OR, POOR WISDOM'S CHANCE.
BY MRS. H. LOVETT CAMERON
Author of "Pure Gold," "In a Grass Country," etc., etc.
PHILADELPHIA: J. B. LIPPINCOTT COMPANY. 1893.
"No. Vain, alas! th' endeavour From bonds so sweet to sever. Poor Wisdom's Chance Against a glance Is now as weak as ever."
CHAPTER I. The Vicar's Family
CHAPTER II. Kynaston Hall
CHAPTER III. Fanning Dead Ashes
CHAPTER IV. The Lay Rector
CHAPTER V. "Little Pitchers"
CHAPTER VI. A Soiree at Walpole Lodge
CHAPTER VII. Evening Reveries
CHAPTER VIII. The Member for Meadowshire
CHAPTER IX. Engaged
CHAPTER X. A Meeting on the Stairs
CHAPTER XI. An Idle Morning
CHAPTER XII. The Meet at Shadonake
CHAPTER XIII. Peacock's Feathers
CHAPTER XIV. Her Wedding Dress
CHAPTER XV. Vera's Message
CHAPTER XVI. "Poor Wisdom"
CHAPTER XVII. An Unlucky Love-Letter
CHAPTER XVIII. Lady Kynaston's Plans
CHAPTER XIX. What She Waited For
CHAPTER XX. A Morning Walk
CHAPTER XXI. Maurice's Intercession
CHAPTER XXII. Mr. Pryme's Visitors
CHAPTER XXIII. A White Sunshade
CHAPTER XXIV. Her Son's Secret
CHAPTER XXV. St. Paul's, Knightsbridge
CHAPTER XXVI. The Russia-Leather Case
CHAPTER XXVII. Dinner at Ranelagh
CHAPTER XXVIII. Mrs. Hazeldine's "Long Eliza"
CHAPTER XXIX. A Wedding Tour
CHAPTER XXX. "If I could Die!"
CHAPTER XXXI. An Eventful Drive
CHAPTER XXXII. By the Vicarage Gate
CHAPTER XXXIII. Denis Wilde's Love
CHAPTER XXXIV. A Garden Party
CHAPTER XXXV. Shadonake Bath
CHAPTER XXXVI. At Peace
POOR WISDOM'S CHANCE.
THE VICAR'S FAMILY.
With that regal indolent air she had So confident of her charm.
Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear.
Amongst the divers domestic complications into which short-sighted man is prone to fall there is none which has been more conclusively proved to be an utter and egregious failure than that family arrangement which, for lack of a better name, I will call a "composite household."
No one could have spoken upon this subject with greater warmth of feeling, nor out of the depths of a more painful experience, than could the Rev. Eustace Daintree, sometime vicar of the parish of Sutton-in-the-Wold.
Mr. Daintree's family circle consisted of himself, his mother, his wife, and his wife's sister, and I should like to know how a man could expect to lead a life of peace and tranquillity with such a combination of inharmonious feminine elements!
There were two children also, who were a fruitful source of discord and disunion. It is certain that, had he chosen to do so, the Rev. Eustace might have made many heart-rending and harrowing revelations concerning the private life and customs of the inhabitants of his vicarage. It is equally certain, however, that he would not have chosen to do so, for he was emphatically a man of peace and gentleness, kind hearted and given to good works; and was, moreover, sincerely anxious to do his duty impartially to those whom Providence or fate, or a combination of chances and changes, had somehow contrived to bring together under his roof.
Things had not always been thus with him. In the early days of their married life Eustace Daintree and Marion his wife had had their home to themselves, and right well had they enjoyed it. A fairly good living backed up by independent means, a small rural parish, a pleasant neighbourhood, a pretty and comfortable vicarage-house—what more can the hearts of a clergyman of the Church of England and his wife desire? Mr. and Mrs. Daintree, at all events, had wished for nothing better. But this blissful state of things was not destined to last; it was, perhaps, hardly to be expected that it should, seeing that man is born to trouble, and that happiness is known to be as fleeting as time or beauty or any other good thing.
When Eustace Daintree had been married five years, his father died, and his mother, accepting his warmly tendered invitation to come to Sutton-in-the-Wold upon a long visit, took up her abode in the pleasant vicarage-house.
Her visit was long indeed. In a weak moment her son consented to her urgent request to be allowed to subscribe her quota to the household expenses—this was as good as giving her a ninety-nine years' lease of her quarters. The thin end of the wedge thus inserted, Mrs. Daintree mere became immovable as the church tower or the kitchen chimney, and the doomed members of the family began to understand that nothing short of death itself was likely to terminate the old lady's residence amongst them. For the future her son's house became her home.
But, even thus, things were not at their worst. Marion Daintree was a soft-hearted, gentle-mannered little woman. It cannot be said that she regarded the permanent instalment of her mother-in-law in her home with pleasurable feelings; she would have been more than human had she done so. But then she was unfeignedly fond of her husband, and desired so earnestly to make his home happy that, not seeing her way to oust the intruder without a warfare which would have distressed him, she determined to make the best of the situation, and to preserve the family peace and concord at all risks.
She succeeded in her praiseworthy efforts, but at what cost no one but herself ever knew. Marion's whole life became one propitiatory sacrifice to her mother-in-law. To propitiate Mrs. Daintree was a very simple matter. Bearing in mind that her leading characteristics were a bad temper and an ungovernable desire to ride rough-shod over the feelings of all those who came into contact with her, in order to secure her favour it was only necessary to study her moods, and to allow her to tread you under foot as much as her soul desired. Provided that she had her own way in these little matters, Mrs. Daintree became an amiable old lady. Marion did all that was needful; figuratively speaking, she laid down in the dust before her, and the Juggernaut of her fate consented to be appeased by the lowly attitude, and crushed its way triumphantly over her fallen body.
Thus Marion accepted her fate, and peace was preserved in her husband's house. But by-and-by there came somebody into the family who would by no manner of means consent to be so crushed and trodden under foot. This somebody was Vera Nevill.
In order duly to set forth who and what was this young woman, who thus audaciously set at defiance the powers that were, it will be necessary that I should take a brief survey of Marion's family history.
Marion, then, be it known, was the eldest of three sisters; so much the eldest, that when Mr. Daintree had met her and married her in Rome during one of his brief holidays, the two remaining sisters had been at the time hardly more than children. Colonel Nevill, their father, had married an Italian lady, long since dead, and had lived a nomad life ever since he had become a widower; moving about chiefly between Nice, Rome, and Malta. Wherever pleasant society was to be found, there would Colonel Nevill and his daughters instinctively drift, and year after year they became more and more enamoured of their foreign life, and less and less disposed to venture back to the chill fogs and cloudy skies of their native land.
Three years after Marion had left them, and gone away with her husband to his English vicarage; Theodora, the second daughter, had at eighteen married an Italian prince, whose lineage was ancient, but whose acres were few; and Colonel Nevill, dying rather suddenly almost immediately after, Vera, the youngest daughter, as was most natural, instantly found a home with Princess Marinari.
All this time Marion lived at Sutton-in-the-Wold, and saw none of them. She wept copiously at the news of her father's death, regretting bitterly her inability to receive his parting blessing; but, her little Minnie being born shortly after, her thoughts were fortunately diverted into a happier channel, and she suffered from her loss less keenly and recovered from it more quickly than had she had no separate life and no separate interests of her own to engross her. Still, being essentially affectionate and faithful, she clung to the memory of the two sisters now separated so entirely from her. For some years she and Theodora kept up a brisk correspondence. Marion's letters were full of the sayings and doings of Tommy and Minnie, and Theodora's were full of nothing but Vera.
What Vera had looked like at her first ball, how Prince this and Marquis so-and-so had admired her; how she had been smothered with bouquets and bonbons at Carnival time; how she had sat to some world-famed artist, who had entreated to be allowed to put her face into his great picture, and how the house was literally besieged with her lovers. By all this, and much more in the same strain, Marion perceived that her young sister, whom she had last seen in all the raw unformed awkwardness of early girlhood, had developed somehow into a beautiful woman.
And there came photographs of Vera occasionally, fully confirming the glowing accounts Princess Marinari gave of her; fantastic photographs, portraying her in strange and different ways. There was Vera looking out through clouds of her own dark hair hanging loosely about her face; Vera as a Bacchante crowned with vine leaves, laughing saucily; Vera draped as a devote, with drooping eyes and hands crossed meekly upon her bosom. Sometimes she would be in a ball-dress, with lace about her white shoulders; sometimes muffled up in winter sables, her head covered with a fur cap. But always she was beautiful, always a young queen, even in these poor, fading photographs, that could give but a faint idea of her loveliness to those who knew her not.
"She must be very handsome," Eustace Daintree would say heartily, as his wife, with a little natural flush of pride, handed some picture of her young sister across the breakfast-table to him. "How I wish we could see her, she must be worth looking at, indeed. Mother, have you seen this last one of Vera?"
"Beauty is a snare," the old lady would answer viciously, hardly deigning to glance at the lovely face; "and your sister seems to me, Marion, to be dressed up like an actress, most unlike my idea of a modest English girl."
Then Marion would take her treasure away with her up into her own room, out of the way of her mother-in-law's stern and repelling remarks.
But one day there came sad news to the vicarage at Sutton. Theodora, Princess Marinari, caught the Roman fever in its worst form, and after a few agonizing letters and telegrams, that came so rapidly one upon the other that she had hardly time to realize the dreadful truth, Marion learnt that her sister was dead.
After that, the elder sister's English home became naturally the right and fitting place for Vera to come to. So she left her gay life and her lovers, her bright dresses and all that had hitherto seemed to her worth living for, and came back to her father's country and took up her abode in Eustace Daintree's quiet vicarage, where she became shortly her sister's idol and her sister's mother-in-law's mortal foe.
And then it was that the worthy clergyman came to discover that to put three grown-up women into the same house, and to expect them to live together in peace and amity, is about as foolhardy an experiment as to shut up a bulldog, a parrot, and a tom-cat in a cupboard, and expect them to behave like so many lambs.
It is now rather more than a year since Vera Nevill came to live in her brother-in-law's house. Let me waste no further time, but introduce her to you at once.
The time of the year is October—the time of day is five o'clock. In the vicarage drawing-room the afternoon tea-table has just been set out, and the fire just lit, for it is chilly; but one of the long French windows leading into the garden is still open, and through it Vera steps into the room.
There is a background of brown and yellow foliage behind her, across the garden, all aglow with the crimson light of the western sky, against which the outlines of her figure, in its close-fitting dark dress, stand out clearly and distinctly. Vera has the figure, not of a sylph, but of a goddess; it is the absolute perfection of the female form. She is tall—very tall, and she carries her head a little proudly, like a young queen conscious of her own power.
She comes in with a certain slow and languid grace in her movements, and pauses for an instant by the hearth, holding out her hand, that is white and well-shaped, though perhaps a trifle too long-fingered, to the warmth.
The glow of the newly-lit fire flickers up over her face—her face, with its pure oval outlines, its delicate, regular features, and its dreamy eyes, that are neither blue nor gray nor hazel, but something vague and indistinctly beautiful, entirely peculiar to themselves. Her hair, a soft dusky cloud, comes down low over her broad forehead, and is gathered up at the back in some strange and thoroughly un-English fashion that would not suit every one, yet that somehow makes a fitting crown to the stately young head it adorns.
"Tea, Vera?" says Marion, from behind the cups and saucers.
Old Mrs. Daintree sits darning socks, severely, by the fading light. There is a sound of distant whimpering from the shadowy corner behind the piano; it is Tommy in disgrace. Vera turns round; Marion's kind face looks troubled and distressed; the old lady compresses her lips firmly and savagely.
Vera takes the cup from her sister's hands, and putting it down again on the table, proceeds to cut a slice of bread from the loaf, and to spread it thickly with strawberry jam.
"Come here, Tommy, and have some of Auntie's bread and jam."
Out comes a small person, with a very swollen face and a very dirty pinafore, from the distant seclusion of the corner, and flies swiftly to Vera's sheltering arm.
Mrs. Daintree drops her work angrily into her lap.
"Vera, I must beg of you not to interfere with Tom; are you aware that he is in the corner by my orders?"
"Perfectly, Mrs. Daintree; and also that he was there before I went out, exactly three-quarters of an hour ago; there are limits to all human endurance."
"I consider it extremely impertinent," begins the old lady, nodding her head violently.
"Darling Vera," pleads Marion, almost in tears; "perhaps you had better let him go back."
"Tommy is quite good now," says Vera, calmly passing her hand over the rough blonde head. Master Tommy's mouth is full of bread and jam, and he looks supremely indifferent to the warfare that is being carried on on his account over his head.
His crime having been the surreptitious purloining of his grandmamma's darning cotton, and the subsequent immersion of the same in the inkstand, Vera feels quite a warm glow of approval towards the little culprit and his judiciously-planned piece of mischief.
"Vera, I insist upon that child being sent back into the corner!" exclaims Mrs. Daintree, angrily, bringing her large fist heavily down upon her knee.
"The child has been over-punished already," she answers, calmly, still administering the soothing solace of strawberry jam.
"Oh, Vera, pray keep the peace!" cries Marion, with clasped hands.
"Here, I am thankful to say, comes my son;" as a shadow passes the window, and Eustace's tall figure with the meekly stooping head comes in at the door. "Eustace, I beg that you will decide who is to be in authority in this house—your mother or this young lady. It is insufferable that every time I send the children into the corner Vera should call them out and give them cakes and jam."
Eustace Daintree looks helplessly from one to the other.
"My dear mother—my dear girls—what is it all about? I am sure Vera does not mean——"
"No, Vera only means to be kind, grandmamma," cries Marion, nervously; "she is so fond of the children——"
"Hold your tongue, Marion, and don't take your sister's part so shamelessly!"
Meanwhile Vera rises silently and pushes Tommy and all his enormities gently by the shoulders out of the room. Then she turns round and faces her foe.
"Judge between us, Eustace!" the old lady is crying; "am I to be defied and set at nought? are we all to bow down and worship Miss Vera, the most useless, lazy person in the house, who turns up her nose at honest men and prefers to live on charity, a burden to her relations?"
"Vera is no burden, only a great pleasure to me, my dear mother," said the clergyman, holding out his hand to the girl.
"Oh, grandmamma, how unkind you are," says Marion, bursting into tears. But Vera only laughs lazily and amusedly, she is so used to it all! It does not disturb her.
"Is she to be mistress here, I ask, or am I?" continues Mrs. Daintree, furiously.
"Marion is the mistress here," says Vera, boldly; "neither you nor I have any authority in her house or over her children." And then the old lady gathers up her work and sails majestically from the room, followed by her weak, trembling daughter-in-law, bent on reconciliation, on cajolement, on laying herself down for her own sins, and her sister's as well, before the avenging genius of her life.
The clergyman stands by the hearth with his head bent and his hands behind him. He sighs wearily.
Vera creeps up to him and lays her hand softly upon his coat sleeve.
"I am a firebrand, am I not, Eustace?"
"My dear, no, not that; but if you could try a little to keep the peace!" He stayed the caressing hand within his own and looked at her tenderly. His face is a good one, but not a handsome one; and, as he looks at his wife's young sister, it is softened into its best and kindest. Who can resist Vera, when she looks gentle and humble, with that rare light in her dark eyes?
"Vera, why don't you look like that at Mr. Gisburne?" he says, smiling.
"Oh, Eustace! am I indeed a burden to you, as your mother says?" she exclaims, evasively.
"No, no, my dear, but it seems hard for you here; a home of your own might be happier for you; and Gisburne is a good man."
"I don't like good men who are poor!" says Vera, with a little grimace.
Her brother-in-law looks shocked. "Why do you say such hard worldly things, Vera? You do not really mean them."
"Don't I? Eustace, look at me: do I look like a poor clergyman's wife? Do survey me dispassionately." She holds herself at arm's length from him, and looks comically up and down the length of her gray skirts. "Think of the yards and yards of stuff it takes to clothe me; and should not a woman as tall as I am be always in velvet and point lace, Eustace? What is the good of condemning myself to workhouse sheeting for the rest of my days?"
Mr. Daintree looks at her admiringly; he has learnt to love her; this beautiful southern flower that has come to blossom in his home. Women will be hard enough on Vera through her life—men, never.
"You have great gifts and great temptations, my child," he says, solemnly. "I pray that I may be enabled to do my duty to you. Do not say you do not like good men, Vera, it pains me to hear you say it."
"I like one good man, and his name is Eustace Daintree!" she answers, softly; "is not that a hopeful sign?"
"You are a little flatterer, Vera," he says, kissing her; but, though he is a middle-aged clergyman and her brother-in-law, he is by no means impervious to the flattery.
Meanwhile, upstairs, Marion is humbling herself into the dust, at the footstool of her tyrant. Mrs. Daintree is very angry with Marion's sister, and Mr. Gisburne is also the text whereon she hangs her sermon.
"I wish her no harm, Marion; why should I? She is most impertinent to me, but of that I will not speak."
"Indeed, grandmamma, you do not understand Vera. I am sure she——"
"Oh, yes, excuse me, my dear, I understand her perfectly—the impertinence to myself I waive—I hope I am a Christian, but I cannot forgive her for turning up her nose at Mr. Gisburne—a most excellent young man; what can a girl want more?"
"Dear Mrs. Daintree, does Vera look like a poor clergyman's wife?" said Marion, using unconsciously Vera's own arguments.
"Now, Marion, I have no patience with such folly! Whom do you suppose she is to wait for? We haven't got any Princes down at Sutton to marry her; and I say it's a shame that she should go on living on her friends, a girl without a penny! when she might marry a respectable man, and have a home of her own."
And then even Marion said that, if Vera could be brought to like Mr. Gisburne, it might possibly be happier for her to marry him.
Only the wind here hovers and revels In a round where life seems barren as death. Here there was laughing of old, there was weeping, Haply of lovers none ever will know.
Swinburne, "A Forsaken Garden."
It seemed to be generally acknowledged by the Daintree family that if Vera would only consent to yield to the solicitations of the Reverend Albert Gisburne, and transfer herself to Tripton Rectory for life, it would be the simplest and easiest solution of a good many difficult problems concerning her.
In point of fact, Vera Nevill was an incongruous element in the Daintree household. In that quiet humdrum country clergyman's life she was as much out of her proper place as a bird of paradise in a chicken yard, or a Gloire de Dijon rose in a field of turnips.
It was not her beauty alone, but her whole previous life which unfitted her for the things amongst which she found herself suddenly transplanted. She was no young unformed child, but a woman of the world, who had been courted and flattered and sought after; who had learnt to hold her own, and to fight her battles single-handed, and who knew far more about the dangers and difficulties of life than did the simple-hearted brother-in-law, under whose charge she now found herself, or the timid, gentle sister who was so many years her senior.
But if she was cognizant of the world and its ways, Vera knew absolutely nothing about the life of an English vicarage. Sunday schools and mothers' meetings were enigmas to her; clothing clubs and friendly societies, hopeless and uninteresting mysteries which she had no desire to solve. She had no place in the daily routine. What was she to do amongst it all?
Vera did what was most pleasant and also most natural to her—she did nothing. She was by habit and by culture essentially indolent. The southern blood she inherited, the life of the Italian fine lady she had led, made her languid and fond of inaction. To lie late in bed, to sip chocolate, and open her letters before she rose; to be dressed and re-dressed by a fashionable lady's maid; to recline in luxurious carriages, and to listen lazily to the flattery and adulation that had surrounded her—that had been Vera's life from morning till night ever since she grew up.
How, with such antecedents, was she to enter suddenly into all the activity of an English clergyman's home? There were the schools, and the vestry meetings, and the sick and the destitute to be fretted after from Monday morning till Saturday night—Eustace and Marion hardly ever had a moment's respite or a leisure hour the whole week; whilst Sunday, of course, was the hardest day's work of all.
But Vera could not turn her life into these things. She would not have known how to set about them, and assuredly she had no desire to try.
So she wandered about the garden in the summer time, or sat dreamily by the fire in winter. She gathered flowers and decorated the rooms with them; she spoilt the children, she quarrelled with their grandmother, but she did nothing else; and the righteous soul of Eustace Daintree was disquieted within him on account of her. He felt that her life was wasted, and the responsibility of it seemed, to his over-sensitive conscience, to rest upon himself.
"The girl ought to be married," he would say to his wife, anxiously. "A husband and a home of her own is what she wants. If she were happily settled she would find occupation enough."
"I don't see whom she could marry, Eustace; men are so scarce, and there are so many girls in the county."
"Well, she might have had Barry." Barry was a curate whom Vera had lately scorned, and who had, in consequence of the crushed condition of his affections, incontinently fled. "And then there is Gisburne. Why couldn't she marry Gisburne? He is quite a catch, and a good young man too."
"Yes, it is a pity; perhaps she may change her mind, and he will ask her again after Christmas; he told me as much."
"You must try and persuade her to think better of it by then, my dear. Now I must be off to old Abraham, and be sure you send round the port to Mary Williams; and you will find the list for the blanket club on my study table, love."
Her husband started on his morning rounds, and Marion, coming down into the drawing-room, found old Mrs. Daintree haranguing Vera on the same all-important topic.
"I am only speaking for your good, Vera; what other object could I have?" she was saying, as she dived into the huge basket of undarned socks on the floor before her, and extracted thereout a ragged specimen to be operated upon. "It is sheer obstinacy on your part that you will not accept such a good offer. And there was poor Mr. Barry, a most worthy young man, and his second cousin a bishop, too, quite sure of a living, I should say."
"Another clergyman!" said Vera, with a soft laugh, just lifting up her hands and letting them fall down again upon her lap, with a little, half-foreign movement of impatience. "Are there, then, no other men but the clergy in this country?"
"And a very good thing if there were no others," glared the old lady, defiantly, over her spectacles.
"I do not like them," said Vera, simply.
"Not like them! Considering that I am the daughter, the widow, and the mother of clergymen, I consider that remark a deliberate insult to me!"
"Dear Mrs. Daintree, I am sure Vera never meant——" cried Marion, trembling for fear of a fresh battle.
"Don't interrupt me, Marion; you ought to have more proper pride than to stand by and hear the Church reviled."
"Vera only said she did not like them."
"No more I do, Marion," said Vera, stifling a yawn—"not when they are young; when they are old, like Eustace, they are far better; but when they are young they are all exactly alike—equally harmless when out of the pulpit, and equally wearisome when in it!"
A few moments of offended silence on the part of the elder lady, during which she tugs fiercely and savagely at the ragged sock in her hands—then she bursts forth again.
"You may scorn them as much as you like, but let me tell you that the life of a clergyman's wife—honoured, respected, and useful—is a more profitable one than the idle existence which you lead, utterly purposeless and lazy. You never do one single thing from morning till night."
"What shall I do? Shall I help you to darn Eustace's socks?" reaching at one of them out of the basket.
Mrs. Daintree wrenched it angrily from her hand.
"Good gracious! as if you could! What a bungle it would be. Why, I never saw you with a piece of work in your hand in my life. I dare say you could not even thread a needle."
"I am quite sure I have never threaded one yet," laughed Vera, lazily. "I might try; but you see you won't let me be useful, so I had better resign myself to idleness." And then she rose and took her hat, and went out through the French window, out among the fallen yellow leaves, leaving the other women to discuss the vexed problem of her existence.
She discussed it to herself as she walked dreamily along under the trees in the lane beyond the garden, her head bent, and her eyes fixed upon the ground; she swung her hat idly in her hand, for it was warm for the time of year, and the gold-brown leaves fluttered down about her head and rustled under the dark, trailing skirts behind her.
About half a mile up the lane, beyond the vicarage, stood an old iron gateway leading into a park. It was flanked by square red-brick columns, upon whose summits two stone griffins, "rampant," had looked each other in the face for the space of some two hundred years or so, peering grimly over the tops of the shields against which they stood on end, upon which all the family arms and quarterings of the Kynastons had become softly coated over by an indistinct veil of gray-green moss.
Vera turned in at this gate, nodding to the woman at the lodge within, who looked out for a minute at her as she passed. It was her daily walk, for Kynaston was uninhabited and empty, and any one was free to wander unreproved among its chestnut glades, or to stand and gossip to its ancient housekeeper in the great bare rooms of the deserted house.
Vera did so often. The square, red-brick building, with its stone copings, the terrace walk before the windows, the peacocks sunning themselves before the front door, the fountain plashing sleepily in the stone basin, the statues down the square Italian garden—all had a certain fascination for her dreamy poetical nature. Then turning in at the high narrow doorway, whose threshold Mrs. Eccles, the housekeeper, had long ago given her free leave to cross, she would stroll through the deserted rooms, touching the queer spindle-legged furniture with gentle reverent fingers, gazing absorbedly at the dark rows of family portraits, and speculating always to herself what they had been like, these dead and gone Kynastons, who had once lived and laughed, and sorrowed and died, in the now empty rooms, where nothing was left of them save those dim and faded portraits, and where the echo of her own footsteps was the only sound in the wilderness of the carpetless chambers where once they had reigned supreme.
She got to know them all at last by name—whole generations of them. There was Sir Ralph in armour, and Bridget, his wife, in a ruff and a farthingale; young Sir Maurice, who died in boyhood, and Sir Penrhyn, his brother, in long love-locks and lace ruffles. A whole succession of Sir Martins and Sir Henrys; then came the first Sir John and his wife in powder and patches, with their fourteen children all in a row, whose elaborate marriages and family histories, Vera, although assisted by Mrs. Eccles, who had them all at her fingers' ends, had considerable difficulty in clearly comprehending. It was a relief to be firmly landed with Sir Maurice, in a sad-coloured suit and full-bottomed wig, "the present baronet's grandfather," and, lastly, Sir John, "the present baronet's father," in a deputy-lieutenant's scarlet uniform, with a cocked hat under his arm—by far the worst and most inartistic painting in the whole collection.
It was all wonderful and interesting to Vera. She elaborated whole romances to herself out of these portraits. She settled their loves and their temptations, heart-broken separations, and true lovers' meetings between them. Each one had his or her history woven out of the slender materials which Mrs. Eccles could give her of their real lives. Only one thing disappointed her, there was no portrait of the present Sir John. She would have liked to have seen what he was like, this man who was unmarried still, and who had never cared to live in the house of his fathers. She wondered what the mystery had been that kept him from it. She could not understand that a man should deliberately prefer dark, dirty, dingy London, which she had only once seen in passing from one station to the other on her way to Sutton, to a life in this quiet old-world red-brick house, with the rooks cawing among trees, and the long chestnut glades stretching away into the park, and all the venerable associations of those portraits of his ancestors. Some trouble, some sorrow, must have kept him away from it, she felt.
But she would not question Mrs. Eccles about him; she encouraged her to talk of the dead and gone generations as much as she pleased, but of the man who was her master Vera would have thought it scarcely honourable to have spoken to his servant. Perhaps, too, she preferred her dreams. One day, idly opening the drawer of an old bureau in the little room which Mrs. Eccles always called religiously "My lady's morning room," Vera came upon a modern photograph that arrested her attention wonderfully.
It represented, however, nothing very remarkable; only a broad-shouldered, good-looking young man, with an aquiline noise and a close-cropped head. On the reverse side of the card was written in pencil, "My son—for Mrs. Eccles." Lady Kynaston, she supposed, must therefore have sent it to the old housekeeper, and of course it was Sir John. Vera pushed it back again into the drawer with a little flush, as though she had been guilty of an indiscretion in looking at it, and she said no word of her discovery to the housekeeper. A day or two later she sought for it again in the same place, but it had been taken away.
But the face thus seen made an impression upon her. She did not forget it; and when Sir John Kynaston's name was mentioned, she invested him with the living likeness of the photograph she had seen.
On this particular October morning that Vera strolled up idly to the old house she did not feel inclined to wander among the deserted rooms; the sunshine came down too pleasantly through the autumn leaves; the air was too full of the lingering breath of the dying summer for her to care to go indoors. She paused a minute by the open window of the housekeeper's room, and called the old lady by name.
The room, however, was empty and she received no answer, so she wandered on to the terrace and leant over the stone parapet that looked over the gardens and the fountains, and the distant park beyond, and she thought of the photograph in the drawer.
And then and there there came into Vera Neville's mind a thought that, beginning with nothing more than an indistinct and idle fancy, ended in a set and determined purpose.
The thought was this:—
"If Sir John Kynaston ever comes down here, I will marry him."
She said it to herself, deliberately and calmly, without the slightest particle of hesitation or bashfulness. She told herself that what her relations were perpetually impressing upon her concerning the desirableness of her marrying and making a home of her own, was perfectly just and true. It would undoubtedly be a good thing for her to marry; her life was neither very pleasant nor very satisfactory to herself or to any one else. She had never intended to end her days at Sutton Vicarage; it had only been an intermediate condition of things. She had no vocation for visiting the poor, or for filling that useful but unexciting family office of maiden aunt; and, moreover, she felt that, with all their kindness to her, her brother-in-law and his wife ought not to be burdened with her support for longer than was necessary. As to turning governess, or companion, or lady-help, there was an incongruity in the idea that made it too ludicrous to contemplate even for an instant. There is no other way that a handsome and penniless woman can deliver her friends of the burden of her existence than by marriage.
Marriage decidedly was what Vera had to look to. She was in no way averse to the idea, only she intended to look at the subject from the most practical and matter-of-fact point of view.
She was not going to render herself wretched for life by rashly consenting to marry Mr. Gisburne, or any other equally unsuitable husband that her friends might choose to press upon her. Vera differed in one important respect from the vast majority of young ladies of the present day—she had no vague and indistinct dreams as to what marriage might bring her. She knew exactly what she wanted from it. She wanted wealth and position, because she knew what they were and what life became without them; and because she knew that she was utterly unfitted to be the wife of any one but a rich man.
And therefore it was that Vera looked from the square red house behind her over the wide gardens and broad lawns, and down the noble avenues that spread away into the distance, and said to herself, "This is what will suit me, to be mistress of a place like this; I should love it dearly; I should find real happiness and pleasure in the duties that such a position would bring me. If Sir John Kynaston comes here, it is he whom I will marry, and none other."
As to what her feelings might be towards the man whom she thus proposed to marry it cannot be said that Vera took them into consideration at all. She was not, indeed, aware whether or no she possessed any feelings; they had never incommoded her hitherto. Probably they had no existence. Such vague fancy as had been ever roused within her had been connected with a photograph seen once in a writing-table drawer. The photograph of Sir John Kynaston! The reflection did not influence her in the least, only she said to herself also, "If he is like his photograph, I should be sure to get on with him."
She was an odd mixture, this Vera. Ambitious, worldly-wise, mercenary even, if you will; conscious of her own beauty, and determined to exact its full value; and yet she was tender and affectionate, full of poetry and refinement, honest and true as her own fanciful name.
The secret of these strange contradictions is simply this. Vera has never loved. No one spark of divine fire has ever touched her soul or warmed the latent energies of her being. She has lived in the thick of the world, but love has passed her scatheless. Her mind, her intellect, her brain, are all alive, and sharpened acutely; her heart slumbers still. Happier for her, perhaps, had it never awakened.
She leant upon the stone parapet, supporting her chin upon her hand, dreaming her dreams. Her hat lay by her side, her long dark dress fell in straight heavy folds to her feet. The yellow leaves fluttered about her, the peacocks strutted up and down, the gardeners in the distance were sweeping up the dead leaves on the lawns, but Vera stirred not; one motionless, beautiful figure giving grace, and life, and harmony to the deserted scene.
* * * * *
Some one was passing along among the upper rooms of the house, followed by Mrs. Eccles, panting and exhausted.
"I am sure, Sir John, I am quite ashamed that you should see the place so choked up with dust and lumber. If you had only let me have a day's notice, instead of being took all of a sudden like, I'd have had the house tidied up a bit; but what with not expecting to see any of the family, and my being old, and not so quick at the cleaning as I used to be——"
"Never mind, Mrs. Eccles; I had just as soon see it as it is. I only wanted to see if you could make three or four rooms tolerably habitable in case I thought of bringing my horses down for a month or so. The stables, I find, are in good repair."
"Yes, Sir John, and so is the house; though the furniture is that old-fashioned, that it is hardly fit for you to use."
"Oh! it will do well enough; besides, I have not made up my mind at all. It is quite uncertain whether I shall come——Who is that?" stopping suddenly short before the window.
"That! Oh, bless me, Sir John, it's Miss Vera, from the vicarage. I hope you won't object to her being here; of course, she could not know you was back. I had given her leave to walk in the grounds."
"The vicarage! Has Mr. Daintree a daughter so old as that?"
"Oh, law! no, Sir John. It is Mrs. Daintree's sister. She came from abroad to live with them last year. A very nice young lady, Sir John, is Miss Nevill, and seems lonely like, and it kind of cheers her up to come and see me and walk in the garden. I am sure I hope you won't take it amiss that I should have allowed her to come."
"Take it amiss—good gracious, no! Pray, let Miss—Miss Nevill, did you say?—come as often as she likes. What about the cellars, Mrs. Eccles?"
"I will get the key, Sir John." The housekeeper precedes him out of the room, but Sir John stands still by the window.
"What a picture," he says to himself below his breath; "how well she looks there. She gives to the old place just the one thing it lacks—has always lacked ever since I have known it—the presence of a beautiful woman. Yes, Mrs. Eccles, I am coming." This last aloud, and he hastens downstairs.
Five minutes later, Sir John Kynaston says to his housekeeper,
"You need not scare that young lady away from the place by telling her I was here to-day and saw her. And you may get the rooms ready, Mrs. Eccles, and order anything that is wanted, and get in a couple of maids, for I have made up my mind to bring my horses down next month."
FANNING DEAD ASHES.
Weep no more, nor sigh, nor groan, Sorrow calls no time that's gone, Violets plucked, the sweetest rain Makes not fresh, nor grow again.
"Have you heard of Sir John's latest vagary, grandpapa? He is gone down to Kynaston to hunt—so there's an end of him."
"Humph! Where did you hear that?"
"I've been lunching at Lady Kynaston's."
The speaker stood by the window of one of the large houses at Prince's Gate overlooking the Horticultural Gardens. She was a small, slight woman, with fair pale features and a mass of soft yellow hair. She had a delicate complexion and very clear blue eyes. Altogether she was a pretty little woman. A stranger would have guessed her to be a girl barely out of her teens. Helen Romer was in reality five-and-twenty, and she had been a widow four years.
Of her brief married life few people could speak with any certainty, although there were plenty of surmises and conjectures concerning it. All that was known was that Helen had lived with her grandfather till she was nineteen; that one fine morning she had walked out of the house and had been married to a man whom her grandfather disapproved of, and to whom she had always professed perfect indifference. It was also known that eighteen months later her husband, having rapidly wasted his existence by drink and other irregular courses, had died in miserable poverty; and that Helen, not being able to set up a home of her own, upon her slender fortune of some five or six thousand pounds, had returned to her grandfather's house in Prince's Gate, where she had lived ever since.
Why she had married William Romer no one ever exactly knew—perhaps Helen herself least of any one. It certainly was not for love; it could hardly have been from any worldly motive. Some people averred, and possibly they were not far wrong, that she had done so out of pique because the man she loved did not want her.
However that might be, Mrs. Romer returned a widow, and not a very disconsolate one, to her grandfather's house.
It is certain that she would not have lived there could she have helped it. She did not love old Mr. Harlowe, neither did Mr. Harlowe love her. A sense of absolute duty to his dead daughter's child on the one side, a sense of absolute necessity on the other, kept the two together. Their natures were inharmonious. They kept up a form of affection and intimacy openly; in reality, they had not one single thought in common.
It is not too much to say that Mr. Harlowe positively disliked his grand-daughter. He had, perhaps, good reason for it. Helen had been nothing but a trouble to him. He had not desired to bring up a young lady in his house; he had not wished for the society which her presence entailed, nor for the dissipations of London life into which he was dragged more or less against his will. Added to which, Helen had not striven to please him in essential matters. She had married a gambling, drinking blackguard, whom he had forbidden to enter his doors; and now, when she might retrieve her position, and marry well and creditably, she refused to make the slightest effort to meet his views.
Helen's life was a mystery to all but herself. To the world she was a pretty, lively little widow, with a good house to live in, and sufficient money of her own to spend to very good effect upon her back, with not a single duty or responsibility in her existence, and with no other occupation in life than to amuse herself. At her heart Helen knew herself to be a soured and disappointed woman, who had desired one thing all her life, and who, having attained with great pains and toil that forbidden fruit which she had coveted, had found it turn, as such fruits too often do, to dust and ashes between her teeth. It was to have been sweet as honeydew—and behold, it was nothing but bitterness!
She stood at the window looking out at the waning light of the November afternoon. She was handsomely dressed in dark-green velvet, with a heavy old-fashioned gold chain round her neck; every now and then she looked at her watch, and a frown passed over her brow. The old man was bending over the fire behind her.
"Gone to Kynaston, is he? Humph! that is your fault, you frightened him off."
"Did I set my cap at him so palpably then?" said Helen, with a short, hard laugh.
"You know very well what I mean," answered her grandfather, sulkily. "Set your cap! No, you only do that to the men you know I don't approve of, and who don't want you."
Helen winced a little. "You put things very coarsely, grandpapa," she said, and laughed again. "I am sorry I have been unable to make love to Sir John Kynaston to please you. Is that what you wanted me to do?"
"I want you to look after a respectable husband, who can afford to keep you. What is the meaning of that perpetual going to Lady Kynaston's then? And why have you dragged me up to town at this confounded time of the year if it wasn't for that? You have played your cards badly as usual. You might have had him if you had chosen."
"I have never had the least intention of casting myself at Sir John's head," said Helen, scornfully.
"You can cast yourself, as you call it, at that good-for-nothing young spendthrift's head fast enough if you choose it."
"I don't in the least know whom you mean," she said, shortly.
The old man chuckled. "Oh, yes, you know well enough—the brother who spends his time racing and betting. You are a fool, Helen; he doesn't want you; and if he did, he couldn't afford to keep you."
"Suppose we leave Captain Kynaston's name out of the discussion, grandpapa," she said, quietly, but her face flushed suddenly and her hands twisted themselves nervously in and out of her heavy chain. "Are you not going to your study this evening?"
"Oh yes, I'm going, fast enough. You want me out of the way, I suppose. Somebody coming to tea, eh? Oh yes, I'll clear out. I don't want to listen to your rubbish."
The old man gathered up his books and papers and shuffled out of the room, muttering to himself as he went.
The servant came in, bringing the lamp, replenished the fire and drew the curtains, shutting out the light of day.
"Any one to tea, ma'am?" he inquired, respectfully.
"One gentleman—no one else. Bring up tea when he comes."
"Very well, ma'am;" and the servant withdrew. Mrs. Romer paced impatiently up and down the room, stopping again and again before the clock.
"Late again! A whole half-hour behind his time! It is insufferable that he should treat me like this. He would go quickly enough to see some new face—some fresh fancy that had attracted him."
She took out her watch and laid it on the table. "Let me see if he will come before the minute-hand touches the quarter; he must be here by then!"
She continued to pace steadily up and down the room. The clock ticked on, the minute-hand of the watch crept ever stealthily forward over the golden dial; now and then a passing vehicle without made her heart beat with sudden hope, and then sink down again with disappointment, as the sound of the wheels went by and died away in the distance.
Suddenly she sank into an arm-chair, covering her face with her hands.
"Oh, what a fool—what a fool I am!" she exclaimed aloud. "Why have I not strength of mind to go out before he comes, to show him that I don't care? Why, at least, can I not call up grandpapa, and pretend I had forgotten he was coming? That would be the best way to treat him; the way to show him that I am not the miserable slave he thinks me. Why can I, who know so well how to manage all other men, never manage the one man whose love I want? That horrid old man was right—he does not want me—he never did. Oh, if I only could be proud, and pretend I do not care! But I can't, I can't—there is always this miserable sickening pain at my heart for him, and he knows it. I have let him know it!"
A ring at the bell made her spring to her feet, whilst a glad flush suddenly covered her face.
In another minute the man she loved was in the room.
"Nearly three-quarters of an hour late!" she cried, angrily, as he entered. "How shamefully you treat me!"
He stood in front of the fire, pulling off his dogskin gloves: a broad-shouldered, handsome fellow, with an aquiline nose and a close-cropped head.
"Am I late?" he said, indifferently. "I really did not know it. I have had fifty places to go to in as many minutes."
"Of course I shall forgive you if you have been so busy," she said, softening at once. "Maurice, darling, are you not going to kiss me?" She stood up by his side upon the hearthrug, looking at him with all her heart in her eyes, whilst his were on the fire. She wound her arms round his neck, and drew his head down. He leant his cheek carelessly towards her lips, and she kissed him passionately; and he—he was thinking of something else.
"Poor little woman," he said, almost with an effort recalling himself to the present; he patted her cheek lightly and turned round to toss his gloves into his hat on the table behind him. "How cold it has turned—aren't you going to give me some tea?" And then he sat down on the further side of the fire and stretched himself back in his arm-chair, throwing his arms up behind his head.
Helen rang the bell for the tea.
"Is that all you have to say to me?" she said, poutingly.
Maurice Kynaston looked distressed.
"Upon my word, Helen, I am sure I don't know what you expect. I haven't heard any particular news. I saw you only yesterday, you know. I don't know what you want me to say."
Helen was silent. She knew very well what she wanted, she wanted him to say and do things that were impossible to him—to play the lover to her, to respond to her caresses, to look glad to see her.
Maurice was so tired of it all! tired alike of her reproaches and her caresses. The first irritated him, the second gave him no pleasure. There was no longer any attraction to him about her, her love was oppressive to him. He did not want it, he had never wanted it; only somehow she had laid it so openly and freely at his feet, that it had seemed almost unmanly to him not to put forth his hand and take it. And now he was tired of his thraldom, sick of her endearments, satiated with her kisses. And what was it all to end in? He could not marry her, he would not have desired to do so had he been able; but as things were, there was no money to marry on either side. At his heart Maurice Kynaston was glad of it, for he did not want her for a wife, and yet he feared that he was bound to her.
Man-like, he had no courage to break the chains that bound him, and yet to-night he had said to himself that he would make the effort—the state of his affairs furnished him with a sufficiently good pretext for broaching the subject.
"There is something I wanted to say to you," he said, after the tea had been brought in and they were alone again. He sat forward in his chair and stroked his moustache nervously, not looking at her as he spoke.
Helen came and sat on the hearthrug at his feet, resting her cheek caressingly against his knee.
"What is it, Maurice?"
"Well, it's about myself. I have been awfully hard hit this last week at Newmarket, you know."
"Yes, so you told me. I am so sorry, darling." But she did not care much as long as he was with her and was kind to her—nothing else signified much to her.
"Yes, but I am pretty well broke this time—I had to go to John again. He is an awfully good fellow, is old John; he has paid everything up for me. But I've had to promise to give up racing, and now I've got to live on my pay."
"I could lend you fifty pounds."
"Fifty pounds! pooh! what nonsense! What would be the good of fifty pounds to me?"
He said it rather ungraciously, perhaps, and her eyes filled with tears. When a man does not love a woman, her little childish offers of help do not touch him as they would if he loved her. He would not have taken five thousand from her, yet he was angry with her for talking of fifty pounds.
"What I wanted to say to you, Helen, was that, of course, now I am so hard up it's no good thinking of—of marrying—or anything of that kind; and don't you think it would be happiest if you and I—I mean, wisest for us both—for you, of course, principally——"
"What!" She lifted her head sharply. She saw what he meant at once. A wild terror filled her heart. "You mean that you want to throw me over!" she said, breathlessly.
"My dear child, do be reasonable. Throw you over! of course not—but what is it all to lead to? How can we possibly marry? It was bad enough before, when I had my few hundreds a year. But now even that is gone. A captain in a line regiment is not exactly in a position to marry. Why, I shall hardly be able to keep myself, far less a wife too. I cannot drag you down to starvation, Helen; it would not be right or honourable to continue to bind you to my broken fortunes."
She was standing up now before him very white and very resolute.
"Why do you make so many excuses? You want to be rid of me."
"My dear child, how unjust you are."
"Am I unjust? Wait! let me speak. How have we altered things? Could you marry me any more before you lost this money? You know you could not. Have we not always agreed to wait till better times? Why cannot we go on waiting?"
"It would not be fair to tie you."
He had not the courage to say, "I do not love you—money or no money, I do not wish to marry you." How indeed is a man who is a gentleman to say such a discourteous thing to a lady for whom he has once professed affection? Maurice Kynaston, at all events, could not say so.
"It would not be fair to tie you; it would be better to let you be free:" that was all he could find to say. And then Helen burst forth impetuously,
"I wish to be tied—I do not want to be free—I will not marry any other man on earth but you. Oh! Maurice, my love, my darling!" casting herself down again at his feet and clasping her arms wildly round him. "Whom else do I want but you—whom else have I ever loved? You know I have always been yours—always—long ago, in the old days when you never even gave me a look, and I was so maddened with misery and despair that I did not care what became of me when I married poor Willie, hardly knowing what I was doing, only because my life was so unbearable at home. And now that I have got you, do you think I will give you up? And you love me—surely, surely, you must love me. You said so once, Maurice—tell me so again. You do love me, don't you?"
What was a man to do? Maurice moved uneasily under her embrace as though he would withdraw her arms from about his neck.
"Of course," he said, nervously; "of course, I am fond of you, and all that, but we can't marry upon less than nothing. You must know that as well as I do."
"No; but we can wait."
"What are we to wait for?" he said, irritably.
"Oh, a hundred things might happen—your brother might die."
"God forbid!" he said, pushing her from him, in earnest this time.
"Well, we will hope not that, perhaps; but grandpapa can't live for ever, and he ought to leave me all his money, and then we should be rich."
"It is horrible waiting for dead people's shoes," said Maurice, with a little shudder; "besides, Mr. Harlowe is just as likely as not to leave his money to a hospital, or to the British Museum, or the National Gallery—you could not count upon anything."
"We could at all events wait and see."
"And be engaged all that time on the off-chance?" he said, drearily; "that is a miserable prospect."
"Then you do wish to get rid of me!" she said, looking at him suspiciously; "you have seen some other woman."
"Pooh! what a little fool you are!" He jumped up angrily from his chair, leaving her there upon the hearthrug. A woman makes a false move when she speaks of "another woman" to the man whose affection for her is on the wane. In the present instance the accusation was utterly without foundation. Many as were his self-reproaches on her account, that one had never been amongst them. If he did not love her, neither had he the slightest fancy for any other woman. Her remark irritated him beyond measure; it seemed to annul and wipe out the score of his own shortcomings towards her, and to make himself, not her, the injured one.
"Women are the most irrational, the most unjust, the most thoroughly pig-headed set of creatures on the face of the earth!" he burst forth, angrily.
She saw her mistake by this time. She was no fool; she was quick enough—sharp as a needle—where her love did not, as love invariably does, warp and blind her judgment.
"I am sorry, Maurice," she said, humbly. "I did not mean to doubt you, of course. Have you not said you love me? Sit down again, please."
He sat down only half appeased, looking glum and sulky. She felt that some concession on her part was necessary. She took his hand and stroked it softly. She knew so well that he did not love her, and yet she clung so desperately to the hope that she could win him back; she would not own to herself even in the furthermost recesses of her own heart that his love was dead. She would not believe it; to put it in words to herself even would have half killed her; but still she was forced to acknowledge that unless she met him half-way she might lose him altogether.
"I will tell you what I will do, Maurice," she said thoughtfully. "I will consent to let our engagement be in abeyance for the present; I will cease to write to you unless I have anything particular to say, and I will not expect you to write to me. If people question us, we will deny any engagement between us—we will say that we are each of us free—but on one condition only, that you will promise me most solemnly, on your honour as a gentleman, that should either of us be left any money—should there be, say, a clear thousand a year between us, within the next five years——"
"My dear Helen, I am as likely to have a thousand a year as to be presented with the regalia."
"Never mind. If it is unlikely, so much the worse—or the better, whichever you may like to call it. But if such a thing does happen, give me your word of honour that you will come to me at once—that, in fact, our engagement shall be renewed. If things are no better, our prospects no brighter, in five years from now—well, then, let us each be free to marry elsewhere."
There was a moment or two of silence between them. Maurice bent forward in his chair, leaning his arms upon his knees, and staring moodily into the fire. He was weighing her proposition. It was something; but it was not enough. It virtually bound him to her for five years, for, of course, an engagement that is to be tacitly consented to between the principal contractors is an engagement still, though the whole world be in ignorance of it. But then it gave him a chance, and a very good chance too, of perfect liberty in five years' time. It was something, certainly; though, as he had wanted his freedom at once, it could hardly be said to be altogether satisfactory.
Helen knelt bolt upright in front of him, watching his face. How passionately she desired to hear him indignantly repudiate the half-liberty she offered him! How ardently she desired that he should take her in his arms, and swear to her that he would never consent to her terms, no one but herself could know. It had been her last expedient to revive the old love, to rekindle the dead ashes of the smouldering fire. Surely, if there was but a spark of it left, it must leap up into life and vitality again at her words. But, as she watched him, her heart, that had beat so wildly, sank cold and colder within her. She felt that his heart was gone from her; she had cast her last die and lost. But, for all that, she was not minded to let him go free—her wild, ungoverned passion for him was too deeply rooted within her; since he would not be hers willingly, he should be hers by force.
"Surely," she said, wistfully, "you cannot find my terms too hard to consent to—you who—who love me?"
He turned to her quickly and took her hands, every feeling of gentleman-like honour, every spark of manly courtesy towards her, aroused by her gentle words.
"Say no more, Helen—you are too good—too generous to me. It shall be as you say."
And then he left, thankful to escape from her presence and to be alone again with his thoughts in the raw darkness of the November evening.
THE LAY RECTOR.
Or art thou complaining Of thy lowly lot, And, thine own disdaining, Dost ask what thou hast not? Of the future dreaming, Weary of the past, For the present scheming All but what thou hast.
L. E. Landon.
In the churchyard at Sutton-in-the-Wold was a monument which, for downright ugliness and bad taste, could hardly find its fellow in the whole county. It was a wonderful and marvellous structure of gray granite, raised upon a flight of steps, and consisted of an object like unto Cleopatra's Needle surmounting a family tea-urn. It had been erected by one Nathaniel Crupps, a well-to-do farmer in the parish, upon the death of his second wife. The first partner of his affections had been previously interred also in the same spot, but it was not until the death of the second Mrs. Crupps, who was undoubtedly his favourite, that Nathaniel bethought him of immortalizing the memory of both ladies by one bold stroke of fancy, as exemplified by this portentous granite monstrosity. On it the virtues of both wives were recorded, as it was touchingly and naively stated, by their "sorrowing husband with strict impartiality."
It was upon this graceful structure that Vera Nevill leant one foggy morning in the first week of November, and surveyed the church in front of her. She was not engaged in any sentimental musings appropriate to the situation. She was neither meditating upon the briefness of life in general, nor upon the many virtues of the ladies of the Crupps family, over whose remains she was standing. She was simply waiting for Jimmy Griffiths, and looking at the church because she had nothing else to look at. The church, indeed, afforded her some food for reflection, purely, I regret to state, of a practical and mundane character. It was a large and handsome building, with a particularly fine old tower, that was sadly out of repair; but the chancel was a modern and barn-like structure of brick and plaster, which ought, of course, to be entirely swept away, and a new and more appropriate one built in its stead. The chancel belonged, as most chancels do, to the lay rector, and the lay rector was Sir John Kynaston.
As soon as it became bruited abroad that Sir John was coming down to the old house for the winter, there was a general excitement throughout the parish, but no one partook of the excitement to a greater degree than did its worthy vicar.
It was the dream of Eustace Daintree's life to get his church restored, and more especially to get the chancel rebuilt. There had been a restoration fund accumulating for some years, and could he have had the slightest assistance from the lay rector concerning the chancel, Mr. Daintree would assuredly have sent for the architect, and the builders, and the stone-cutters, and have begun his church at once with that beautiful disregard of the future chances of being able to get the money to pay for it, and with that sparrow-like trust in Providence, which is usually displayed by those clerical gentlemen who, in the face of an estimate which tells them that eight thousand pounds will be the sum total required, are ready to dash into bricks and mortar upon the actual possession of eight hundred. But there was the chancel! To leave it as it was whilst restoring the nave would have been too heart-rending; to touch it without Sir John Kynaston's assistance, impossible and illegal. Several times Eustace Daintree had applied to Sir John in writing upon the subject. The answers had been vague and unsatisfactory. He would promise nothing at all; he would come down and see it some day possibly, and then he would be able to say more about it; meanwhile, for the present, things must remain as they were.
When, therefore, the news was known that Sir John was actually coming down, Mr. Daintree's thoughts flew at once to his beloved church.
"Now we shall get the chancel done at last," he said to his wife gleefully, rubbing his hands. And the very day after Sir John's arrival Eustace went up to the Hall after dinner to see him upon the subject.
"Had you not better wait a day or two?" counselled his more prudent wife. "Wait till you meet him, naturally. You don't very well know what kind of man he is, nor how he will take it."
"What is the use of waiting? I knew him well enough eight years ago; he was a pleasant fellow enough then. He won't kill me, I suppose, and the chancel is a disgrace—a positive disgrace to him. It is my duty to point it out to him; the thing can't afford to wait, it ought to be done at once."
So he disregarded Marion's advice, and Vera helped him on with his great-coat in the hall, and wound his woollen comforter round his neck, and bade him good luck on his expedition to Kynaston.
He came back sorrowful and abashed. Sir John had been civil, very civil; he had insisted on his sitting down at his table—for he had apparently not finished his dinner—and had opened a bottle of fine old port in his honour. He had inquired about many of the old people, and had expressed a friendly interest in the parish generally; but with regard to the chancel, he had been as adamant.
He did not see, he had said, why it could not go on well enough as it was. If it was in bad repair, Davis should see to it; a man with a barrowful of bricks and a shovelful of mortar should be sent down. That, of course, it was his duty to do. Sir John did not understand that more could possibly be expected of him. The chancel had been good enough for his father, it would probably be good enough for him; it would last his time, he supposed, in any case.
But the soul of the Rev. Eustace became as water within him. It was not of a barrowful of bricks and shovelful of mortar that he had been dreaming, but of lancet windows and stone mouldings; of polished oak rafters within, and of high gables and red tiles without.
He came down from the Hall disheartened and discomfited, with all the spirit crushed out of him; and the ladies of his family, for once, were of one mind about the matter. There arose about him a storm of indignation and a gush of sympathy, which could not fail to soothe him somewhat. Eustace went to rest that night sore and heavy-hearted, it is true, but with all the damnatory verses in the Scriptures concerning the latter end of the "rich man" ringing in his head; a course of meditation which, upon the whole, afforded him a distinct sensation of consolation and comfort.
And the next morning in the churchyard Vera leant against the Cruppsian sarcophagus, and thought about it.
"Poor old Eustace," she said to herself; "how I wish I were very rich, and could do his chancel for him! How pleased he would be; and what a good fellow he is! How odd it is to think what different aims there are in people's lives! There are Eustace and Marion simply miserable this morning because of that hideous barn they can't get rid of. Well, it is hideous certainly; but it doesn't disturb my peace of mind in the least. What a mean curmudgeon Sir John must be, by the way! I should not have thought it from his photograph; such a frank, open, generous face he seemed to have. However, we all know how photographs can mislead one. I wonder where that wretched boy can be!"
The "wretched boy" was Jimmy Griffiths afore-mentioned; he was the youth who was in the habit of blowing the organ. The schoolmaster, who was also the organist, was ill, and had sent word to Mr. Daintree that he would be unable to be at the church on the morrow. Eustace had asked Vera to take his place. Now Vera was not accomplished; she neither sang, nor played, nor painted in water-colours; but she had once learnt to play the organ a little—a very little. So she professed herself willing to undertake the office of organ-player for once, that is to say, if she found she could do it pretty well, only she must go into church and try all the chants over. So Jimmy Griffiths was sent for from the village, and Vera, with the church key in her pocket, strolled idly into the churchyard, and, whilst awaiting him, meditated upon the tomb of the two Mrs. Crupps.
She had come in from the private gate of the vicarage, and the vicarage garden—very bleak and very desolate by this time—lay behind her. To the right, the public pathway led down through the lych-gate into the village. Anybody coming up from the village could have seen her as she stood against the granite monument. She wore a long fur cloak down almost to her feet, and a round fur cap upon her head; they were her sister Theodora's sables, which she had left to her. Old Mrs. Daintree always told her she ought to sell them, a remark which made Vera very angry. Her back was turned to the village and to the lych-gate, and she was looking up at poor Eustace's bug-bear—the barn-like chancel.
Suddenly somebody came up close behind her and spoke to her.
"Can you tell me, please, where the keys of the church are kept?"
A gentleman stood beside her, lifting his hat as he spoke. Vera started a little at being so suddenly spoken to, but answered quite quietly and unconfusedly,
"They are generally kept at the vicarage, or else in the clerk's cottage."
"Thank you; then I will go and fetch them."
"But they are not there now," said Vera, as though finishing her former remark.
"If you will kindly tell me where I can find them," continued the stranger, very politely, "I will go and get them."
"I am afraid you can't do that," said Vera, with just the vestige of a smile playing upon her face, "because they are at present in my pocket."
"Oh, I beg your pardon;" and the stranger smiled outright.
"But I will let you into the church, if you like; if that is what you wish?" she said, quite simply.
"Yes, if you please." Vera moved up the path to the porch, the gentleman following her. She turned the key in the heavy door and held it open. "If you will go in, please, I will take the keys; I must not leave them in the door." The gentleman went in, and Vera looked at him as he passed by.
Most uninteresting! was her verdict as he passed her; forty at the very least! What a beautiful situation for an adventure! What a romantic incident! And how excessively tame is the denouement! A middle-aged gentleman, tall and slightly bald, with close-cropped whiskers and grave, set features; who on earth could he be? A stranger, evidently; perhaps he was staying at some neighbouring country house, and had walked over to Sutton for the sake of exercise; but what on earth could he want to see the church for!
The stranger stood just inside the door with his hat off, looking at her.
"Won't you come in and show it to me?" he asked, rather hesitatingly.
"The church? oh, certainly, if you like, but there is nothing to see in it." She came in, closing the door behind her, and stood beside him. It did not strike her as unusual or interesting, or as anything, in fact, but the most common-place and unexciting proceeding, that she should do the honours of the church to this middle-aged stranger.
They stood side by side in the centre of the small nave with all the ugly, high, red-cushioned pews around them. Vera looked up and down the familiar place as though she and not he were seeing it for the first time; from the row of whitewashed pillars to the staring white windows; from the hatchment on the plastered walls to the disfiguring gallery along the west end.
"It is very hideous," she said, almost apologetically, "especially the chancel; Mr. Daintree wants to have it restored, but I suppose that can't be done at all now."
"Why can't it be done?"
"Oh, because nothing can be done unless the chancel is pulled down; that belongs to the lay rector, and he has refused to restore it."
"Sir John Kynaston is the lay rector."
"Yes!" Vera looked a little startled; "do you know him?"
The gentleman passed his hand over his chin.
"Slightly," he answered, not looking at her.
"It is a pity he cannot be brought to see how necessary it is, for he certainly ought to do it," continued Vera. "You see I cannot help being interested in it because Mr. Daintree is such a good man, and has worked so hard to get up money to begin the rest of the church. He had quite counted upon the chancel being done, and now he is so much disappointed; but, I beg your pardon, this cannot interest you."
"But it interests me very much. Why does not somebody put it in this light to Sir John; he would not surely refuse?"
"My brother-in-law, Mr. Daintree, I mean, did ask him last night, and he would not promise to do anything."
The stranger suddenly left her side and walked up the church by himself into the chancel. He went straight up to the east end and made a minute examination apparently of the wall; after that, he came slowly down again, looking carefully into every corner and cranny from the whitewashed ceiling down to the damp and uneven stone paving at his feet; Vera thought him a very odd person, and wondered what he was thinking about.
He came back to her and stood before her looking at her for a minute. And then he made this most remarkable speech:
"If you were to ask Sir John Kynaston this he would restore the chancel!" he said.
For half-a-second Vera stared at him in blank amazement. Then she turned haughtily round, and flushed hotly with angry indignation.
"There is nothing more to see in the church," she said, shortly, and walked straight out of it.
The stranger had followed her; when they reached the churchyard he said to her, quite humbly,
"I beg your pardon; Miss Nevill; how unlucky I am to have made you angry, to begin with."
Vera looked at him in astonishment. How did he know her name; who was he? He was looking at her with such a penitent and distressed expression, that for the first time she noticed what a kind face it was. Then, before she could answer him, she saw her brother-in-law over the paling of the vicarage garden, coming towards them.
The stranger saw him, too, and lifted his hat to her.
"Good-bye," he said, rather hastily; "I did not mean to offend you; don't be angry about it;" and, before she could say a word, he turned quickly down the churchyard through the lych-gate into the road, and was gone.
"Vera," said Eustace Daintree, coming leisurely up to her through the garden gate, "how on earth do you come to be talking to Sir John; has he been saying anything to you about the chancel?"
"Who was it? who did you say?" cried Vera, aghast.
"Why, Sir John Kynaston, to be sure. Did you not know it was he?"
She was thunderstruck. "Are you quite sure?" she faltered.
"Why, of course! I saw him only last night, you know. I wonder why he went off in such a hurry when he saw me?"
Vera was walking silently down the garden towards the house by his side. The thought in her mind was, "If that was Sir John Kynaston, who then is the photograph I found in the writing-table drawer?"
"What did he say to you, Vera? How came you to be talking to him?" pursued her brother-in-law.
"I only let him into the church. I did not know who he was. I told him the chancel ought to be restored—by himself."
Eustace Daintree looked dismayed.
"How very unfortunate. It will, perhaps, make him still more decided to do nothing."
Vera smiled a little to herself. "I hope not, Eustace," was all she said. But although she said no word of it to him, she knew at her heart that his chancel would be restored for him.
Late that night Vera sat alone by her fireside, and thought over her morning's adventure; and once again she said to herself, with a little regretful sigh, "Whose, then, was the photograph?" But she put the thought away from her.
After all, she said to herself, it made no difference. He was still Sir John Kynaston of Kynaston Hall, and just as well worth a woman's while to marry. She had made some mistake, that was all; and the real Sir John was not the least romantic or interesting to look at, but Kynaston Hall belonged to him all the same.
They were not very exalted or very much to be admired, these dreams of Vera's girlhood. But neither were they quite so coarse and unlovely as would have been those of a purely mercenary woman. She was free from the vulgarity of desiring the man's money and his name from any desire to raise herself above her relations, or to feed her own vanity and ambition at their expense. It was only that, marriage being a necessity for her, to marry anything but a rich man would have been, with her tastes and the habits to which she had been brought up, the sheerest and rankest folly. She thought she could make a good wife to any man whose life she would like to share—that is to say, a life of ease and affluence. She knew she would make a very bad wife to a poor man. Therefore she determined upon so carving out her own fortunes that she should not make a failure of herself. It was worldly wisdom of the purest and simplest character.
She was as much determined as ever upon winning Kynaston's owner if he was to be won. Only she wished, with a little sigh, that he had happened to be the man in the photograph. She hardly knew why she wished it—but the wish was there.
She sat bending over her fire, with all her soft, dark hair loose about her face and flowing down her back, and her eyes fixed dreamily upon the flames. Her past life came back to her, her old life in the whirl and turmoil of pleasure which had suited her so well. She compared it, a little drearily, with the present; with the humdrum routine of the vicarage; with the parish talk about the old women and the schools; and the small tittle-tattle about the schoolmaster and the choir, going on around her all day; with old Mrs. Daintree's sharp tongue and her sister's meek rejoinders. She was very tired of it. It did not amuse her. She was not exactly discontented with her lot. Eustace and her sister were very kind to her, and she loved them dearly; but she did not live their life—she was with them, but not of them. As for herself, for her interests and her delights, they stagnated amongst them all. How long was it to last?
And Kynaston, by contrast, appeared very fair, with its smooth lawns and its terrace walks, and its great desolate rooms, that she would so well understand how to fill with life and brightness; but Kynaston's master counted for very little to her. She knew the power of her own beauty so well. Experience had taught her that Vera Nevill had but to smile and to win; it had been so easy to her to be loved and wooed.
"Only," she said to herself, as she stood up before her fire, and stretched up her arms so that her long hair fell back like a cloud around her, "only he is a different sort of man to what I had pictured him. It will, perhaps, not be such an easy matter to win a man like that."
She went to bed and dreamt—not of Sir John Kynaston—but of the man whose pictured face once seen had haunted her ever since.
Once at least in a man's life, if only for a brief space, he reverences the saint in the woman he desires. He may love and pursue again and again, but she who has power to hold him back, who can make him tremble instead of woo, who can make him silent when he feels eloquent, and restrained when most impassioned, has won from him what never again can be given.
It was an easier matter to win him than Vera thought.
A week later Sir John Kynaston sat alone by his library fire, after breakfast, and owned to himself that he had fallen hopelessly and helplessly in love with Vera Nevill.
This was all the more remarkable because Sir John was not a very young man, and that he was, moreover, not of a nature to do things rashly or impulsively.
He was, on the contrary, of a slow and hesitating disposition. He was in the habit of weighing his words and his actions before he spoke or acted, his mind was tardy to take in new thoughts and new ideas, and he was cautious and almost sluggish in taking any steps in a strange and unaccustomed direction.
Nevertheless, in this matter of Vera, he had succumbed to his fate with all the uncalculating blindness of a boy in his teens.
Vera was like no other woman he had ever seen; she was as far removed above common young-ladyhood as Raphael's Madonnas are beyond and above Greuze's simpering maidens; there could be no other like her—she was a queen, a goddess among women.
From the very first moment that he had caught sight of her on the terrace outside his house her absolute mastery over him had begun. Her rare beauty, her quiet smile, her slow, indolent movements, the very tones of her rich, low voice, all impressed him in a strange and wonderful manner. She seemed to him to be the incarnation of everything that was pure and elevated in womanhood. To have imagined that such a one as she could have thought of his wealth or his position would have been the rankest blasphemy in his eyes.
He raised her up on a pedestal of his own creating, and then he fell down before her and adored her.
John Kynaston had but little knowledge of women. Shy and retiring in manner—somewhat suspicious and distrustful also—he had kept out of their way through life. Once, in very early manhood, he had been deceived; he had become engaged to a girl whom he afterwards discovered to have accepted him only for his money and his name, whilst her heart really belonged to another and a poorer man. He had shaken himself free of her, with horror and disgust, and had sworn to himself that he would never be so betrayed again. Since then he had been suspicious—and not without just cause—of the young ladies who had smiled upon him, and of their mothers, who had pressed him with gracious invitations to their houses. He was a rich man, but he did not mean to be loved for his wealth; he said to himself that, sooner than be so, he would die unmarried and leave to Maurice the task of keeping up the old name and the old family.
But he had seen Vera; and all at once all the old barriers of pride and reserve were broken down! Here was the one woman on earth who realized his dreams, the one woman whom he would wait and toil for, even as Jacob waited and toiled for Rachel!
He had come down to Kynaston to hunt; but hitherto hunting had been very little in his thoughts. He had been down to the vicarage once or twice, he had met her once in the lanes, and he had longed for a glimpse of her daily; as yet he had done nothing else. He opened his letters on this particular morning slowly and abstractedly, tossing them into the fire, one after the other, as he read them, and not paying very much attention to their contents.
There was one, however, from his brother, "I wish you would ask me down to Kynaston for a week or two, old fellow," wrote Maurice. "I know you would mount me—now I have got rid of all my horses to please you—and I should like a glimpse of the old country. Write and tell me if I shall come down on Monday."
This letter Sir John did pay attention to. He rose hastily, as though not a moment was to be lost, and answered it:—
"Dear Maurice,—I can't possibly have you down here yet. My own plans are very uncertain, and if you are going to take your leave after Christmas, you had far better not go away from your work now. If I am still here in January, I shall be delighted if you will come down, and will mount you as much as you like."
He was happier when he had written and directed this letter.
"I must be alone just now," he murmured. "I could not bear Maurice's chatter—it would jar upon me."
Then he put on his hat and strolled out. He looked in at the stables one minute, and called the head groom to him.
"Wright, did not Mr. Beavan say, when I bought that new bay mare of him, that she had carried a lady to hounds?"
"Yes, Sir John; Miss Beavan rode her last season."
"Ah, she is a good rider. Well, I wish you would put a side-saddle and a skirt on her, and exercise her this morning. I might want to—to lend her to a lady; but she must be perfectly quiet. You can take her out every day this week."
Sir John went on his way, leaving the worthy Wright a prey to speculation as to who the mysterious lady might be for whom the bay mare was to be exercised.
His master, meanwhile, bent his steps almost instinctively to the vicarage.
Vera was undergoing a periodical persecution concerning Mr. Gisburne at the hands of old Mrs. Daintree. She was standing up by the table arranging some scarlet berries and some long trails of ivy which the children had brought to her in a vase. Tommy and Minnie stood by watching her intently; Mrs. Daintree sat at a little distance, her lap full of undarned socks, and rated her.
"It is not as if you were a girl who could earn her living in case of need. There is not one single thing you can do."
"Aunt Vera can make nosegays of berries boofully, grandma," interpolates Tommy, earnestly; "can't she, Minnie?"
"Yes, she do," assented the smaller child, with emphasis.
"I wasn't speaking to you, Tom; little boys should be—"
"Heard and not seen," puts in Tommy, rapidly; "you always say that, grandma."
Vera laughs softly. Mrs. Daintree goes on with her lecture.
"Many girls in your position are very accomplished; can teach the piano, and history, and the elements of Latin; but it seems to me you have been brought up in idleness."
"Idleness is not to be despised in its way," answers Vera, composedly. "Another bit of ivy, Tommy. What shall I do, Mrs. Daintree?" she continues, whilst her deft fingers wind the trailing greenery round and round the glass stem of the vase. "Shall I go down to the village school and sit at the feet of Mr. Dee? I have no doubt he could teach me a great many things I know nothing about."
"That is nonsense; of course I don't mean that you can educate yourself to any purpose now; it is too late for that; but you need not, at all events, turn up your nose at the blessings that Providence sets before you; and I must say, that for a young woman deliberately to choose to remain a burden upon her friends, betokens an amount of servility and a lack of the spirit of independence which I should not have supposed possible even in you!"
"What do you want me to do?" said Vera, without a sign of impatience. "Shall I walk over to Tripton this afternoon, and make a low curtsey to Mr. Gisburne, and say to him very politely, 'Here is an idle and penniless young woman who would be very pleased to stop here and marry you!' Would that be the way to do it, Mrs. Daintree?"