didn't put my idea of your life quite so nicely, eh?" He stood up and stretched his tall figure, and laughed. "I'm a rough diamond," he said. "I don't mind saying so, because it's plain enough for any one to see. I sometimes envy people like you their easy manners; but I've got to be content with my own; and after all, they have served my turn well enough. Look at us two. I suppose I'm about ten years older than you, but I had made my name when I was your age. You were born in a fine country house."
"Not so very fine," said Jim.
"Well, pretty fine compared to the house I was born in, which was the workhouse. You were educated at Eton and Christchurch, and all that sort of thing——"
"I don't want to spoil any comparison you are going to make," said Jim, "but I was at Winchester and New College."
"That will do," said Mackenzie. "I was dragged up at the workhouse school till I was twelve. Then I ran away and sold papers in the streets, and anything else that I could pick up a few coppers by—except steal. I never did that. I always made up my mind I'd be a big man some day, and—I'm glad I didn't steal."
"I didn't either, you know," said Jim, "although I'm not a big man, and never shall be."
"Ah, that's where the likes of me scores. You've no call to ambition. You have everything you can want provided for you."
"There have been one or two big men born as I was," said Jim. "But please go on with your story. When did you go on your first journey?"
"When I was sixteen. I looked much older. I shipped before the mast and went out to Australia, and home round Cape Horn. By Jove, I shan't forget that. The devil was in the wind. We were five months coming home, and nearly starved to death, and worked till we were as thin as hungry cats. Then I shipped with the Boyle-Geering expedition—you know—North Pole, and three years trying to get there. Then I tried a change of climate and went to Central Africa with Freke. I was his servant, got his bath, shaved him, brushed his clothes—he was always a bit of a dandy, Freke, and lived like a gentleman, though I don't believe he was any better than I was when he started; but he could fight too, and there wasn't his equal with niggers. We had trouble that trip, and the men who went out with him were a rotten lot. They'd found the money, or he wouldn't have taken them. He knew a man when he saw one. When we came home I was second in command.
"It was easy after that. I led that expedition through Uganda when I was only twenty-five; and the rest—well, the rest I dare say you know."
"Yes, I know," said Jim. "You've done a lot."
"Not so bad, eh, for a workhouse brat?"
"Not so bad for anybody."
"I'm up top now. I used to envy lots of people. Now most people envy me."
Jim was silent.
Mackenzie turned to him. "I suppose you've had a pretty easy time travelling," he said. There was a suspicion of a sneer on his long thin lips.
"Pretty easy," said Jim.
"Ah! Your sort of travelling is rather different from mine. If you had been roughing it in Tibet for the last two years you would be pretty glad to be getting back."
"I'm glad to be getting back as it is."
Mackenzie turned and leaned over the rail again. "Well, I don't know that I don't envy you a bit after all," he said. "I've got no friends in England. I'm not a man to make friends. The big-wigs will take me up this time. I know that from what I've seen. I shall be a lion. I suppose I shall be able to go anywhere I like. But there's nowhere I want to go to particularly, when I've had enough of London. You've got your country home. Lord, how I've thought of the English country, in summer time! Thirsted for it. But it has to belong to you, in a way. I've a good mind to buy a little place—I shall be able to afford it when my book comes out. But I should want a wife to keep it warm for me. You're not married, I suppose?"
"Going to be?"
Jim made no reply.
Mackenzie laughed. "Mustn't ask questions, I suppose," he said. "I'm a rough diamond, Graham. Got no manners, you see. Never had any one to teach 'em to me. I apologise."
"No need to," said Jim.
There was silence for a space. The great round moon shone down and silvered the long ripples on the water.
"I don't mind answering your question," said Jim, looking out over the sea. "There are some country neighbours of mine. One of the sons is my chief pal. We were brought up together, more or less. He's going to marry my sister. And—well, I hope I'm going to marry his."
His face changed a little, but Mackenzie, looking straight before him did not notice it. "Sounds a capital arrangement," he said drily.
Jim flushed, and drew himself up. "Well, I think I'll be turning in," he said.
Mackenzie faced him quickly. "Tell me all about it," he said. "How old is she? You have known her all your life. When did you first find out you wanted to marry her? When are you going to be married?"
Jim looked at him squarely. "You are taking liberties," he said.
Mackenzie laughed again—his harsh, unamused laugh. "All right," he said. "One has to be as delicate as a fine lady talking to fellows like you. It's not worth it. When you live like a savage half your life, you sort of hunger after hearing about things like that—people living in the country, falling in love and getting married, and going to church every Sunday—all the simple, homely things. A man without all the nonsense about good form and all that sort of thing—a man who'd done things—he would know why you asked him, and he would know he couldn't find anybody better to tell his little happy secrets to."
"Oh, well," said Jim, slightly mollified.
"I dare say you're right, though," said Mackenzie. "One doesn't blab to every stranger. Even I don't, and I'm a rough diamond, as I've told you."
"Yes, you've told me that."
"Is the fellow who is going to marry your sister a country gentleman, too?"
"No. His father is. He's a younger son. He's a doctor."
"A doctor! Isn't that a funny thing for a country gentleman's son to be?"
"I don't know that it is. He's a clever fellow. He went in for science at Oxford, and got keen."
"That's good hearing. I like to hear of men getting keen about a real job. You might tell me about him, if I'm not taking another liberty in asking."
"Oh, look here, Mackenzie, I'm sorry I said that. I didn't understand why you asked what you did."
"I've told you. I like to hear about everything that goes on in the world. It isn't curiosity, and yet in a way it is. I'm curious about everything that goes on—everywhere. It isn't impertinent curiosity, anyway."
"I see that. I'll tell you about Walter Clinton. He's a good chap. His father has a fine place next to mine. He's a rich man. His family has been there since the beginning of all things. Walter is just my age. We've always been a lot together."
"Is there a large family? What do his brothers do?"
"There's Dick, the eldest son. He's in the Guards. There's Humphrey in the Foreign Office, and a younger son, a sailor. And—and there are three girls—two of them are children—twins."
"Well, now, aren't I right in saying it's odd for a son in a family like that to become a doctor?"
"Oh, well, I suppose in a way you are, though I can't see why he shouldn't be. The fact is that they wanted to make a parson of him—there's a rather good family living. But he wasn't taking any."
"Ah! I thought I knew something about your country gentry. Well, I admire the doctor. Was there a row?"
"His father was rather annoyed. Perhaps it's not to be wondered at. His half-brother is Rector at Kencote now, and when he dies they'll have to give the living to a stranger. Of course they would rather have one of the family."
"It's like a chapter in a book—one of the long, easy ones, all about country life and the squire and the parson. I love 'em. And the doctor is going to marry your sister. Can I give 'em a skin for a wedding present?"
"I'm sure they would be gratified. You'd better come down and make their acquaintance."
"I'll do that. I'd like to come and see you, Graham; and you mustn't mind my roughness peeping out occasionally. I haven't had many chances in life."
There was a pause, and then Jim said, "Walter Clinton's sister comes next to him in the family. She's six or seven years younger. Of course, I've known her ever since she was a baby. When I came back from Oxford one summer vac., I found her almost grown up. She seemed quite different somehow. I was always over there all the summer, or she was with my sister. We fixed it up we would get married some day. They laughed at us, and said we had better wait a few years; but of course they were pleased, really, both my people and hers, though they thought it a bit premature; she was only seventeen. When I went back to Oxford and thought it over I said to myself it wasn't quite fair to tie her down at that age. I would wait and see. So we fell back to what we had been before."
He stopped suddenly. "Is that all?" asked Mackenzie in some surprise.
"It's all at present."
There was a long pause. "It's disappointing, somehow," said Mackenzie. "I suppose I mustn't ask questions, but there are a lot I'd like to ask."
"Oh, ask away. When the ice is once broken one can talk. It does one good to talk sometimes."
"Women talk to each other about their love affairs. Men don't—not the real ones—except on occasions."
"Well, we'll let this be an occasion, as you have started the subject." He laughed lightly. "You've got a sort of power, Mackenzie. If any one had told me yesterday that I should be talking to you to-night about a thing I haven't mentioned to a soul for five years—except once or twice to Walter Clinton—I should have stared at them. I'm not generally supposed to be communicative."
"It's impersonal," said Mackenzie, "like telling things to a priest. I'm not in the same world as you. Five years, is it? Well, now, what on earth have you been doing ever since? She's not too young to marry now."
"No. I was at Oxford a year after what I told you of. Then I went for a year to learn estate management on my uncle's property. When I came home I thought I would fix it up with my father—he was alive then. He said, wait a year longer. He was beginning to get ill, and I suppose he didn't want to face the worry of making arrangements till he got better. But he never got better, and within a year he died."
"And then you were your own master. That's two years ago, isn't it? And here you are coming back from a year's trip round the world. You seem to be pretty slow about things."
"One doesn't become one's own master immediately one succeeds to the ownership of land. These death duties have altered all that. I shan't be free for another year. Then I hope you will come to my wedding, Mackenzie."
"Thanks. Didn't the young lady object to keeping it all hanging on for so long?"
Jim did not reply for a moment. Then he said a little stiffly, "I wrote to her from Oxford when I had thought things over. I thought it wasn't fair to tie her up before I was ready to marry, and she so young."
"And that means that you have never allowed yourself to make love to her since."
"Yes, it means that."
"And yet you have been in love with her all the time?"
"Well, it shows a greater amount of self-control than most people possess—certainly a good deal more than I possess, I suppose you are sure of her."
Jim did not reply to this, but he said presently, "If it wasn't for the death duties I should have hoped to be married before this."
"I'll tell you what I don't understand," said Mackenzie. "I suppose you live in much the same way as your father did before you."
"Yes. My mother lives with me, and my sister."
"Well, surely you could get married if you wanted to. You've got your house and everything, even if there isn't quite so much money to spend for a bit. And as for ready money—it doesn't cost nothing to travel for a year as you're doing."
"Oh, an uncle of mine paid for that," said Jim. "I got seedy after my father's death. There was a lot of worry, and—and I was fond of the old man. The doctors told me to go off. I'm all right now. As for the rest—well, there are such things as jointures and dowries. No, I couldn't marry, giving my wife and my mother and sister everything they ought to have, before another year. Even then it will be a close thing; I shall have to be careful."
They fell silent. The dark mass of the ship's hull beneath them slipped on through the water, drawing ever nearer towards home. The moon climbed still higher into the sky. "Well, we've had an interesting talk," said Mackenzie, drawing himself up. "What you have told me is all so entirely different from anything that would ever happen in my life. If I wanted to marry a girl I should marry her, and let the money go hang. She'd have to share and share. But I dare say when I want a thing I want it for the moment a good deal more than you do; and, generally, I see that I get it. Now I think I shall turn in. Give me ten minutes."
He went down to the cabin they both occupied. As he undressed he said to himself, "Rather a triumph, drawing a story like that from a fellow like that. And Lord, what a story! He deserves to lose her. I should like to hear her side of it."
Jim Graham smoked another cigarette, walking round the deck. He felt vaguely dissatisfied with himself for having made a confidant of Mackenzie, and at the same time relieved at having given vent to what he had shut up for so long in the secret recesses of his mind.
A day or two later the two men parted at Tilbury. They had not again mentioned the subject of their long conversation in the Bay of Biscay.
THE CLINTONS OF KENCOTE
Cicely was returning home with her father and mother after her short taste of the season's gaieties. It was pleasant to lean back in a corner of the railway carriage and look at the rich Meadshire country, so familiar to her, running past the window. She had not wanted to go home particularly, but she was rather glad to be going home all the same.
The country in South Meadshire is worth looking at. There are deep-grassed water-meadows, kept green by winding rivers; woods of beech and oak; stretches of gorse and bracken; no hills to speak of, but gentle rises, crowned sometimes by an old church, or a pleasant-looking house, neither very old nor very new, very large nor very small. The big houses, and there are a good many of them, lie for the most part in what may be called by courtesy the valleys. You catch a glimpse of them sometimes at a little distance from the line, which seems to have shown some ingenuity in avoiding them, standing in wide, well-timbered parks, or peeping from amongst thicker trees, with their court of farm and church and clustered village, in dignified seclusion. For the rest, there are picturesque hamlets; cottages with bright gardens; children, and fluttering clothes-lines; pigs and donkeys and geese on the cropped commons; a network of roads and country lanes; and everywhere a look of smiling and contented well-being, which many an English county of higher reputation for picturesque scenery might envy.
The inhabitants of South Meadshire will tell you that it is one of the best counties for all-round sport. Game is preserved, but not over-preserved, and the mixture of pasture and arable land and frequent covert, while it does not tempt the fox-hunting Londoner, breeds stout foxes for the pleasure of those who know every inch of it; and there is enough grass, enough water, and stiff enough fences to try the skill of the boldest, and to provide occasionally such a run as from its comparative rarity accords a gratification unknown to the frequenter of the shires. Big fish are sometimes caught in the clear streams of South Meadshire, and they are caught by the people who own them, or by their friends. For in this quiet corner of England the life of the hall and the village still goes on unchanged. At the meets—on lawn, at cross-road, or by covert-side—everybody knows everybody else, at least by sight; neighbours shoot with one another and not with strangers; and the small fry of the countryside get their share of whatever fun is going on.
In the middle of this pleasant land lies the manor of Kencote, and a good many fat acres around it, which have come to the Clintons from time to time, either by lucky marriages or careful purchase, during the close upon six hundred years they have been settled there. For they are an old family and in their way an important one, although their actual achievements through all the centuries in which they have enjoyed wealth and local consideration fill but a small page in their family history.
The Squire had, in the strong room of the Bathgate and Medchester Bank, in deed-boxes at his lawyers, and in drawers and chests and cupboards in his house, papers worthy of the attention of the antiquary. From time to time they did engage the antiquary's attention, and, scattered about in bound volumes of antiquarian and genealogical magazines, in the proceedings of learned societies, and in county histories, you may find the fruits of much careful and rewarding research through these various documents. When the Squire was approached by some one who wished to write a paper or read a paper, or compile a genealogy, or carry out any project for the purposes of which it was necessary to gain access to the Clinton archives, he would express his annoyance to his family. He would say that he wished these people would let him alone. The fact was that there were so few really old families left in England, that people like himself who had lived quietly on their property for eight or nine hundred years, or whatever it might be, had to bear all the brunt of these investigations, and it was really becoming an infernal nuisance. But he would always invite the antiquary to Kencote, give him a bottle of fine claret and his share of a bottle of fine port, and every facility for the pursuit of his inquiries.
A History of the Ancient and Knightly Family of Clinton of Kencote in the County of Meadshire, was compiled about a hundred years ago by the Reverend John Clinton Smith, M.A., Rector of Kencote, and published by Messrs. Dow and Runagate of Paternoster Row. It is not very accurate, but any one interested in such matters can, with due precaution taken, gain from it valuable information concerning the twenty-two generations of Clintons who have lived and ruled at Kencote since Sir Giles de Clinton acquired the manor in the reign of Edward I.
The learned Rector devoted a considerable part of his folio volume to tracing a connection between the Clintons of Kencote and other families of Clintons who have mounted higher in the world. It is the opinion of later genealogists that he might have employed his energies to better purpose, but, in any case, the family needs no further shelter than is supplied by its own well-rooted family tree. You will find too, in his book, the result of his investigations into his own pedigree, in which the weakest links have to bear the greatest strain, as is often the case with pedigrees.
It remains only to be said that the Squire, Edward Clinton, had succeeded his grandfather, Colonel Thomas, of whom you may read in sporting magazines and memoirs, at the age of eighteen, and had always been a rich man, and an honest one.
Kencote lies about six miles to the south-west of the old town of Bathgate. The whole parish, and it is an exceptionally large one, belongs to the Squire, with a good deal more land besides in neighbouring parishes. Kencote House is a big, rather ugly structure, and was built early in the eighteenth century after the disastrous fire which destroyed the beautiful old Tudor hall and nearly all its hoarded treasures. This catastrophe is worth a brief notice, for nowadays an untitled family often enjoys some consideration from the possession of an old and beautiful house, and the Clintons of Kencote would be better known to the world at large if they did not live in a comparatively new one.
It happened at the dead of a winter night. Young William Clinton had brought home his bride, Lady Anne, only daughter and heiress of the Earl of Beechmont, that afternoon, and there had been torches and bonfires and a rousing welcome. Nobody knew exactly how it happened, but they awoke to find the house in flames, and most of the household too overcome by the results of their merry-making to be of any use in saving it. The house itself was burnt to a shell, but it was long enough in the burning to have enabled its more valuable contents to have been saved, if the work had been set about with some method. The young squire, in night-cap, shirt, and breeches, whether mindful of his pedigree at that time of excitement, or led by the fantastic spirit that moves men in such crises, threw as much of the contents of his muniment room out of the window as he had time for, and the antiquarians bless him to this day. Then he went off to the stables, and helped to get out his horses. My Lady Anne, who was only sixteen, saved her jewels and one or two of her more elaborate gowns, and then sat down by the sun-dial and cried. The servants worked furiously as long as the devouring flames allowed them, but when there was nothing left of Kencote Hall but smouldering, unsafe walls, under a black, winter sky, and the piled-up heap of things that had been got out into the garden came to be examined, it was found to be made up chiefly of the lighter and less valuable pieces of furniture, a few pictures and hangings, many tumbled folios from the library, kitchen and house utensils, and just a few pieces of plate and other valuables to salt the whole worthless mass.
So perished in a night the chief pride of the Clintons of Kencote, and the noble house, with its great raftered hall, its carved and panelled chambers, its spoil of tapestries and furniture, carpets, china, silver, pictures, books, all the possessions that had been gathered from many lands through many years, was only a memory that must fade more and more rapidly as time went on.
The young couple went back to her ladyship's father, not many miles away, and Kencote was left in its ruins for ten years or so. Then my Lord Beechmont died, sadly impoverished by unfortunate dealings with the stock of the South Sea Company, the house and land that remained to him were sold, and Kencote was rebuilt with the proceeds, much as it stands to-day, except that Merchant Jack, the father of Colonel Thomas, bitten with the ideas of his time, covered the mellow red brick with a coating of stucco and was responsible for the Corinthian porch, and the ornamental parapet surmounted by Grecian urns.
Merchant Jack had been a younger son and had made his fortune in the city. He was modern in his ideas, and a rich man, and wanted a house as good as his neighbours. Georgian brick, and tall, narrow, small-paned windows had gone out of fashion. So had the old formal gardens. Those at Kencote had survived the destruction of the house, but they did not survive the devastating zeal of Merchant Jack. They were swept away by a pupil of Capability Brown's, who allowed the old walls of the kitchen garden to stand because they were useful for growing fruit, but destroyed walls and terraces and old yew hedges everywhere else, brought the well-treed park into relation, as he thought, with the garden, by means of sunk fences, planted shrubberies, laid down vast lawns, and retired very well pleased with himself at having done away with one more old-fashioned, out-of-date garden, and substituted for it a few more acres of artificial ugliness.
He did just one thing that turned out well; he made a large lake in a hollow of the park and ringed it with rhododendrons, which have since grown to enormous size. At the end of it he caused to be built a stucco temple overhung with weeping ashes, designed "to invite Melancholy." There is no showing that Merchant Jack had any desire to respond to such an invitation, but it was the fashion of the time, and no doubt he was pleased with the idea.
Merchant Jack also refurnished the house when his architect had had his way with it and the workmen had departed. A few good pieces he kept, but most of the furniture, which had been brought into the house when it was rebuilt after the fire, disappeared, to make way for heavy mahogany and rosewood. Some of it went down to the dower house, a little Jacobean hall in a dark corner of the park, and there is reason to fear that the rest was sold for what it would fetch.
In all these lamentable activities, good, rich, up-to-date Merchant Jack was only improving his property according to the ideas of his time, and had no more idea of committing artistic improprieties than those people nowadays who buy a dresser from a farm-house kitchen to put in their drawing-room, and plaster the adjacent walls with soup plates. His memorial tablet in Kencote church speaks well of him and his memory must be respected.
But we have left Edward Clinton with his wife and daughter sitting for so long in the train between Ganton and Kencote, that we must now return to them without any further delay.
Having got into the railway carriage at the London terminus as a private gentleman, of no more account than any other first-class passenger, and weighed only by his potential willingness to pay handsomely for attentions received, as the successive stages of his journey were accomplished, he seemed to develop in importance. At Ganton, where a change had to be made, although it was twenty miles and more from his own parcel of earth, peaked caps were touched to him, and the station-master himself, braided coat and all, opened his carriage door, expressing, as he did so, a hope that the present fair weather would continue. One might almost, until one had thought it over, have imagined him to be appealing to the Squire as one who might take a hand in its continuance if he were so minded, at any rate in the neighbourhood of Kencote.
At Kencote itself, so busy was the entire station staff in helping him and his belongings out of the train, that the signal for starting was delayed a full minute, and then given almost as an after-thought, as if it were a thing of small importance. Heads were poked out of carriage windows, and an impertinent stranger, marking the delay and its cause, asked the station-master, as he was carried past him, where was the red carpet. The answer might have been that it was duly spread in the thoughts of all who conducted the Squire from the train to his carriage, and was as well brushed as if it had been laid on the platform.
The Squire had a loud and affable word for station-master and porters alike, and another for the groom who stood at the heads of the two fine greys harnessed to his phaeton. He walked out into the road and looked them over, remarking that they were the handsomest pair he had seen since he had left home. Then he took the reins and swung himself up on to his seat, actively, for a man of his age and weight. Mrs. Clinton climbed up more slowly to her place by his side, Cicely sat behind, and with a jingle and clatter the equipage rolled down the road, while the groom touched his hat and went back to the station omnibus in which Mrs. Clinton's maid was establishing herself in the midst of a collection of wraps and little bags. For, unless it was unavoidable, no servant of the Clintons sat on the same seat of a carriage as a member of the family.
It was in the drowsiest time in the afternoon. The sun shone on the hay-fields, from which the sound of sharpened scythes and the voices of the hay-makers came most musically. Great trees bordered the half-mile of road from the station to the village, and gave a grateful shade. The gardens of the cottages were bright with June flowers, and the broad village street, lined with low, irregular buildings, picturesque, but not at all from neglected age, seemed to be dozing in the still, hot air. A curtsy at the lodge gates, a turn of the Squire's wrist, and they were bowling along the well kept road through the park.
A minute more, and they had clattered on to the stones under the big porch.
"Well, here we are again, Probin," said the Squire to his head coachman, who himself took the reins from his hands. "And here, please God, we'll stay for the present."
CLINTONS YOUNG AND OLD
The family tradition of the Clintons, whereby the interests and occupations of the women were strictly subordinated to those of the men, had not yet availed to damp the spirits or curb the activities of Joan and Nancy, of whom Mrs. Clinton had made a simultaneous and somewhat belated present to the Squire thirteen years before. Frank, the sailor, the youngest son, had been seven at the time the twins were born, and Dick a young man at Cambridge. Joan and Nancy were still the pets of the household, strong and healthy pets, and unruly within the limits permitted them. Released from their schoolroom, they now came rushing into the hall, and threw themselves on to their parents and their sister with loud cries of welcome.
The Squire kissed them in turn—they approached him first as in duty bound. It had taken him three or four years to get used to their presence, and during that time he had treated them as the sort of unaccountable plaything a woman brings into a house and a male indulgently winks his eye at, a thing beneath his own notice, like a new gown or a new poodle, or a new curate, but one in which she must be permitted, in the foolish weakness of her sex, to interest herself. Then he had gradually begun to "take notice" of them, to laugh at their childish antics and speeches, to quote them—he had actually done this in the hunting-field—and finally to like to have them pottering about with him when duties of investigation took him no further than the stables or the buildings of the home farm. He had always kept them in order while they were with him; he had never lost sight of the fact that they were, after all, feminine; and he had never allowed them to interfere with his more serious pursuits. But he had fully accepted them as agreeable playthings for his own lighter hours of leisure, just as he might have taken to the poodle or the curate, and so treated them still, although their healthy figures were beginning to fill out, and if they had been born Clintons of a generation or two before they would have been considered to be approaching womanhood.
He now greeted them with hearty affection, and told them that if they were good girls they might come and look at the pheasants with him when he had read his letters and they had had their tea, and then took himself off to his library.
Mrs. Clinton's greeting was less hearty, but not less affectionate. She lingered just that second longer over each of them which gives an embrace a meaning beyond mere convention, but she only said, "I must go and see Miss Bird. I suppose she is in the schoolroom." She gathered up her skirts and went upstairs, but when the twins had given Cicely a boisterous hug, they went back to their mother, and walked on either side of her. She was still the chief personage in their little world, although their father and even their brothers were of so much more importance in the general scheme of things. And not even in the presence of their father and brothers did they "behave themselves" as they did with their mother.
The schoolroom was at the end of a long corridor, down two steps and round a corner. It was a large room, looking on to the park from two windows and on to the stableyard from a third. There were shelves containing the twins' schoolbooks and storybooks, a terrestrial and a celestial globe, purchased many years ago for the instruction of their great-aunts, and besides other paraphernalia of learning, signs of more congenial occupations, such as bird-cages and a small aquarium, boxes of games, a big doll's house still in tenantable repair though seldom occupied, implements and materials for wood-carving, and in a corner of the room a toy fort and a surprising variety of lead soldiers on foot or on horseback. Such things as these might undergo variation from time to time. The doll's house might disappear any day, as the rocking-horse had disappeared, for instance, a year before. But the furniture and other contents of the room were more stable. It was impossible to think of their being changed; they were so much a part of it. The Squire never visited the room, but if he had done so he would have recognised it as the same room in which he had been taught his own letters, with difficulty, fifty years before, and if any unauthorised changes had been made, he would certainly have expressed surprise and displeasure, as he had done when Walter had carried off to Oxford the old print of Colonel Thomas on his black horse, Satan, with a view of Kencote House, on a slight eminence imagined by the artist, in the background. Walter had had to send the picture back, and it was hanging in its proper place now, and not likely to be removed again.
Miss Bird, commonly known as "the old starling," to whom Mrs. Clinton had come to pay an immediate visit upon entering the house, as in duty bound, was putting things away. She was accustomed to say that she spent her life in putting things away after the twins had done with them, and that they were more trouble to her than all the rest of the family had been. For Miss Bird had lived in the house for nearly thirty years, and had acted as educational starter to the whole race of young Clintons, to Dick, Humphrey, Walter, Cicely, and Frank, and had taken a new lease of life when the twins had appeared on the scene with the expectation of a prolonged period of service. She was a thin, voluble lady, as old as the Squire, to whom she looked up as a god amongst mankind; her educational methods were of an older generation and included the use of the globes and the blackboard, but she was most conscientious in her duties, her religious principles were unexceptionable, and she filled a niche at Kencote which would have seemed empty without her.
"O Mrs. Clinton I am so glad to see you back," she said, almost ecstatically, "and you too Cicely dear—oh my a new hat and such a pretty one! You look quite the town lady, upon my word and how did you enjoy the ball? you must tell me all about it every word now Joan and Nancy I will not put away your things for you once more and that I declare and you hear me say it you are the most shockingly untidy children and if I have told you that once I have told you a hundred times O Mrs. Clinton a new bonnet too and I declare it makes you look five years younger at least."
Mrs. Clinton took this compliment equably, and asked if the twins had been good girls.
"Well, good!" echoed the old starling, "they know best whether they have been good, of their lessons I say nothing and marks will show, but to get up as you might say in the dead of the night and let themselves down from a window with sheets twisted into a rope and not fit to be seen since, all creased, most dangerous, besides the impropriety for great girls of thirteen if any one had been passing as I have told them and should be obliged to report this behaviour to you Mrs. Clinton on the first opportunity."
Joan and Nancy both glanced at their mother tentatively. "We were only playing Jacobites and Roundheads," said Joan. "It makes it more real."
"And it wasn't in the middle of the night," added Nancy. "It was four o'clock, and quite light."
"Why, you might have killed yourselves!" exclaimed Cicely.
"Exactly what I said the very words," corroborated the old starling.
"We tied the sheets very tight," said Joan.
"And tested them thoroughly," added Nancy.
"And we won't do it again, mother," said Joan coaxingly.
"Really, we won't," said Nancy impressively.
"But what else will you do?" asked Mrs. Clinton. "You are getting too big for these pranks. If your father were to hear of it, I am sure I don't know what he would say."
She knew pretty well that he would have laughed boisterously, and told her that he didn't want the children molly-coddled. Time enough for that by and by when they grew up. And the twins probably knew this too, and were not unduly alarmed at the implied threat. But there was a quality in their mother's displeasure, rare as it was, which made them apprehensive when one of their periodical outbursts had come to light. They were not old enough to perceive that it was not aroused by such feats as the one under discussion, which showed no moral delinquency, but only a certain danger to life and limb, now past. But their experience did tell them that misbehaviour which caused her displeasure was not thus referred to their father, and with many embraces and promises of amendment they procured future oblivion of their escapade.
"Well, I have done my duty," said the old starling, "and very unpleasant it was to have to welcome you home with such a story, Mrs. Clinton, and now it is all over and done with I will say and am glad to say that it is the only blot. And that is what I said to both Joan and Nancy that it was such a pity to have spoilt everything at the last moment, for otherwise two better behaved children it would have been impossible to find anywhere."
At which Joan and Nancy both kissed the old starling warmly, and she strained them to her flat but tender bosom and called them her precious pets.
They went with Cicely into her bedroom while she "took off her things." They betrayed an immense curiosity for every detail of her recent experiences, particularly that crowning one of the Court Ball. She was exalted in their eyes; she had long been grown up, but now she seemed more grown up than ever, a whole cycle in advance of their active, sexless juvenility.
"I don't know," said Joan doubtfully, fingering the new hat which Cicely had taken off, "but I almost think it must be rather fun to wear pretty things sometimes."
But Nancy, the younger by some minutes, rebuked that unwholesome weakness. "What rot, Joan," she said indignantly. "Sis, we have made up our minds to ask mother if we may wear serge knickerbockers. Then we shall be able to do what we like."
When this sartorial revolution had been discussed, Cicely asked, "Has Muriel been over while I have been away?"
"Yes," replied Joan. "Walter was at Mountfield on Sunday, and they came over in the afternoon. They prowled about together. Of course they didn't want us."
"But they had us all the same," said Nancy, with a grin. "We stalked them. They kissed in the Temple, and again in the peach-house."
"But there were lucid intervals," said Joan. "They have made up their minds about something or other; we couldn't quite hear what it was. They were in the kitchen garden, and we were on the other side of the wall."
"You weren't listening, darling?" hazarded Cicely.
"Oh, rather not! We wouldn't do such a thing. But Nancy and I like to pace up and down the yew walk in contemplation, and of course if they liked to pace up and down by the asparagus beds at the same time, we couldn't help hearing the murmur of their voices."
"It is something very serious," said Nancy. "Walter is going to tackle Edward about it at once. And Muriel is quite at one with him in the matter. She said so."
"How they do go on together, those two!" said Joan. "You would think they had never met in their lives until they got engaged six months ago. When they came out of the peach-house Nancy said, 'And this is love!' Then she ran away."
"Only because Walter ran after me," said Nancy.
"And Muriel put her arm round my neck," continued Joan, "and said, 'O Joan, darling! I am so happy that I don't care who sees me.' Positively nauseating, I call it. You and Jim don't behave like that, Sis."
"I should think not," said Cicely primly.
"Well, you're engaged—or as good as," said Nancy. "But I do rather wonder what Walter is going to tackle Edward about. It can't be to hurry on the wedding, for it's only a month off now."
"We shall know pretty soon," said Joan. "Father doesn't keep things to himself."
"No, I expect Edward will make a deuce of a row," said Nancy.
"Nancy!" said Cicely sharply, "you are not to talk like that."
"Darling!" said Nancy in a voice of grieved expostulation. "It is what Walter said to Muriel. I thought there couldn't be any harm in it."
The twins—they were called "the twankies" by their brothers—went off after tea in the schoolroom to see the young pheasants with their father. They were lively and talkative, and the Squire laughed at them several times, as good-humoured men do laugh at the prattle of innocent childhood. Arrived at the pens he entered into a long and earnest conversation with his head keeper, and the twins knew better than to interrupt him with artless prattle at such a time as that. But going home again through the dewy park, he unbent once more and egged Nancy on to imitate the old starling, at which he roared melodiously. He was a happy man that evening. He had come back to his kingdom, to the serious business of life, which had a good deal to do with keepers and broods of pheasants, and to his simple, domestic recreations, much enhanced by the playful ways of his "pair of kittens."
The mellow light of the summer evening lay over the park, upon the thick grass of which the shadows of the trees were lengthening. Sheep were feeding on it, and it was flat round the house and rather uninteresting. But it was the Squire's own; he had known every large tree since the earliest days of his childhood, and the others he had planted, seeing some of them grow to a respectable height and girth. He would have been quite incapable of criticising it from the point of view of beauty. The irregular roofs of the stables and other buildings, the innumerable chimneys of the big house beyond them, seen through a gap in the trees which hemmed it in for the most part on three sides, were also his own, and objects so familiar that he saw them with eyes different from any others that could have been turned upon them. The sight of them gave him a sensation of pleasure quite unrelated to their aesthetic or even their actual value. They meant home to him, and everything that he loved in the world, or out of it. The pleasure was always there subconsciously—not so much a pleasure as an attitude of mind—but this evening it warmed into something concrete. "There's plenty of little dicky-birds haven't got such a nest as my two," he said to the twins, who failed to see that this speech, which they wriggled over, but privately thought fatuous, had the elements of both poetry and religion.
In the meantime Cicely had made her way over the park in another direction to visit her aunts in the dower-house, for she knew they would be itching for an account of her adventures, and she had not had time to write to them from London.
Aunt Ellen and Aunt Laura were the only surviving representatives of the six spinster daughters of Colonel Thomas Clinton, the Squire's grandfather. One after the other Aunt Mary, Aunt Elizabeth, Aunt Anna and Aunt Caroline had been carried out of the dark house in which they had ended their blameless days to a still darker and very narrow house within the precincts of Kencote church, and the eldest sister, now an amazingly aged woman, but still in the possession of all her faculties, and the youngest, who although many years her junior, was well over seventy, were all that were left of the bevy of spinster ladies.
On their father's death, now nearly forty years ago, they had removed in a body from the big house in which they had lived in a state of subdued self-repression to the small one in which, for the first time, they were to taste independence. For their father had been a terrible martinet where women were concerned, and would as readily have ordered Aunt Ellen to bed, at the age of fifty, if he had been displeased with her, as if she had been a child of ten. And if he had ordered her she would have gone.
Some of the rooms in the dower-house had been occupied by the agent to the Kencote estate who at that time was a bachelor, and the rest had been shut up. The six sisters spent the happiest hours they had hitherto known in the arrangement of their future lives and of the beautiful old furniture with which the house was stocked. The lives were to be active, regular, and charitable. Colonel Thomas, who had allowed them each twenty pounds a year for dress allowance and pocket-money during his lifetime, had astonished everybody by leaving them six thousand pounds apiece in his will, which had been made afresh a year before his death. He had just then inherited the large fortune of his younger brother, who had succeeded to the paternal business in Cheapside, lived and died a bachelor, and saved a great deal of money every year. By his previous will they would have had a hundred a year each from the estate, and the use of the dower-house. But even that would have seemed wealth to these simple ladies as long as they remained together, and all of them alive. For Colonel Thomas had forgotten, in that first will, to make provision for the probability of one of them outliving the rest and being reduced to a solitary existence on a hundred pounds a year. However, with fifteen hundred a year or so between them, and no rent to pay, they were exceedingly well off, kept their modest carriage, employed two men in their garden, and found such pleasures in dividing their surplus wealth amongst innumerable and deserving charities that the arrival by post of a nurseryman's catalogue excited them no more than that of an appeal to subscribe to a new mission.
The beautiful old furniture, huddled in the disused rooms and in the great range of attics that ran under the high-pitched roof, gave them immense happiness in the arrangement. They were not in the least alive to its value at that time, though they had become so in some degree since, but kept rather quiet about it for fear that their nephew might wish to carry some of it off to the great house. They thought it very old-fashioned and rather absurd, and they also held this view of the beautifully carved and panelled rooms of their old house, which were certainly too dark for perfect comfort. But they disposed everything to the best advantage, and produced without knowing it an effect which no diligent collector could have equalled, and which became still more delightful and satisfying as the years went on.
Cicely walked across the level park and went through a deep wood, entering by an iron gate the garden of the dower-house, which seemed to have been built in a clearing, although it was older than the oldest of the trees that hemmed it round. On this hot summer afternoon it stood shaded and cool, and the very fragrance of its old-fashioned garden seeming to be confined and concentrated by the heavy foliage. There was not a leaf too many. But in the autumn it was damp and close and in the winter very dark. A narrow drive of about a hundred yards led straight from the main road to the porch and showed a blue telescopic glimpse of distant country. If all the trees had been cut down in front to the width of the house it would have stood out as a thing of beauty against its green background, air and light would have been let into the best rooms and the pleasant view of hill and vale opened up to them. But the Squire, tentatively approached years before by his affectionate and submissive aunts, had decisively refused to cut down any trees at all, and four out of the six of them had taken their last look of this world out of one or other of those small-paned windows and seen only a great bank of laurels—even those they were not allowed to cut down—across a narrow space of gravel, and the branches of oaks not quite ripe for felling, above them.
Cicely went through a garden door opening on to a stone-floored passage which ran right through the house, and opened the door of her aunts' parlour. They were sitting on either side of the fireless grate with their tea-table not yet cleared between them. Aunt Ellen, ninety-three years of age, with a lace cap on her head and a white silk shawl over her shoulders, was sitting upright in her low chair, knitting. She wore no glasses, and her old hands, meagre, almost transparent, with large knuckles, and skin that looked as if it had been polished, fumbled a little with her needles and the thick wool. Her eyesight was failing, though in the pride of her great age she would not acknowledge it; but her hearing was almost perfect. Aunt Laura, who was seventy-five, looked, except for her hair, which was not quite white, the older of the two. She was bent and frail, and she had taken to spectacles some years before, to which Aunt Ellen alluded every day of her life with contempt. They said the same things to each other, on that and on other subjects, time after time. Every day for years Aunt Ellen had said that if dear Edward had only been able to cut down the trees in front of the house it would give them more light and open up the view, and she had said it as if it had only just occurred to her. And Aunt Laura had replied that she had thought the same thing herself, and did Ellen remember how dear Anne, who was always one to say out what she wanted, had asked him if he thought it might be done, but he had said—quite kindly—that the trees had always been there, and there they would stay.
The two old ladies welcomed Cicely as if she had been a princess with whom it was their privilege to be on terms of affectionate intimacy. She was, in fact, a princess in their little world, the daughter of the reigning monarch, to whom they owed, and gave, loyal allegiance. Aunt Laura had been up to the house that morning and heard that they were to return by the half-past four o'clock train. They had been quite sure that Cicely would come to see them at once and tell them all her news, and they had debated whether they would wait for their own tea or not. They had, in fact, waited for a quarter of an hour. They told her all this in minute detail, and only by painstaking insistence was Aunt Ellen herself prevented from rising to ring the bell for a fresh supply to be brought in. "Well, my dear, if you are quite sure you won't," she said at last, "I will ring for Rose to take the things away."
Cicely rang the bell, and Rose, who five-and-thirty years before had come to the dower-house as an apple-cheeked girl from the village school, answered the summons. She wore a cap with coloured ribbons—the two sisters still shook their heads together over her tendency to dressiness—and dropped a child's curtsey to Cicely as she came in. She had been far too well-trained to speak until she was spoken to, but Aunt Ellen said, "Here is Miss Clinton returned from London, Rose, where she has seen the King and Queen." And Rose said, "Well, there, miss!" with a smile at Cicely, and before she removed the tea-tray settled the white shawl more closely round Aunt Ellen's shoulders.
"Rose is a good girl," said Aunt Ellen, when she had left the room, "but I am afraid more fond of admiration than she should be. Well, dear, now tell us all about what you have seen and done. But, first of all, how is your dear father?"
"Oh, quite well, thank you, Aunt Ellen," replied Cicely, "and very pleased to get home, I think."
"Ah!" said Aunt Ellen. "We have all missed him sorely. I am sure it is wonderful how he denies himself all kinds of pleasure to remain here and do his duty. It is an example we should all do well to follow."
"When he was quite a young man," said Aunt Laura, "there was no one who was gayer—of course in a nice way—and took his part in everything that was going on in the higher circles of the metropolis. Your dear Aunt Elizabeth used to cut out the allusions to him in the Morning Post, and there was scarcely a great occasion on which his name was not mentioned."
"But after two years in his regiment he gave it all up to settle down amongst his own people," said Aunt Ellen. "All his life has been summed up in the word 'duty.' I wish there were more like him, but there are not."
"It seems like yesterday," said Aunt Laura, "that he joined the Horse Guards Blue. We all wished very much to see him in his beautiful uniform, which so became him, and your dear Aunt Anne, who was always the one to make requests if she saw fit, asked him to bring it down to Kencote and put it on. Dear Edward laughed at her, and refused—quite kindly, of course—so we all took a little trip to London—it was the occasion of the opening of the International Reformatory Exhibition at Islington by the Prince of Wales, as he was then—and your dear father was in the escort. How noble he looked on his black horse! I assure you we were all very proud of him."
Cicely sat patiently silent while these reminiscences, which she had heard a hundred times before, were entered upon. She looked at Aunt Ellen, fumbling with her knitting-needles, and wondered what it must be like to be so very old, and at Aunt Laura, who was also knitting, with quick and expert fingers, and wondered if she had ever been young.
"Did the King show your dear father any special mark of esteem?" asked Aunt Ellen. "It did occur to your Aunt Laura and myself that, not knowing how heavy are the duties which keep him at Kencote, His Majesty might have been—I will not say annoyed, because he would not be that—but perhaps disappointed at not seeing him more often about his Court. For in the days gone by he was an ornament of it, and I have always understood, though not from him, that he enjoyed special consideration, which would only be his due."
"The King didn't take any notice of father," said Cicely, with the brusque directness of youth, and Aunt Ellen seemed to be somewhat bewildered at the statement, not liking to impute blame to her sovereign, but unable for the moment to find any valid excuse for him.
"I thought," she said hesitatingly, "that sending specially—the invitation for all of you—but I suppose there were a great many people there."
Cicely took her opportunity, and described what she had seen and done, brightly and in detail. She answered all her aunts' questions, and interested them deeply. Her visits, and those of her mother, or the twins with Miss Bird, were the daily enlivenment of the two old ladies, and were never omitted. The Squire seldom went to the dower-house, but when he did look in for a minute or two, happening to pass that way, they were thrown into a flutter of pleasure and excitement which lasted them for days.
When Cicely took her leave an hour later, Aunt Ellen said: "The consideration with which dear Edward's family treats us, sister, is something we may well be thankful for. I felt quite sure, and I told you, that some one would come to see us immediately upon their return. Cicely is always so bright and interesting—a dear girl, and quite takes after her father."
"Dear Anne used to say that she took after her mother," said Aunt Laura; to which Aunt Ellen replied: "I have not a word to say against Nina; she has been a good wife to dear Edward, though we all thought at the time of their marriage that he might have looked higher. But compared with our nephew, quiet and unassuming as she is, she has very little character, while Cicely has character. No, sister, Cicely is a Clinton—a Clinton through and through."
Family prayers at Kencote took place at nine o'clock, breakfast nominally at a quarter past, though there was no greater interval between the satisfaction of the needs of the soul and those of the body than was necessary to enable the long string of servants to file out from their seats under the wall, and the footmen to return immediately with the hot dishes. The men sat nearest to the door and frequently pushed back to the dining-room against the last of the outflowing tide; for the Squire was ready for his breakfast the moment he had closed the book from which he had read the petition appointed for the day. If there was any undue delay he never failed to speak about it at once. This promptness and certainty in rebuke, when rebuke was necessary, made him a well-served man, both indoors and out.
Punctuality was rigidly observed by the Clinton family. It had to be; especially where the women were concerned. If Dick or Humphrey, when they were at home, missed prayers, the omission was alluded to. If Cicely, or even Mrs. Clinton was late, the Squire spoke about it. This was more serious. In the case of the boys the rebuke hardly amounted to speaking about it. As for the twins, they were never late. For one thing their abounding physical energy made them anything but lie-abeds, and for another, they were so harried during the ten minutes before the gong sounded by Miss Bird that there would have been no chance of their overlooking the hour. If they had been late, Miss Bird would have been spoken to, and on the distressing occasions when that had happened, it had put her, as she said, all in a twitter.
When it still wanted a few minutes to the hour on the morning after the return from London, Cicely was standing by one of the big open windows talking to Miss Bird, the twins were on the broad gravel path immediately outside, and two footmen were putting the finishing touches to the appointments of the table.
It was a big table, although now reduced to the smallest dimensions of which it was capable, for the use of the six people who were to occupy it. But in that great room it was like an island in the midst of a waste of Turkey carpet. The sideboards, dinner-wagon, and carving-table, and the long row of chairs against the wall opposite to the three windows were as if they lined a distant shore. The wallpaper of red flock had been an expensive one, but it was ugly, and faded in places where the sun caught it. It had been good enough for the Squire's grandfather forty years before, and it was good enough for him. It was hung with portraits of men and women and portraits of horses, some of the latter by animal painters of note. The furniture was all of massive mahogany, furniture that would last for ever, but had been made after the date at which furniture left off being beautiful as well as lasting. The mantelpiece was of brown marble, very heavy and very ugly.
At one minute to nine Mrs. Clinton came in. She carried a little old-fashioned basket of keys which she put down on the dinner-wagon, exactly in the centre of the top shelf. Cicely came forward to kiss her, followed by Miss Bird, with comma-less inquiries as to how she had spent the night after her journey, and the twins came in through the long window to wish her good morning. She replied composedly to the old starling's twittering, and cast her eye over the attire of the twins, which was sometimes known to require adjustment. Then she took her seat in one of the big easy-chairs which stood on either side of the fireplace, while Porter, the butler, placed a Bible and a volume of devotions, both bound in brown leather, before the Squire's seat at the foot of the table, and retired to sound the gong.
It was exactly at this moment that the Squire, who opened his letters in the library before breakfast, was accustomed to enter the room, and, with a word of greeting to his assembled family, perch his gold-rimmed glasses on his fine straight nose, and with the help of two book-markers find the places in the Bible and book of prayers to which the year in its diurnal course had brought him. The gong would sound, either immediately before or immediately after he had entered the room, the maids and the men who had been assembling in the hall would file in, he would throw a glance towards them over his glasses to see that they were all settled, and then begin to read in a fast, country gentleman's voice the portion of Scripture that was to hallow the day now officially beginning.
The gong rolled forth its sounding reverberation, Miss Bird and the three girls took their seats, and then there was a pause. In a house of less rigid habits of punctuality it would have been filled by small talk, but here it was so unusual that when it had lasted for no more than ten seconds the twins looked at one another in alert curiosity and Cicely's eyes met those of her mother, which showed a momentary apprehension before they fixed themselves again upon the shining steel of the fire bars. Another ten seconds went by and then the library door was heard to open and the Squire's tread, heavy on the paved hall.
Four pairs of eyes were fixed upon him as he entered the room, followed at a short but respectful interval by the servants. Mrs. Clinton still looked inscrutably at the grate. The Squire's high colour was higher than its wont, his thick grizzled eyebrows were bent into a frown, and his face was set in lines of anger which he evidently had difficulty in controlling. He fumbled impatiently with the broad markers as he opened the books, and omitted the customary glance towards the servants as he began to read in a voice deeper and more hurried than usual. When he laid down the Bible and took up the book of prayers he remained standing, as he sometimes did if he had a touch of rheumatism; but he had none now, and his abstention from a kneeling position amounted to a declaration that he was willing to go through the form of family prayers for routine's sake but must really be excused from giving a mind to it which was otherwise occupied.
It was plain that he had received a letter which had upset his equanimity. This had happened before, and the disturbance created made manifest in much the same way. But it had happened seldom, because a man who is in possession of an income in excess of his needs is immune from about half the worries that come with the morning's post, and any annoyance arising from the administration of his estate was not usually made known to him by letter. The Squire's letter-bag was normally as free of offence as that of any man in the country.
The twins, eying one another with surreptitious and fearful pleasure, conveyed in their glances a knowledge of what had happened. The thing that Walter and Muriel had made up their minds about, whatever it was—that was what had caused the Squire to remain behind a closed door until he had gained some slight control over his temper, and led him now to prefer the petitions appointed in the book bound in brown leather in a voice between a rumble and a bark. Perhaps everything would come out when Porter and the footman had brought in the tea and coffee service and the breakfast dishes, and left the room. If it did not, they would hear all about it later. Their father's anger held no terrors for them, unless it was directed against themselves, and even then considerably less than might have been supposed. He was often angry, or appeared to be, but he never did anything. Even in the memorable upheaval of seven years before—when Walter had finally refused to become a clergyman and announced his determination of becoming a doctor—which had been so unlike anything that had ever happened within their knowledge that it had impressed itself even upon their infant minds, and of which they had long since worried all the details out of Cicely, he had made a great deal of noise but had given way in the end. He would give way now, however completely he might lose his temper in the process. The twins had no fear of a catastrophe, and therefore looked forward with interest, as they knelt side by side, with their plump chins propped on their plump hands, to the coming storm.
The storm broke, as anticipated, when the servants had finally left the room, and the Squire had ranged over the silver dishes on the side-table for one to his liking, a search in which he was unsuccessful.
"I wish you would tell Barnes that if she can't think of anything for breakfast but bacon, and scrambled eggs, and whiting, and mushrooms, she had better go, and the sooner the better," he said, bending a terrifying frown on his wife. "Same thing day after day!" But he piled a plate with bacon and eggs and mushrooms and carried it off to his seat, while his daughters and Miss Bird waited round him until he had helped himself.
"I have just had a letter from Walter," he began directly he had taken his seat, "which makes me so angry that, 'pon my word, I scarcely know what to do. Nina, this milk is burnt. Barnes shall go. She sends up food fit for the pig-tub. Why can't you see that the women servants do their duty? I can't take everything on my shoulders. God knows I've got enough to put up with as it is."
"Joan, ring the bell," said Mrs. Clinton.
"Oh—God's sake—no, no," fussed the Squire. "I don't want the servants in. Give me some tea. Miss Bird, here's my cup, please. Take it, please, take it, Miss Bird. I don't know when I've felt so annoyed. You do all you can and put yourself to an infinity of trouble and expense for the sake of your children, and then they behave like this. Really, Walter wants a good thrashing to bring him to his senses. If I had nipped all this folly of doctoring in the bud, as I ought to have done, I might have been able to live my life in peace. It's too bad; 'pon my word, it's too bad."
The twins, sustaining their frames diligently with bacon and eggs and mushrooms—the whiting was at a discount—waited with almost too obvious expectation for the full disclosure of Walter's depravity. Cicely, alarmed for the sake of Muriel, ate nothing and looked at her father anxiously. Miss Bird was in a state of painful confusion because she had not realised effectively that the Squire had wanted his cup of coffee exchanged for a cup of tea, and might almost be said to have been "spoken to" about her stupidity. Only with Mrs. Clinton did it rest to draw the fire which, if she did it unskilfully, might very well be turned upon herself. A direct question would certainly have so turned it.
"I am sorry that Walter has given you any further cause of complaint, Edward," she said.
This was not skilful enough. "Cause of complaint!" echoed the Squire irritably. "Am I accustomed to complain about anything without good reason? You talk as if I am the last man in the world to have the right to expect my wishes to be consulted. Every one knows that I gave way to Walter against my better judgment. I allowed him to take up this doctoring because he had set his mind on it, and I have never said a word against it since. And how now does he reward me when he has got to the point at which he might begin to do himself and his family some credit? Coolly writes to me for money—to me—for money—to enable him to buy a practice at Melbury Park, if you please. Melbury Park! Pah!!"
The Squire pushed his half-emptied plate away from him in uncontrollable disgust. He was really too upset to eat his breakfast. The utterance of the two words which summed up Walter's blind, infatuated stampede from respectability brought back all the poignant feelings with which he had first read his letter. For the moment he was quite beside himself with anger and disgust, and unless relief had been brought to him he would have left his breakfast unfinished and stalked out of the room.
Nancy brought the relief with the artless question, "Where is Melbury Park, father?"
"Hold your tongue," said the Squire promptly, and then drew a lurid picture of a place delivered over entirely to the hovels of nameless people of the lower middle classes, and worse, a place in which you would be as effectually cut off from your fellows as if you went to live in Kamschatka. Indeed, you would not be so cut off if you went to Kamschatka, for you might be acknowledged to be living there, but to have it said that you lived at Melbury Park would stamp you. It would be as easy to say you were living in Halloway Goal. It was a place they stopped you at when you came into London on the North Central Railway, to take your tickets. The Squire mentioned this as if a place where they took your tickets was of necessity a dreadful kind of a place. "Little have I ever thought," he said, "when I have been pulled up there, and looked at those streets and streets of mean little houses, that a son of mine would one day want to go and live there. 'Pon my word, I think Walter's brain must be giving way."
It was Cicely who asked why Walter wanted to live at Melbury Park, and what Muriel said about it.
"He doesn't say a word about Muriel," snapped the Squire. "I suppose Muriel is backing him up. I shall certainly speak to Jim and Mrs. Graham about it. It is disgraceful—positively disgraceful—to think of taking a girl like Muriel to live in such a place. She wouldn't have a soul to speak to, and she would have to mix with all sorts of people. A doctor's wife can't keep to herself like other women. Oh, I don't know why he wants to go there. Don't ask me such questions. I was ready to start him amongst nice people, whatever it had cost, and he might have been in a first-class position while other men of his age were only thinking about it. But no, he must have his own silly way. He shan't have his way. I'll put my foot down. I won't have the name of Clinton disgraced. It has been respected for hundreds of years, and I don't know that I've ever done anything to bring it down. It's a little too much that one of my own sons should go out of his way to throw mud at it. I've stood enough. I won't stand any more. Melbury Park! A pretty sort of park!"
Having thus relieved his feelings the Squire was enabled to eat a fairly good breakfast, with a plateful of ham to follow his bacon and eggs and mushrooms, a spoonful or two of marmalade, and some strawberries to finish up with. It came out further that Walter was coming down by the afternoon train to dine and sleep, and presumably to discuss the proposal of which he had given warning, and that the Squire proposed to ask Tom and his wife to luncheon, or rather that Mrs. Clinton should drop in at the Rectory in the course of the morning and ask them, as he would be too busy.
Then Cicely asked if she might have Kitty, the pony, for the morning, and the Squire at once said, "No, she'll be wanted to take up food for the pheasants," after which he retired to his room, but immediately returned to ask Cicely what she wanted the pony for.
"I want to go over to Mountfield," said Cicely.
"Very well, you can have her," said the Squire, and retired again.
Mrs. Clinton made no comment on the disclosures that had been made, but took up her basket of keys and left the room.
"Now, Joan and Nancy, do not linger but get ready for your lessons at a quarter to ten punctually," Miss Bird broke forth volubly. "Every morning I have to hunt you from the breakfast table and my life is spent in trying to make you punctual. I am sure if your father knew the trouble I have with you he would speak to you about it and then you would see."
"Melbury Park!" exclaimed Nancy in a voice of the deepest disgust, as she rose slowly from the table. "'Pon my word, Joan, it's too bad. I spend my life in trying to make you punctual and then you want to go to Melbury Park! Pah! A nice sort of a park!"
"Are you going to see Muriel, Cicely?" asked Joan, also rising deliberately. "Starling, darling! Don't hustle me, I'm coming. I only want to ask my sister Cicely a question."
"Yes," said Cicely. "If I couldn't have had Kitty I should have walked."
"How unreasonable you are, Cicely," said Nancy. "The pony is wanted to take chickweed to the canaries at Melbury Park."
"Find out all about it, Cis," said Joan in process of being pushed out of the room. "Oh, take it, Miss Bird, please, take it."