"Summat to eat!" said Mrs Baggett, in extreme disgust. "Provide him with a lock-up and plenty of cold water!"
MR BLAKE'S GOOD NEWS.
In the afternoon, after lunch had been eaten, there came a ring at the back-door, and Mr Montagu Blake was announced. There had been a little contretemps or misadventure. It was Mr Blake's habit when he called at Croker's Hall to ride his horse into the yard, there to give him up to Hayonotes, and make his way in by the back entrance. On this occasion Hayonotes had been considerably disturbed in his work, and was discussing the sad condition of Mr Baggett with Thornybush over the gate of the kitchen-garden. Consequently, Mr Blake had taken his own horse into the stable, and as he was about to lead the beast up to the stall, had been stopped and confused by Sergeant Baggett's protruding wooden leg.
"'Alloa! what's up now?" said a voice, addressing Mr Blake from under the straw. "Do you go down, old chap, and get us three-penn'orth of cream o' the valley from the Cock."
Then Mr Blake had been aware that this prior visitor was not in a condition to be of much use to him, and tied up his own horse in another stall. But on entering the house, Mr Blake announced the fact of there being a stranger in the stables, and suggested that the one-legged gentleman had been looking at somebody taking a glass of gin. Then Mrs Baggett burst out into a loud screech of agony. "The nasty drunken beast! he ought to be locked up into the darkest hole they've got in all Alresford."
"But who is the gentleman?" said Mr Blake.
"My husband, sir; I won't deny him. He is the cross as I have to carry, and precious heavy he is. You must have heard of Sergeant Baggett;—the most drunkenest, beastliest, idlest scoundrel as ever the Queen had in the army, and the most difficultest for a woman to put up with in the way of a husband! Let a woman be ever so decent, he'd drink her gowns and her petticoats, down to her very underclothing. How would you like, sir, to have to take up with such a beast as that, after living all your life as comfortable as any lady in the land? Wouldn't that be a come-down, Mr Blake? And then to have your box locked up, and be told that the key of your bedroom door is in the master's pocket." Thus Mrs Baggett continued to bewail her destiny.
Mr Blake having got rid of the old woman, and bethinking himself of the disagreeable incidents to which a gentleman with a larger establishment than his own might be liable, made his way into the sitting-room, where he found Mary Lawrie alone; and having apologised for the manner of his intrusion, and having said something intended to be jocose as to the legs of the warrior in the stable, at once asked a question as to John Gordon.
"Mr Gordon!" said Mary. "He was here this morning with Mr Whittlestaff, but I know nothing of him since."
"He hasn't gone back to London?"
"I don't know where he has gone. He slept in Alresford last night, but I know nothing of him since."
"He sent his bag by the boy at the inn down to the railway station when he came up here. I found his bag there, but heard nothing of him. They told me at the inn that he was to come up here, and I thought I should either find him here or meet him on the road."
"Do you want to find him especially?"
"Do you know Mr Gordon?"
"Well, yes; I do. That is to say, he dined with me last night. We were at Oxford together, and yesterday evening we got talking about our adventures since."
"He told you that he had been at the diamond-fields?"
"Oh, yes; I know all about the diamond-fields. But Mr Hall particularly wants to see him up at the Park." (Mr Hall was the squire with four daughters who lived at Little Alresford.) "Mr Hall says that he knew his father many years ago, and sent me out to look for him. I shall be wretched if he goes away without coming to Little Alresford House. He can't go back to London before four o'clock, because there is no train. You know nothing about his movements?"
"Nothing at all. For some years past Mr Gordon has been altogether a stranger to me." Mr Blake looked into her face, and was aware that there was something to distress her. He at once gathered from her countenance that Mr Whittlestaff had been like the dog that stuck to his bone, and that John Gordon was like the other dog—the disappointed one—and had been turned out from the neighbourhood of the kennel. "I should imagine that Mr Gordon has gone away, if not to London, then in some other direction." It was clear that the young lady intended him to understand that she could say nothing and knew nothing as to Mr Gordon's movements.
"I suppose I must go down to the station and leave word for him there," said Mr Blake. Miss Lawrie only shook her head. "Mr Hall will be very sorry to miss him. And then I have some special good news to tell him."
"Special good news!" Could it be that something had happened which would induce Mr Whittlestaff to change his mind. That was the one subject which to her, at the present moment, was capable of meaning specially good tidings.
"Yes, indeed, Miss Lawrie; double good news, I may say. Old Mr Harbottle has gone at last at San Remo." Mary did know who Mr Harbottle was,—or had been. Mr Harbottle had been the vicar at Little Alresford, for whose death Mr Blake was waiting, in order that he might enter in together upon the good things of matrimony and the living. He was a man so contented, and talked so frequently of the good things which Fortune was to do for him, that the tidings of his luck had reached even the ears of Mary Lawrie. "That's an odd way of putting it, of course," continued Mr Blake; "but then he was quite old and very asthmatic, and couldn't ever come back again. Of course I'm very sorry for him,—in one way; but then I'm very glad in another. It is a good thing to have the house in my own hands, so as to begin to paint at once, ready for her coming. Her father wouldn't let her be married till I had got the living, and I think he was right, because I shouldn't have liked to spend money in painting and such like on an uncertainty. As the old gentleman had to die, why shouldn't I tell the truth? Of course I am glad, though it does sound so terrible."
"But what are the double good news?"
"Oh, I didn't tell you. Miss Forrester is to come to the Park. She is not coming because Mr Harbottle is dead. That's only a coincidence. We are not going to be married quite at once,—straight off the reel, you know. I shall have to go to Winchester for that. But now that old Harbottle has gone, I'll get the day fixed; you see if I don't. But I must really be off, Miss Lawrie. Mr Hall will be terribly vexed if I don't find Gordon, and there's no knowing where he may go whilst I'm talking here." Then he made his adieux, but returned before he had shut the door after him. "You couldn't send somebody with me, Miss Lawrie? I shall be afraid of that wooden-legged man in the stables, for fear he should get up and abuse me. He asked me to get him some gin,—which was quite unreasonable." But on being assured that he would find the groom about the place, he went out, and the trot of his horse was soon heard upon the road.
He did succeed in finding John Gordon, who was listlessly waiting at the Claimant's Arms for the coming of the four o'clock train which was to take him back to London, on his way, as he told himself, to the diamond-fields. He had thrown all his heart, all the energy of which he was the master, into the manner in which he had pleaded for himself and for Mary with Mr Whittlestaff. But he felt the weakness of his position in that he could not remain present upon the ground and see the working of his words. Having said what he had to say, he could only go; and it was not to be expected that the eloquence of an absent man, of one who had declared that he was about to start for South Africa, should be regarded. He knew that what he had said was true, and that, being true, it ought to prevail; but, having declared it, there was nothing for him to do but to go away. He could not see Mary herself again, nor, if he did so, would she be so likely to yield to him as was Mr Whittlestaff. He could have no further excuse for addressing himself to the girl who was about to become the wife of another man. Therefore he sat restless, idle, and miserable in the little parlour at the Claimant's Arms, thinking that the long journey which he had made had been taken all in vain, and that there was nothing left for him in the world but to return to Kimberley, and add more diamonds to his stock-in-trade.
"Oh, Gordon!" said Blake, bursting into the room, "you're the very man I want to find. You can't go back to London to-day."
"Quite out of the question. Mr Hall knew your father intimately when you were only a little chap."
"Will that prevent my going back to London?"
"Certainly it will. He wants to renew the acquaintance. He is a most hospitable, kind-hearted man; and who knows, one of the four daughters might do yet."
"Who is Mr Hall?" No doubt he had heard the name on the previous evening; but Hall is common, and had been forgotten.
"Who is Mr Hall? Why, he is the squire of Little Alresford, and my patron. I forget you haven't heard that Mr Harbottle is dead at last. Of course I am very sorry for the old gentleman in one sense; but it is such a blessing in another. I'm only just thirty, and it's a grand thing my tumbling into the living in this way."
"I needn't go back because Mr Harbottle is dead."
"But Kattie Forrester is coming to the Park. I told you last night, but I daresay you've forgotten it; and I couldn't tell then that Mr Hall was acquainted with you, or that he would be so anxious to be hospitable. He says that I'm to tell you to take your bag up to the house at once. There never was anything more civil than that. Of course I let him know that we had been at Oxford together. That does go for something."
"The university and your society together," suggested Gordon.
"Don't chaff, because I'm in earnest. Kattie Forrester will be in by the very train that was to take you on to London, and I'm to wait and put her into Mr Hall's carriage. One of the daughters, I don't doubt, will be there, and you can wait and see her if you like it. If you'll get your bag ready, the coachman will take it with Kattie's luggage. There's the Park carriage coming down the street now. I'll go out and stop old Steadypace the coachman; only don't you keep him long, because I shouldn't like Kattie to find that there was no one to look after her at the station."
There seemed to be an opening in all this for John Gordon to remain at any rate a day longer in the neighbourhood of Mary Lawrie, and he determined that he would avail himself of the opportunity. He therefore, together with his friend Blake, saw the coachman, and gave instructions as to finding the bag at the station, and prepared himself to walk out to the Park. "You can go down to the station," he said to Blake, "and can ride back with the carriage."
"Of course I shall see you up at the house," said Blake. "Indeed I've been asked to stay there whilst Kattie is with them. Nothing can be more hospitable than Mr Hall and his four daughters. I'd give you some advice, only I really don't know which you'd like the best. There is a sort of similarity about them; but that wears off when you come to know them. I have heard people say that the two eldest are very much alike. If that be so, perhaps you'll like the third the best. The third is the nicest, as her hair may be a shade darker than the others. I really must be off now, as I wouldn't for worlds that the train should come in before I'm on the platform." With that he went into the yard, and at once trotted off on his cob.
Gordon paid his bill, and started on his walk to Little Alresford Park. Looking back into his early memories, he could just remember to have heard his father speak of Mr Hall. But that was all. His father was now dead, and, certainly, he thought, had not mentioned the name for many years. But the invitation was civil, and as he was to remain in the neighbourhood, it might be that he should again have an opportunity of seeing Mary Lawrie or Mr Whittlestaff. He found that Little Alresford Park lay between the town and Mr Blake's church, so that he was at the gate sooner than he expected. He went in, and having time on his hands, deviated from the road and went up a hill, which was indeed one of the downs, though between the park paling. Here he saw deer feeding, and he came after a while to a beech grove. He had now gone down the hill on the other side, and found himself close to as pretty a labourer's cottage as he remembered ever to have seen. It was still June, and it was hot, and he had been on his legs nearly the whole morning. Then he began to talk, or rather to think to himself. "What a happy fellow is that man Montagu Blake! He has every thing,—not that he wants, but that he thinks that he wants. The work of his life is merely play. He is going to marry a wife,—not who is, but whom he thinks to be perfection. He looks as though he were never ill a day in his life. How would he do if he were grubbing for diamonds amidst the mud and dust of Kimberley? Instead of that, he can throw himself down on such a spot as this, and meditate his sermon among the beech-trees." Then he began to think whether the sermon could be made to have some flavour of the beech-trees, and how much better in that case it would be, and as he so thought he fell asleep.
He had not been asleep very long, perhaps not five minutes, when he became aware in his slumbers that an old man was standing over him. One does thus become conscious of things before the moment of waking has arrived, so positively as to give to the sleeper a false sense of the reality of existence. "I wonder whether you can be Mr Gordon," said the old man.
"But I am," said Gordon. "I wonder how you know me."
"Because I expect you." There was something very mysterious in this,—which, however, lost all mystery as soon as he was sufficiently awake to think of things. "You are Mr Blake's friend."
"Yes; I am Mr Blake's friend."
"And I am Mr Hall. I didn't expect to find you sleeping here in Gar Wood. But when I find a strange gentleman asleep in Gar Wood, I put two and two together, and conclude that you must be Mr Gordon."
"It's the prettiest place in all the world, I think."
"Yes; we are rather proud of Gar Wood,—especially when the deer are browsing on the hill-side to the left, as they are now. If you don't want to go to sleep again, we'll walk up to the house. There's the carriage. I can hear the wheels. The girls have gone down to fetch your friend's bride. Mr Blake is very fond of his bride,—as I dare say you have found out."
Then, as the two walked together to the house, Mr Hall explained that there had been some little difference in years gone by between old Mr Gordon and himself as to money. "I was very sorry, but I had to look after myself. You knew nothing about it, I dare say."
"I have heard your name—that's all."
"I need not say anything more about it," said Mr Hall; "only when I heard that you were in the country, I was very glad to have the opportunity of seeing you. Blake tells me that you know my friend Whittlestaff."
"I did not know him till yesterday morning."
"Then you know the young lady there; a charming young lady she is. My girls are extremely fond of Mary Lawrie. I hope we may get them to come over while you are staying here."
"I can only remain one night,—or at the most two, Mr Hall."
"Pooh, pooh! We have other places in the neighbourhood to show you quite as pretty as Gar Wood. Though that's a bounce: I don't think there is any morsel quite so choice as Gar Wood when the deer are there. What an eye you must have, Mr Gordon, to have made it out by yourself at once; but then, after all, it only put you to sleep. I wonder whether the Rookery will put you to sleep. We go in this way, so as to escape the formality of the front door, and I'll introduce you to my daughters and Miss Forrester."
AT LITTLE ALRESFORD.
Mr Hall was a pleasant English gentleman, now verging upon seventy years of age, who had "never had a headache in his life," as he was wont to boast, but who lived very carefully, as one who did not intend to have many headaches. He certainly did not intend to make his head ache by the cares of the work of the world. He was very well off;—that is to say, that with so many thousands a year, he managed to live upon half. This he had done for very many years, because the estate was entailed on a distant relative, and because he had not chosen to leave his children paupers. When the girls came he immediately resolved that he would never go up to London,—and kept his resolve. Not above once in three or four years was it supposed to be necessary that he showed his head to a London hairdresser. He was quite content to have a practitioner out from Alresford, and to pay him one shilling, including the journey. His tenants in these bad times had always paid their rents, but they had done so because their rents had not been raised since the squire had come to the throne. Mr Hall knew well that if he was anxious to save himself from headaches in that line, he had better let his lands on easy terms. He was very hospitable, but he never gave turtle from London, or fish from Southampton, or strawberries or peas on the first of April. He could give a dinner without champagne, and thought forty shillings a dozen price enough for port or sherry, or even claret. He kept a carriage for his four daughters, and did not tell all the world that the horses spent a fair proportion of their time at the plough. The four daughters had two saddle-horses between them, and the father had another for his own use. He did not hunt,—and living in that part of Hampshire, I think he was right. He did shoot after the manner of our forefathers;—would go out, for instance, with Mr Blake, and perhaps Mr Whittlestaff, and would bring home three pheasants, four partridges, a hare, and any quantity of rabbits that the cook might have ordered. He was a man determined on no account to live beyond his means; and was not very anxious to seem to be rich. He was a man of no strong affections, or peculiarly generous feelings. Those who knew him, and did not like him, said that he was selfish. They who were partial to him declared that he never owed a shilling that he could not pay, and that his daughters were very happy in having such a father. He was a good-looking man, with well-formed features, but one whom you had to see often before you could remember him. And as I have said before, he "never had a headache in his life." "When your father wasn't doing quite so well with the bank as his friends wished, he asked me to do something for him. Well; I didn't see my way."
"I was a boy then, and I heard nothing of my father's business."
"I dare say not; but I cannot help telling you. He thought I was unkind. I thought that he would go on from one trouble to another;—and he did. He quarrelled with me, and for years we never spoke. Indeed I never saw him again. But for the sake of old friendship, I am very glad to meet you." This he said, as he was walking across the hall to the drawing-room.
There Gordon met the young ladies with the clergyman, and had to undergo the necessary introductions. He thought that he could perceive at once that his story, as it regarded Mary Lawrie, had been told to all of them. Gordon was quick, and could learn from the manners of his companions what had been said about him, and could perceive that they were aware of something of his story. Blake had no such quickness, and could attribute none of it to another. "I am very proud to have the pleasure of making you acquainted with these five young ladies." As he said this he had just paused in his narrative of Mr Whittlestaff's love, and was certain that he had changed the conversation with great effect. But the young ladies were unable not to look as young ladies would have looked when hearing the story of an unfortunate gentleman's love. And Mr Blake would certainly have been unable to keep such a secret.
"This is Miss Hall, and this is Miss Augusta Hall," said the father. "People do think that they are alike."
"Oh, papa, what nonsense! You needn't tell Mr Gordon that."
"No doubt he would find it out without telling," continued the father.
"I can't see it, for the life of me," said Mr Blake. He evidently thought that civility demanded such an assertion. Mr Gordon, looking at the two young ladies, felt that he would never know them apart though he might live in the house for a year.
"Evelina is the third," continued Mr Hall, pointing out the one whom Mr Blake had specially recommended to his friend's notice. "Evelina is not quite so like, but she's like too."
"Papa, what nonsense you do talk!" said Evelina.
"And this is Mary. Mary considers herself to be quite the hope of the family; spem gregis. Ha, ha!"
"What does spem gregis mean? I'm sure I don't know," said Mary. The four young ladies were about thirty, varying up from thirty to thirty-five. They were fair-haired, healthy young women, with good common-sense, not beautiful, though very like their father.
"And now I must introduce you to Miss Forrester,—Kattie Forrester," said Mr Blake, who was beginning to think that his own young lady was being left out in the cold.
"Yes, indeed," said Mr Hall. "As I had begun with my own, I was obliged to go on to the end. Miss Forrester—Mr Gordon. Miss Forrester is a young lady whose promotion has been fixed in the world."
"Mr Hall, how can you do me so much injury as to say that? You take away from me the chance of changing my mind."
"Yes," said the oldest Miss Hall; "and Mr Gordon the possibility of changing his. Mr Gordon, what a sad thing it is that Mr Harbottle should never have had an opportunity of seeing his old parish once again."
"I never knew him," said Gordon.
"But he had been here nearly fifty years. And then to leave the parish without seeing it any more. It's very sad when you look at it in that light."
"He has never resided here permanently for a quarter of a century," said Mr Blake.
"Off and on in the summer time," said Augusta. "Of course he could not take much of the duty, because he had a clergyman's throat. I think it a great pity that he should have gone off so suddenly."
"Miss Forrester won't wish to have his resurgam sung, I warrant you," said Mr Hall.
"I don't know much about resurgams," said the young lady, "but I don't see why the parish shall not be just as well in Mr Blake's hands." Then the young bride was taken away by the four elder ladies to dress, and the gentlemen followed them half an hour afterwards.
They were all very kind to him, and sitting after dinner, Mr Hall suggested that Mr Whittlestaff and Miss Lawrie should be asked over to dine on the next day. John Gordon had already promised to stay until the third, and had made known his intention of going back to South Africa as soon as he could arrange matters. "I've got nothing to keep me here," he said, "and as there is a good deal of money at stake, I should be glad to be there as soon as possible."
"Oh, come! I don't know about your having nothing to keep you here," said Blake. But as to Mr Hall's proposition regarding the inhabitants of Croker's Lodge, Gordon said nothing. He could not object to the guests whom a gentleman might ask to his own house; but he thought it improbable that either Mr Whittlestaff or Mary should come. If he chose to appear and to bring her with him, it must be his own look-out. At any rate he, Gordon, could say and could do nothing on such an occasion. He had been betrayed into telling his secret to this garrulous young parson. There was no help for spilt milk; but it was not probable that Mr Blake would go any further, and he at any rate must be content to bear the man's society for one other evening. "I don't see why you shouldn't manage to make things pleasant even yet," said the parson. But to this John Gordon made no reply.
In the evening some of the sisters played a few pieces at the piano, and Miss Forrester sang a few songs. Mr Hall in the meantime went fast asleep. John Gordon couldn't but tell himself that his evenings at Kimberley were, as a rule, quite as exciting. But then Kattie Forrester did not belong to him, and he had not found himself able as yet to make a choice between the young ladies. It was, however, interesting to see the manner in which the new vicar hung about the lady of his love, and the evident but innocent pride with which she accepted the attentions of her admirer.
"Don't you think she's a beautiful girl?" said Blake, coming to Gordon's room after they had all retired to bed; "such genuine wit, and so bright, and her singing, you know, is quite perfect,—absolutely just what it ought to be. I do know something about singing myself, because I've had all the parish voices under my own charge for the last three years. A practice like that goes a long way, you know." To this Mr Gordon could only give that assent which silence is intended to imply. "She'll have L5000 at once, you know, which does make her in a manner equal to either of the Miss Halls. I don't quite know what they'll have, but not more than that, I should think. The property is entailed, and he's a saving man. But if he can have put by L20,000, he has done very well; don't you think so?"
"Very well indeed."
"I suppose I might have had one of them; I don't mind telling you in strictest confidence. But, goodness gracious, after I had once seen Kattie Forrester, there was no longer a doubt. I wish you'd tell me what you think about her."
"About Miss Forrester?"
"You needn't mind speaking quite openly to me. I'm that sort of fellow that I shouldn't mind what any fellow said. I've formed my own ideas, and am not likely to change them. But I should like to hear, you know, how she strikes a fellow who has been at the diamond-fields. I cannot imagine but that you must have a different idea about women to what we have." Then Mr Blake sat himself down in an arm-chair at the foot of the bed, and prepared himself to discuss the opinion which he did not doubt that his friend was about to deliver.
"A very nice young woman indeed," said John Gordon, who was anxious to go to bed.
"Ah, you know,—that's a kind of thing that anybody can say. There is no real friendship in that. I want to know the true candid opinion of a man who has travelled about the world, and has been at the diamond-fields. It isn't everybody who has been at the diamond-fields," continued he, thinking that he might thereby flatter his friend.
"No, not everybody. I suppose a young woman is the same there as here, if she have the same natural gifts. Miss Forrester would be pretty anywhere."
"That's a matter of course. Any fellow can see that with half an eye. Absolutely beautiful, I should say, rather than pretty."
"Just so. It's only a variation in terms, you know."
"But then her manner, her music, her language, her wit, and the colour of her hair! When I remember it all, I think I'm the luckiest fellow in the world. I shall be a deal happier with her than with Augusta Hall. Don't you think so? Augusta was the one intended for me; but, bless you, I couldn't look at her after I had seen Kattie Forrester. I don't think you've given me your true unbiassed opinion yet."
"Indeed I have," said John Gordon.
"Well; I should be more free-spoken than that, if you were to ask me about Mary Lawrie. But then, of course, Mary Lawrie is not your engaged one. It does make a difference. If it does turn out that she marries Mr Whittlestaff, I shan't think much of her, I can tell you that. As it is, as far as looks are concerned, you can't compare her to my Kattie."
"Comparisons are odious," said Gordon.
"Well, yes; when you are sure to get the worst of them. You wouldn't think comparisons odious if you were going to marry Kattie, and it was my lot to have Mary Lawrie. Well, yes; I don't mind going to bed now, as you have owned so much as that."
"Of all the fools," said Gordon to himself, as he went to his own chamber,—"of all the fools who were ever turned out in the world to earn their own bread, he is the most utterly foolish. Yet he will earn his bread, and will come to no especial grief in the work. If he were to go out to Kimberley, no one would pay him a guinea a-week. But he will perform the high work of a clergyman of the Church of England indifferently well."
On the next morning a messenger was sent over to Croker's Hall, and came back after due lapse of time with an answer to the effect that Mr Whittlestaff and Miss Lawrie would have pleasure in dining that day at Little Alresford Park. "That's right," said Mr Blake to the lady of his love. "We shall now, perhaps, be able to put the thing into a proper groove. I'm always very lucky in managing such matters. Not that I think that Gordon cares very much about the young lady, judging from what he says of her."
"Then I don't see why you should interest yourself."
"For the young lady's sake. A lady always prefers a young gentleman to an old one. Only think what you'd feel if you were married to Mr Whittlestaff."
"Oh, Montagu! how can you talk such nonsense?"
"I don't suppose you ever would, because you are not one of those sort of young ladies. I don't suppose that Mary Lawrie likes it herself; and therefore I'd break the match off in a moment if I could. That's what I call good-natured."
After lunch they all went off to the Rookery, which was at the other side of the park from Gar Wood. It was a beautiful spot, lying at the end of the valley, through which they had to get out from their carriage, and to walk for half a mile. Only for the sake of doing honour to Miss Forrester, they would have gone on foot. But as it was, they had all the six horses among them. Mr Gordon was put up on one of the young ladies' steeds, the squire and the parson each had his own, and Miss Evelina was also mounted, as Mr Blake had suggested, perhaps with the view to the capture of Mr Gordon. "As it's your first day," whispered Mr Blake to Kattie, "it is so nice, I think, that the carriage and horses should all come out. Of course there is nothing in the distance, but there should be a respect shown on such an occasion. Mr Hall does do everything of this kind just as it should be."
"I suppose you know the young lady who is coming here to-night," said Evelina to Mr Gordon.
"Oh, yes; I knew her before I went abroad."
"But not Mr Whittlestaff?"
"I had never met Mr Whittlestaff, though I had heard much of his goodness."
"And now they are to be married. Does it not seem to you to be very hard?"
"Not in the least. The young lady seems to have been left by her father and step-mother without any engagement, and, indeed, without any provision. She was brought here, in the first place, from sheer charity, and I can certainly understand that when she was here Mr Whittlestaff should have admired her."
"That's a matter of course," said Evelina.
"Mr Whittlestaff is not at all too old to fall in love with any young lady. This is a pretty place,—a very lovely spot. I think I like it almost better than Gar Wood." Then there was no more said about Mary Lawrie till they all rode back to dinner.
MR WHITTLESTAFF IS GOING OUT TO DINNER.
"There's an invitation come, asking us to dine at Little Alresford to-day." This was said, soon after breakfast, by Mr Whittlestaff to Mary Lawrie, on the day after Mr Gordon's coming. "I think we'll go."
"Could you not leave me behind?"
"By no means. I want you to become intimate with the girls, who are good girls."
"But Mr Gordon is there."
"Exactly. That is just what I want. It will be better that you and he should meet each other, without the necessity of making a scene." From this it may be understood that Mr Whittlestaff had explained to Mary as much as he had thought necessary of what had occurred between him and John Gordon, and that Mary's answers had been satisfactory to his feelings. Mary had told him that she was contented with her lot in life, as Mr Whittlestaff had proposed it for her. She had not been enthusiastic; but then he had not expected it. She had not assured him that she would forget John Gordon. He had not asked her. She had simply said that if he were satisfied,—so was she. "I think that with me, dearest, at any rate, you will be safe." "I am quite sure that I shall be safe," she had answered. And that had been sufficient.
But the reader will also understand from this that he had sought for no answer to those burning questions which John Gordon had put to him. Had she loved John Gordon the longest? Did she love him the best? There was no doubt a certain cautious selfishness in the way in which he had gone to work. And yet of general selfishness it was impossible to accuse him. He was willing to give her everything,—to do all for her. And he had first asked her to be his wife, with every observance. And then he could always protect himself on the plea that he was doing the best he could for her. His property was assured,—in the three per cents, as Mrs Baggett had suggested; whereas John Gordon's was all in diamonds. How frequently do diamonds melt and come to nothing? They are things which a man can carry in his pocket, and lose or give away. They cannot,—so thought Mr Whittlestaff,—be settled in the hands of trustees, or left to the charge of an executor. They cannot be substantiated. Who can say that, when looking to a lady's interest, this bit of glass may not come up instead of that precious stone? "John Gordon might be a very steady fellow; but we have only his own word for that,"—as Mr Whittlestaff observed to himself. There could not be a doubt but that Mr Whittlestaff himself was the safer staff of the two on which a young lady might lean. He did make all these excuses for himself, and determined that they were of such a nature that he might rely upon them with safety. But still there was a pang in his bosom—a silent secret—which kept on whispering to him that he was not the best beloved. He had, however, resolved steadfastly that he would not put that question to Mary. If she did not wish to declare her love, neither did he. It was a pity, a thousand pities, that it should be so. A change in her heart might, however, take place. It would come to pass that she would learn that he was the superior staff on which to lean. John Gordon might disappear among the diamond-fields, and no more be heard of. He, at any rate, would do his best for her, so that she should not repent her bargain. But he was determined that the bargain, as it had been struck, should be carried out. Therefore, in communicating to Mary the invitation which he had received from Little Alresford, he did not find it necessary to make any special speech in answer to her inquiry about John Gordon.
She understood it all, and could not in her very heart pronounce a judgment against him. She knew that he was doing that which he believed would be the best for her welfare. She, overwhelmed by the debt of her gratitude, had acceded to his request, and had been unable afterwards to depart from her word. She had said that it should be so, and she could not then turn upon him and declare that when she had given him her hand, she had been unaware of the presence of her other lover. There was an injustice, an unkindness, an ingratitude, a selfishness in this, which forbade her to think of it as being done by herself. It was better for her that she should suffer, though the suffering should be through her whole life, than that he should be disappointed. No doubt the man would suffer too,—her hero, her lover,—he with whom she would so willingly have risked everything, either with or without the diamonds. She could not, however, bear to think that Mr Whittlestaff should be so very prudent and so very wise solely on her behalf. She would go to him, but for other reasons than that. As she walked about the place half the day, up and down the long walk, she told herself that it was useless to contend with her love. She did love John Gordon; she knew that she loved him with her whole heart; she knew that she must be true to him;—but still she would marry Mr Whittlestaff, and do her duty in that state of life to which it had pleased God to call her. There would be a sacrifice—a sacrifice of two—but still it was justice.
Had she not consented to take everything from Mr Whittlestaff; her bread, her meat, her raiment, the shelter under which she lived, and the position in the world which she now enjoyed? Had the man come but a day earlier, it would all have been well. She would have told her love before Mr Whittlestaff had spoken of his wants. Circumstances had been arranged differently, and she must bear it. But she knew that it would be better for her that she should see John Gordon no more. Had he started at once to London and gone thence to the diamond-fields without seeing her again there would be a feeling that she had become the creature of stern necessity; there would have been no hope for her,—as also no fear. Had he started a second time for South Africa, she would have looked upon his further return with any reference to her own wants as a thing impossible. But now how would it be with her? Mr Whittlestaff had told her with a stern indifference that she must again meet this man, sit at the table with him as an old friend, and be again subject to his influence. "It will be better that you and he should meet," he had said, "without the necessity of making a scene." How could she assure him that there would be no scene?
Then she thought that she would have recourse to that ordinary feminine excuse, a headache; but were she to do so she would own the whole truth to her master; she would have declared that she so loved the man that she could not endure to be in his presence. She must now let the matter pass as he had intended. She must go to Mr Hall's house, and there encounter him she loved with what show of coldness she might be able to assume.
But the worst of it all lay in this,—that she could not but think that he had been induced to remain in the neighbourhood in order that he might again try to gain his point. She had told herself again and again that it was impossible, that she must decide as she had decided, and that Mr Whittlestaff had decided so also. He had used what eloquence was within his reach, and it had been all in vain. He could now appeal only to herself, and to such appeal there could be but one answer. And how was such appeal to be made in Mr Hall's drawing-room? Surely John Gordon had been foolish in remaining in the neighbourhood. Nothing but trouble could come of it.
"So you are going to see this young man again!" This came from Mrs Baggett, who had been in great perturbation all the morning. The Sergeant had slept in the stables through the night, and had had his breakfast brought to him, warm, by his own wife; but he had sat up among the straw, and had winked at her, and had asked her to give him threepence of gin with the cat-lap. To this she had acceded, thinking probably that she could not altogether deprive him of the food to which he was accustomed without injury. Then, under the influence of the gin and the promise of a ticket to Portsmouth, which she undertook to get for him at the station, he was induced to go down with her, and was absolutely despatched. Her own box was still locked up, and she had slept with one of the two maids. All this had not happened without great disturbance in the household. She herself was very angry with her master because of the box; she was very angry with Mary, because Mary was, she thought, averse to her old lover; she was very angry with Mr Gordon, because she well understood that Mr Gordon was anxious to disturb the arrangement which had been made for the family. She was very angry with her husband, not because he was generally a drunken old reprobate, but because he had especially disgraced her on the present occasion by the noise which he had made in the road. No doubt she had been treated unfairly in the matter of the box, and could have succeeded in getting the law of her master. But she could not turn against her master in that way. She could give him a bit of her own mind, and that she did very freely; but she could not bring herself to break the lock of his door. And then, as things went now, she did think it well that she should remain a few days longer at Croker's Hall. The occasion of her master's marriage was to be the cause of her going away. She could not endure not to be foremost among all the women at Croker's Hall. But it was intolerable to her feelings that any one should interfere with her master; and she thought that, if need were, she could assist him by her tongue. Therefore she was disposed to remain yet a few days in her old place, and had come, after she had got the ticket for her husband,—which had been done before Mr Whittlestaff's breakfast,—to inform her master of her determination. "Don't be a fool," Mr Whittlestaff had said.
"I'm always a fool, whether I go or stay, so that don't much matter." This had been her answer, and then she had gone in to scold the maids.
As soon as she had heard of the intended dinner-party, she attacked Mary Lawrie. "So you're going to see this young man again?"
"Mr Whittlestaff is going to dine at Little Alresford, and intends to take me with him."
"Oh yes; that's all very well. He'd have left you behind if he'd been of my way of thinking. Mr Gordon here, and Mr Gordon there! I wonder what's Mr Gordon! He ain't no better than an ordinary miner. Coals and diamonds is all one to me;—I'd rather have the coals for choice." But Mary was not in a humour to contest the matter with Mrs Baggett, and left the old woman the mistress of the field.
When the time arrived for going to the dinner, Mr Whittlestaff took Mary in the pony carriage with him. "There is always a groom about there," he said, "so we need not take the boy." His object was, as Mary in part understood, that he should be able to speak what last words he might have to utter without having other ears than hers to listen to them.
Mary would have been surprised had she known how much painful thought Mr Whittlestaff gave to the matter. To her it seemed as though he had made up his mind without any effort, and was determined to abide by it. He had thought it well to marry her; and having asked her, and having obtained her consent, he intended to take advantage of her promise. That was her idea of Mr Whittlestaff, as to which she did not at all blame him. But he was, in truth, changing his purpose every quarter of an hour;—or not changing it, but thinking again and again throughout the entire day whether he would not abandon himself and all his happiness to the romantic idea of making this girl supremely happy. Were he to do so, he must give up everything. The world would have nothing left for him as to which he could feel the slightest interest. There came upon him at such moments insane ideas as to the amount of sacrifice which would be demanded of him. She should have everything—his house, his fortune; and he, John Gordon, as being a part of her, should have them also. He, Whittlestaff, would abolish himself as far as such abolition might be possible. The idea of suicide was abominable to him—was wicked, cowardly, and inhuman. But if this were to take place he could wish to cease to live. Then he would comfort himself by assuring himself again and again that of the two he would certainly make the better husband. He was older. Yes; it was a pity that he should be so much the elder. And he knew that he was old of his age,—such a one as a girl like Mary Lawrie could hardly be brought to love passionately. He brought up against himself all the hard facts as sternly as could any younger rival. He looked at himself in the glass over and over again, and always gave the verdict against his own appearance. There was nothing to recommend him. So he told himself,—judging of himself most unfairly. He set against himself as evils little points by which Mary's mind and Mary's judgment would never be affected. But in truth throughout it all he thought only of her welfare. But there came upon him constantly an idea that he hardly knew how to be as good to her as he would have been had it not been for Catherine Bailey. To have attempted twice, and twice to have failed so disastrously! He was a man to whom to have failed once in such a matter was almost death. How should he bear it twice and still live? Nevertheless he did endeavour to think only of her welfare. "You won't find it cold, my dear?" he said.
"Cold! Why, Mr Whittlestaff, it's quite hot."
"I meant hot. I did mean to say hot."
"I've got my parasol."
"Oh!—ah!—yes; so I perceive. Go on, Tommy. That foolish old woman will settle down at last, I think." To this Mary could make no answer, because, according to her ideas, Mrs Baggett's settling down must depend on her master's marriage. "I think it very civil of Mr Hall asking us in this way."
"I suppose it is."
"Because you may be sure he had heard of your former acquaintance with him."
"Do you think so?"
"Not a doubt about it. He said as much to me in his note. That young clergyman of his will have told him everything. 'Percontatorem fugito nam garrulus idem est.' I've taught you Latin enough to understand that. But, Mary, if you wish to change your mind, this will be your last opportunity." His heart at that moment had been very tender towards her, and she had resolved that hers should be very firm to him.
MR WHITTLESTAFF GOES OUT TO DINNER.
This would be her last opportunity. So Mary told herself as she got out of the carriage at Mr Hall's front door. It was made manifest to her by such a speech that he did not expect that she should do so, but looked upon her doing so as within the verge of possibility. She could still do it, and yet not encounter his disgust or his horror. How terrible was the importance to herself, and, as she believed, to the other man also. Was she not justified in so thinking? Mr Gordon had come home, travelling a great distance, at much risk to his property, at great loss of time, through infinite trouble and danger, merely to ask her to be his wife. Had a letter reached her from him but a week ago bidding her to come, would she not have gone through all the danger and all the trouble? How willingly would she have gone! It was the one thing that she desired; and, as far as she could understand the signs which he had given, it was the one, one thing which he desired. He had made his appeal to that other man, and, as far as she could understand the signs which had reached her, had been referred with confidence to her decision. Now she was told that the chance of changing her mind was still in her power.
The matter was one of terrible importance; but was its importance to Mr Whittlestaff as great as to John Gordon? She put herself altogether out of the question. She acknowledged to herself, with a false humility, that she was nobody;—she was a poor woman living on charity, and was not to be thought of when the position of these two men was taken into consideration. It chanced that they both wanted her. Which wanted the most? Which of the two would want her for the longest? To which would her services be of the greater avail in assisting him to his happiness. Could there be a doubt? Was it not in human nature that she should bind herself to the younger man, and with him go through the world, whether safely or in danger?
But though she had had time to allow these questions to pass through her mind between the utterance of Mr Whittlestaff's words and her entrance into Mr Hall's drawing-room, she did not in truth doubt. She knew that she had made up her mind on the matter. Mr Gordon would in all probability have no opportunity of saying another word to her. But let him say what word he might, it should be in vain. Nothing that he could say, nothing that she could say, would avail anything. If this other man would release her,—then indeed she would be released. But there was no chance of such release coming. In truth, Mary did not know how near the chance was to her;—or rather, how near the chance had been. He had now positively made up his mind, and would say not a word further unless she asked him. If Mary said nothing to John Gordon on this evening, he would take an opportunity before they left the house to inform Mr Hall of his intended marriage. When once the word should have passed his mouth, he could not live under the stigma of a second Catherine Bailey.
"Miss Lawrie, pray let me make you known to my intended." This came from Mr Montagu Blake, who felt himself to be justified by his peculiar circumstances in so far taking upon himself the work of introducing the guests in Mr Hall's house. "Of course, you've heard all about it. I am the happiest young man in Hampshire,—and she is the next."
"Speak for yourself, Montagu. I am not a young man at all."
"You're a young man's darling, which is the next thing to it."
"How are you, Whittlestaff?" said Mr Hall. "Wonderful weather, isn't it? I'm told that you've been in trouble about that drunken husband which plagues the life out of that respectable housekeeper of yours."
"He is a trouble; but if he is bad to me, how much worse must he be to her?"
"That's true. He must be very bad, I should think. Miss Mary, why don't you come over this fine weather, and have tea with my girls and Kattie Forrester in the woods? You should take your chance while you have a young man willing to wait upon you."
"I shall be quite delighted," said Blake, "and so will John Gordon."
"Only that I shall be in London this time to-morrow," said Gordon.
"That's nonsense. You are not going to Kimberley all at once. The young ladies expect you to bring out a lot of diamonds and show them before you start. Have you seen his diamonds, Miss Lawrie?"
"Indeed no," said Mary.
"I think I should have asked just to see them," said Evelina Hall. Why should they join her name with his in this uncivil manner, or suppose that she had any special power to induce him to show his treasures.
"When you first find a diamond," said Mr Hall, "what do you do with it? Do you ring a bell and call together your friends, and begin to rejoice."
"No, indeed. The diamond is generally washed out of the mud by some nigger, and we have to look very sharp after him to see that he doesn't hide it under his toe-nails. It's not a very romantic kind of business from first to last."
"Only profitable," said the curate.
"That's as may be. It is subject to greater losses than the preaching of sermons."
"I should like to go out and see it all," said Miss Hall, looking into Miss Lawrie's face. This also appeared to Mary to be ill-natured.
Then the butler announced the dinner, and they all followed Mr Hall and the curate's bride out of one room into the other. "This young lady," said he, "is supposed to be in the ascendant just at the present moment. She can't be married above two or three times at the most. I say this to excuse myself to Miss Lawrie, who ought perhaps to have the post of honour." To this some joking reply was made, and they all sat down to their dinner. Miss Lawrie was at Mr Hall's left hand, and at her left hand John Gordon was seated. Mary could perceive that everything was arranged so as to throw herself and John Gordon together,—as though they had some special interest in each other. Of all this Mr Whittlestaff saw nothing. But John Gordon did perceive something, and told himself that that ass Blake had been at work. But his perceptions in the matter were not half as sharp as those of Mary Lawrie.
"I used to be very fond of your father, Gordon," said Mr Hall, when the dinner was half over. "It's all done and gone now. Dear, dear, dear!"
"He was an unfortunate man, and perhaps expected too much from his friends."
"I am very glad to see his son here, at any rate. I wish you were not going to settle down so far away from us."
"Kimberley is a long way off."
"Yes, indeed; and when a fellow gets out there he is apt to stay, I suppose."
"I shall do so, probably. I have nobody near enough to me here at home to make it likely that I shall come back."
"You have uncles and aunts?" said Mr Hall.
"One uncle and two aunts. I shall suit their views and my cousins' better by sending home some diamonds than by coming myself."
"How long will that take?" asked Mr Hall. The conversation was kept up solely between Mr Hall and John Gordon. Mr Whittlestaff took no share in it unless when he was asked a question, and the four girls kept up a whisper with Miss Forrester and Montagu Blake.
"I have a share in rather a good thing," said Gordon; "and if I could get out of it so as to realise my property, I think that six months might suffice."
"Oh, dear! Then we may have you back again before the year's out?" Mr Whittlestaff looked up at this, as though apprised that the danger was not yet over. But he reflected that before twelve months were gone he would certainly have made Mary Lawrie his wife.
"Kimberley is not a very alluring place," said John Gordon. "I don't know any spot on God's earth that I should be less likely to choose as my abiding resting-place."
"Except for the diamonds."
"Except for the diamonds, as you remark. And therefore when a man has got his fill of diamonds, he is likely to leave."
"His fill of diamonds!" said Augusta Hall.
"Shouldn't you like to try your fill of diamonds?" asked Blake.
"Not at all," said Evelina. "I'd rather have strawberries and cream."
"I think I should like diamonds best," said Mary. Whereupon Evelina suggested that her younger sister was a greedy little creature.
"As soon as you've got your fill of diamonds, which won't take more than six months longer," suggested Mr Hall, "you'll come back again?"
"Not exactly. I have an idea of going up the country across the Zambesi. I've a notion that I should like to make my way out somewhere in the Mediterranean,—Egypt, for instance, or Algiers."
"What!—across the equator? You'd never do that alive?"
"Things of that kind have been done. Stanley crossed the continent."
"But not from south to north. I don't believe in that. You had better remain at Kimberley and get more diamonds."
"He'd be with diamonds like the boy with the bacon," said the clergyman; "when prepared for another wish, he'd have more than he could eat."
"To tell the truth," said John Gordon, "I don't quite know what I should do. It would depend perhaps on what somebody else would join me in doing. My life was very lonely at Kimberley, and I do not love being alone."
"Then, why don't you take a wife?" said Montagu Blake, very loudly, as though he had hit the target right in the bull's-eye. He so spoke as to bring the conversation to an abrupt end. Mr Whittlestaff immediately looked conscious. He was a man who, on such an occasion, could not look otherwise than conscious. And the five girls, with all of whom the question of the loves of John Gordon and Mary Lawrie had been fully discussed, looked conscious. Mary Lawrie was painfully conscious; but endeavoured to hide it, not unsuccessfully. But in her endeavour she had to look unnaturally stern,—and was conscious, too, that she did that. Mr Hall, whose feelings of romance were not perhaps of the highest order, looked round on Mr Whittlestaff and Mary Lawrie. Montagu Blake felt that he had achieved a triumph. "Yes," said he, "if those are your feelings, why don't you take a wife?"
"One man may not be so happy as another," said Gordon, laughing. "You have suited yourself admirably, and seem to think it quite easy for a man to make a selection."
"Not quite such a selection as mine, perhaps," said Blake.
"Then think of the difficulty. Do you suppose that any second Miss Forrester would dream of going to the diamond-fields with me?"
"Perhaps not," said Blake. "Not a second Miss Forrester—but somebody else."
"Well—yes; inferior to my Miss Forrester, certainly."
"You are the most conceited young man that I ever came across," said the young lady herself.
"And I am not inclined to put up with anything that is very inferior," said John Gordon. He could not help his eye from glancing for a moment round upon Mary Lawrie. She was aware of it, though no one else noticed it in the room. She was aware of it, though any one watching her would have said that she had never looked at him.
"A man may always find a woman to suit him, if he looks well about him," said Mr Hall, sententiously. "Don't you think so, Whittlestaff?"
"I dare say he may," said Mr Whittlestaff, very flatly. And as he said so he made up his mind that he would, for that day, postpone the task of telling Mr Hall of his intended marriage.
The evening passed by, and the time came for Mr Whittlestaff to drive Miss Lawrie back to Croker's Hall. She had certainly spent a most uneventful period, as far as action or even words of her own was concerned. But the afternoon was one which she would never forget. She had been quite, quite sure, when she came into the house; but she was more than sure now. At every word that had been spoken she had thought of herself and of him. Would he not have known how to have chosen a fit companion,—only for this great misfortune? And would she have been so much inferior to Miss Forrester? Would he have thought her inferior to any one? Would he not have preferred her to any other female whom the world had at the present moment produced? Oh, the pity of it; the pity of it!
Then came the bidding of adieu. Gordon was to sleep at Little Alresford that night, and to take his departure by early train on the next morning. Of the adieux spoken the next morning we need take no notice, but only of the word or two uttered that night. "Good-bye, Mr Gordon," said Mr Whittlestaff, having taken courage for the occasion, and having thought even of the necessary syllables to be spoken.
"Good-bye, Mr Whittlestaff," and he gave his rival his hand in apparently friendly grasp. To those burning questions he had asked he had received no word of reply; but they were questions which he would not repeat again.
"Good-bye, Mr Gordon," said Mary. She had thought of the moment much, but had determined at last that she would trust herself to nothing further. He took her hand, but did not say a word. He took it and pressed it for a moment, and then turned his face away, and went in from the hall back to the door leading to the drawing-room. Mr Whittlestaff was at the moment putting on his great-coat, and Mary stood with her bonnet and cloak on at the open front door, listening to a word or two from Kattie Forrester and Evelina Hall. "Oh, I wish, I wish it might have been!" said Kattie Forrester.
"And so do I," said Evelina. "Can't it be?"
"Good-night," said Mary, boldly, stepping out rapidly into the moonlight, and mounting without assistance to her place in the open carriage.
"I beg your pardon," said Mr Hall, following her; but there came not a word from her.
Mr Whittlestaff had gone back after John Gordon. "By-the-by," he said, "what will be your address in London?"
"The 'Oxford and Cambridge' in Pall Mall," said he.
"Oh, yes; the club there. It might be that I should have a word to send to you. But I don't suppose I shall," he added, as he turned round to go away. Then he shook hands with the party in the hall, and mounting up into the carriage, drove Mary and himself away homewards towards Croker's Hall.
Not a word was spoken between them for the first mile, nor did a sound of a sob or an audible suspicion of a tear come from Mary. Why did those girls know the secret of her heart in that way? Why had they dared to express a hope as to an event, or an idea as to a disappointment, all knowledge of which ought to be buried in her own bosom? Had she spoken of her love for John Gordon? She was sure that no word had escaped her. And were it surmised, was it not customary that such surmises should be kept in the dark? But here these young ladies had dared to pity her for her vain love, as though, like some village maiden, she had gone about in tears bewailing herself that some groom or gardener had been faithless. But sitting thus for the first mile, she choked herself to keep down her sobs.
"Mary," at last he whispered to her.
"Well, Mr Whittlestaff?"
"Mary, we are both of us unhappy."
"I am not unhappy," she said, plucking up herself suddenly. "Why do you say that I am unhappy?"
"You seem so. I at any rate am unhappy."
"What makes you so?"
"I did wrong to take you to dine in company with that man."
"It was not for me to refuse to go."
"No; there is no blame to you in it;—nor is there blame to me. But it would have been better for us both had we remained away." Then he drove on in silence, and did not speak another word till they reached home.
"Well!" said Mrs Baggett, following them into the dining-room.
"What do you mean by 'well'?"
"What did the folks say to you at Mr Hall's? I can see by your face that some of them have been saying summat."
"Nobody has been saying anything that I know of," said Mr Whittlestaff. "Do you go to bed." Then when Mrs Baggett was gone, and Mary had listlessly seated herself on a chair, her lover again addressed her. "I wish I knew what there is in your heart." Yet she would not tell him; but turned away her face and sat silent. "Have you nothing to say to me?"
"What should I have to say to you? I have nothing to say of that of which you are thinking."
"He has gone now, Mary."
"Yes; he has gone."
"And you are contented?" It did seem hard upon her that she should be called upon to tell a lie,—to say that which he must know to be a lie,—and to do so in order that he might be encouraged to persevere in achieving his own object. But she did not quite understand him. "Are you contented?" he repeated again.
Then she thought that she would tell the lie. If it was well that she should make the sacrifice for his sake, why should it not be completed? If she had to give herself to him, why should not the gift be as satisfactory as it might be made to his feelings? "Yes; I am contented."
"And you do not wish to see him again?"
"Certainly not, as your wife."
"You do not wish it at all," he rejoined, "whether you be my wife or otherwise?"
"I think you press me too hard." Then she remembered herself, and the perfect sacrifice which she was minded to make. "No; I do not wish again to see Mr Gordon at all. Now, if you will allow me, I will go to bed. I am thoroughly tired out, and I hardly know what I am saying."
"Yes; you can go to bed," he said. Then she gave him her hand in silence, and went off to her own room.
She had no sooner reached her bed, than she threw herself on it and burst into tears. All this which she had to endure,—all that she would have to bear,—would be, she thought, too much for her. And there came upon her a feeling of contempt for his cruelty. Had he sternly resolved to keep her to her promised word, and to forbid her all happiness for the future,—to make her his wife, let her heart be as it might;—had he said: "you have come to my house, and have eaten my bread and have drunk of my cup, and have then promised to become my wife, and now you shall not depart from it because this interloper has come between us;"—then, though she might have felt him to be cruel, still she would have respected him. He would have done, as she believed, as other men do. But he wished to gain his object, and yet not appear to be cruel. It was so that she thought of him. "And it shall be as he would have it," she said to herself. But though she saw far into his character, she did not quite read it aright.
He remained there alone in his library into the late hours of the night. But he did not even take up a book with the idea of solacing his hours. He too had his idea of self-sacrifice, which went quite as far as hers. But yet he was not as sure as was she that the self-sacrifice would be a duty. He did not believe, as did she, in the character of John Gordon. What if he should give her up to one who did not deserve her,—to one whose future would not be stable enough to secure the happiness and welfare of such a woman as was Mary Lawrie! He had no knowledge to guide him, nor had she;—nor, for the matter of that, had John Gordon himself any knowledge of what his own future might be. Of his own future Mr Whittlestaff could speak and think with the greatest confidence. It would be safe, happy, and bright, should Mary Lawrie become his wife. Should she not do so, it must be altogether ruined and confounded.
He could not conceive it to be possible that he should be required by duty to make such a sacrifice; but he knew of himself that if her happiness, her true and permanent happiness, would require it, then the sacrifice should be made.
MRS BAGGETT'S PHILOSOPHY.
The next day was Saturday, and Mr Whittlestaff came out of his room early, intending to speak to Mrs Baggett. He had declared to himself that it was his purpose to give her some sound advice respecting her own affairs,—as far as her affairs and his were connected together. But low down in his mind, below the stratum in which his declared resolution was apparent to himself, there was a hope that he might get from her some comfort and strength as to his present purpose. Not but that he would ultimately do as he himself had determined; but, to tell the truth, he had not quite determined, and thought that a word from Mrs Baggett might assist him.
As he came out from his room, he encountered Mary, intent upon her household duties. It was something before her usual time, and he was surprised. She had looked ill overnight and worn, and he had expected that she would keep her bed. "What makes you so early, Mary?" He spoke to her with his softest and most affectionate tone.
"I couldn't sleep, and I thought I might as well be up." She had followed him into the library, and when there he put his arm round her waist and kissed her forehead. It was a strange thing for him to do. She felt that it was so—very, very strange; but it never occurred to her that it behoved her to be angry at his caress. He had kissed her once before, and only once, and it had seemed to her that he had intended that their love-making should go on without kisses. But was she not his property, to do as he pleased with her? And there could be no ground for displeasure on her part.
"Dear Mary," he said, "if you could only know how constant my thoughts are to you." She did not doubt that it was so; but just so constant were her thoughts to John Gordon. But from her to him there could be no show of affection—nothing but the absolute coldness of perfect silence. She had passed the whole evening with him last night, and had not been allowed to speak a single word to him beyond the ordinary greetings of society. She had felt that she had not been allowed to speak a single word to any one, because he had been present. Mr Whittlestaff had thrown over her the deadly mantle of his ownership, and she had consequently felt herself to be debarred from all right over her own words and actions. She had become his slave; she felt herself in very truth to be a poor creature whose only duty it was in the world to obey his volition. She had told herself during the night that, with all her motives for loving him, she was learning to regard him with absolute hatred. And she hated herself because it was so. Oh, what a tedious affair was this of living! How tedious, how sad and miserable, must her future days be, as long as days should be left to her! Could it be made possible to her that she should ever be able to do her duty by this husband of hers,—for her, in whose heart of hearts would be seated continually the image of this other man?
"By-the-by," said he, "I want to see Mrs Baggett. I suppose she is about somewhere."
"Oh dear, yes. Since the trouble of her husband has become nearer, she is earlier and earlier every day. Shall I send her?" Then she departed, and in a few minutes Mrs Baggett entered the room.
"Come in, Mrs Baggett."
"I have just a few words which I want to say to you. Your husband has gone back to Portsmouth?"
"Yes sir; he have." This she said in a very decided tone, as though her master need trouble himself no further about her husband.
"I am very glad that it should be so. It's the best place for him,—unless he could be sent to Australia."
"He ain't a-done nothing to fit himself for Botany Bay, Mr Whittlestaff," said the old woman, bobbing her head at him.
"I don't care what place he has fitted himself for, so long as he doesn't come here. He is a disreputable old man."
"You needn't be so hard upon him, Mr Whittlestaff. He ain't a-done nothing much to you, barring sleeping in the stable one night when he had had a drop o' drink too much." And the old woman pulled out a great handkerchief, and began to wipe her eyes piteously.
"What a fool you are, Mrs Baggett."
"Yes; I am a fool. I knows that."
"Here's this disreputable old man eating and drinking your hard-earned wages."
"But they are my wages. And who's a right to them, only he?"
"I don't say anything about that, only he comes here and disturbs you."
"Well, yes; he is disturbing; if it's only because of his wooden leg and red nose. I don't mean to say as he's the sort of a man as does a credit to a gentleman's house to see about the place. But he was my lot in matrimony, and I've got to put up with him. I ain't a-going to refuse to bear the burden which came to be my lot. I don't suppose he's earned a single shilling since he left the regiment, and that is hard upon a poor woman who's got nothing but her wages."
"Now, look here, Mrs Baggett."
"Send him your wages."
"And have to go in rags myself,—in your service."
"You won't go in rags. Don't be a fool."
"I am a fool, Mr Whittlestaff; you can't tell me that too often."
"You won't go in rags. You ought to know us well enough—"
"Who is us, Mr Whittlestaff? They ain't no us;—just yet."
"Yes, I know you, Mr Whittlestaff."
"Send him your wages. You may be quite sure that you'll find yourself provided with shoes and stockings, and the rest of it."
"And be a woluntary burden beyond what I earns! Never;—not as long as Miss Mary is coming to live here as missus of your house. I should do summat as I should have to repent of. But, Mr Whittlestaff, I've got to look the world in the face, and bear my own crosses. I never can do it no younger."
"You're an old woman now, and you talk of throwing yourself upon the world without the means of earning a shilling."
"I think I'd earn some, at something, old as I am, till I fell down flat dead," she said. "I have that sperit in me, that I'd still be doing something. But it don't signify; I'm not going to remain here when Miss Mary is to be put over me. That's the long and the short of it all."
Now had come the moment in which, if ever, Mr Whittlestaff must get the strength which he required. He was quite sure of the old woman,—that her opinion would not be in the least influenced by any desire on her own part to retain her position as his housekeeper. "I don't know about putting Miss Mary over you," he said.
"Don't know about it!" she shouted.
"My mind is not absolutely fixed."
"'As she said anything?"
"Not a word."
"Or he? Has he been and dared to speak up about Miss Mary. And he,—who, as far as I can understand, has never done a ha'porth for her since the beginning. What's Mr Gordon? I should like to know. Diamonds! What's diamonds in the way of a steady income? They're all a flash in the pan, and moonshine and dirtiness. I hates to hear of diamonds. There's all the ill in the world comes from them; and you'd give her up to be taken off by such a one as he among the diamonds! I make bold to tell you, Mr Whittlestaff, that you ought to have more strength of mind than what that comes to. You're telling me every day as I'm an old fool."
"So you are."
"I didn't never contradict you; nor I don't mean, if you tells me so as often again. And I don't mean to be that impident as to tell my master as I ain't the only fool about the place. It wouldn't be no wise becoming."
"But you think it would be true."
"I says nothing about that. That's not the sort of language anybody has heard to come out of my mouth, either before your face or behind your back. But I do say as a man ought to behave like a man. What! Give up to a chap as spends his time in digging for diamonds! Never!"
"What does it matter what he digs for; you know nothing about his business."
"But I know something about yours, Mr Whittlestaff. I know where you have set your wishes. And I know that when a man has made up his mind in such an affair as this, he shouldn't give way to any young diamond dealer of them all."
"Not to him."
"And what's she? Are you to give up everything because she's love-sick for a day or two? Is everything to be knocked to pieces here at Croker's Hall, because he has come and made eyes at her? She was glad enough to take what you offered before he had come this way."
"She was not glad enough. That is it. She was not glad enough."
"She took you, at any rate, and I'd never make myself mean enough to make way for such a fellow as that."
"It isn't for him, Mrs Baggett."
"It is for him. Who else? To walk away and just leave the game open because he has come down to Hampshire! There ain't no spirit of standing up and fighting about it."
"With whom am I to fight?"
"With both of 'em;—till you have your own way. A foolish, stupid, weak girl like that!"
"I won't have her abused."
"She's very well. I ain't a-saying nothing against her. If she'll do what you bid her, she'll turn out right enough. You asked her, and she said she'd do it. Is not that so? There's nothing I hate so much as them romantic ways. And everything is to be made to give way because a young chap is six foot high! I hates romance and manly beauty, as they call it, and all the rest of it. Where is she to get her bread and meat? That's what I want to know."
"There'll be bread and meat for her."
"I dare say. But you'll have to pay for it, while she's philandering about with him! And that's what you call fine feelings. I call it all rubbish. If you've a mind to make her Mrs Whittlestaff, make her Mrs Whittlestaff. Drat them fine feelings. I never knew no good come of what people call fine feelings. If a young woman does her work as it should be, she's got no time to think of 'em. And if a man is master, he should be master. How's a man to give way to a girl like that, and then stand up and face the world around him? A man has to be master; and when he's come to be a little old-like, he has to see that he will be master. I never knew no good come of one of them soft-going fellows who is minded to give up whenever a woman wants anything. What's a woman? It ain't natural that she should have her way; and she don't like a man a bit better in the long-run because he lets her. There's Miss Mary; if you're stiff with her now, she'll come out right enough in a month or two. She's lived without Mr Gordon well enough since she's been here. Now he's come, and we hear a deal about these fine feelings. You take my word, and say nothing to nobody about the young man. He's gone by this time, or he's a-going. Let him go, say I; and if Miss Mary takes on to whimper a bit, don't you see it."
Mrs Baggett took her departure, and Mr Whittlestaff felt that he had received the comfort, or at any rate the strength, of which he had been in quest. In all that the woman had said to him, there had been a re-echo of his own thoughts,—of one side, at any rate, of his own thoughts. He knew that true affection, and the substantial comforts of the world, would hold their own against all romance. And he did not believe,—in his theory of ethics he did not believe,—that by yielding to what Mrs Baggett called fine feelings, he would in the long-run do good to those with whom he was concerned in the world. Were he to marry Mary Lawrie now, Mary Whittlestaff would, he thought, in ten years' time, be a happier woman than were he to leave her. That was the solid conviction of his mind, and in that he had been strengthened by Mrs Baggett's arguments. He had desired to be so strengthened, and therefore his interview had been successful.
But as the minutes passed by, as every quarter of an hour added itself to the quarters that were gone, and as the hours grew on, and the weakness of evening fell upon him, all his softness came back again. They had dined at six o'clock, and at seven he declared his purpose of strolling out by himself. On these summer evenings he would often take Mary with him; but he now told her, with a sort of apology, that he would rather go alone. "Do," she said, smiling up into his face; "don't let me ever be in your way. Of course, a man does not always want to have to find conversation for a young lady."
"If you are the young lady, I should always want it—only that I have things to think of."
"Go and think of your things. I will sit in the garden and do my stitching."
About a mile distant, where the downs began to rise, there was a walk supposed to be common to all who chose to frequent it, but which was entered through a gate which gave the place within the appearance of privacy. There was a little lake inside crowded with water-lilies, when the time for the water-lilies had come; and above the lake a path ran up through the woods, very steep, and as it rose higher and higher, altogether sheltered. It was about a mile in length till another gate was reached; but during the mile the wanderer could go off on either side, and lose himself on the grass among the beech-trees. It was a favourite haunt with Mr Whittlestaff. Here he was wont to sit and read his Horace, and think of the affairs of the world as Horace depicted them. Many a morsel of wisdom he had here made his own, and had then endeavoured to think whether the wisdom had in truth been taken home by the poet to his own bosom, or had only been a glitter of the intellect, never appropriated for any useful purpose. "'Gemmas, marmor, ebur,'" he had said. "'Sunt qui non habeant; est qui non curat habere.' I suppose he did care for jewels, marble, and ivory, as much as any one. 'Me lentus Glycerae torret amor meae.' I don't suppose he ever loved her really, or any other girl." Thus he would think over his Horace, always having the volume in his pocket.
Now he went there. But when he had sat himself down in a spot to which he was accustomed, he had no need to take out his Horace. His own thoughts came to him free enough without any need of his looking for them to poetry. After all, was not Mrs Baggett's teaching a damnable philosophy? Let the man be the master, and let him get everything he can for himself, and enjoy to the best of his ability all that he can get. That was the lesson as taught by her. But as he sat alone there beneath the trees, he told himself that no teaching was more damnable. Of course it was the teaching by which the world was kept going in its present course; but when divested of its plumage was it not absolutely the philosophy of selfishness? Because he was a man, and as a man had power and money and capacity to do the things after which his heart lusted, he was to do them for his own gratification, let the consequences be what they might to one whom he told himself that he loved! Did the lessons of Mrs Baggett run smoothly with those of Jesus Christ?
Then within his own mind he again took Mrs Baggett's side of the question. How mean a creature must he not become, if he were now to surrender this girl whom he was anxious to make his wife! He knew of himself that in such a matter he was more sensitive than others. He could not let her go, and then walk forth as though little or nothing were the matter with him. Now for the second time in his life he had essayed to marry. And now for the second time all the world would know that he had been accepted and then rejected. It was, he thought, more than he could endure,—and live.
Then after he had sat there for an hour he got up and walked home; and as he went he tried to resolve that he would reject the philosophy of Mrs Baggett and accept the other. "If I only knew!" he said as he entered his own gate. "If one could only see clearly!" Then he found Mary still seated in the garden. "Nothing is to be got," he said, "by asking you for an answer."
"In what have I failed?"
"Never mind. Let us go in and have a cup of tea." But she knew well in what he accused her of failing, and her heart turned towards him again.
MR WHITTLESTAFF MEDITATES A JOURNEY.
The next day was Sunday, and was passed in absolute tranquillity. Nothing was said either by Mr Whittlestaff or by Mary Lawrie; nor, to the eyes of those among whom they lived, was there anything to show that their minds were disturbed. They went to church in the morning, as was usual with them, and Mary went also to the evening service. It was quite pleasant to see Mrs Baggett start for her slow Sabbath morning walk, and to observe how her appearance altogether belied that idea of rags and tatters which she had given as to her own wardrobe. A nicer dressed old lady, or a more becoming black silk gown, you shall not see on a Sunday morning making her way to any country church in England. While she was looking so pleasant and demure,—one may say almost so handsome, in her old-fashioned and apparently new bonnet,—what could have been her thoughts respecting the red-nosed, one-legged warrior, and her intended life, to be passed in fetching two-penn'orths of gin for him, and her endeavours to get for him a morsel of wholesome food? She had had her breakfast out of her own china tea-cup, which she used to boast was her own property, as it had been given to her by Mr Whittlestaff's mother, and had had her little drop of cream, and, to tell the truth, her boiled egg, which she always had on a Sunday morning, to enable her to listen to the long sermon of the Rev Mr Lowlad. She would talk of her hopes and her burdens, and undoubtedly she was in earnest. But she certainly did seem to make her hay very comfortably while the sun shone.
Everything on this Sunday morning was pleasant, or apparently pleasant, at Croker's Hall. In the evening, when Mary and the maid-servants went to church, leaving Mrs Baggett at home to look after the house and go to sleep, Mr Whittlestaff walked off to the wooded path with his Horace. He did not read it very long. The bits which he did usually read never amounted to much at a time. He would take a few lines and then digest them thoroughly, wailing over them or rejoicing, as the case might be. He was not at the present moment much given to joy. "Intermissa, Venus, diu rursus bella moves? Parce, precor, precor." This was the passage to which he turned at the present moment; and very little was the consolation which he found in it. What was so crafty, he said to himself, or so vain as that an old man should hark back to the pleasures of a time of life which was past and gone! "Non sum qualis eram," he said, and then thought with shame of the time when he had been jilted by Catherine Bailey,—the time in which he had certainly been young enough to love and be loved, had he been as lovable as he had been prone to love. Then he put the book in his pocket. His latter effort had been to recover something of the sweetness of life, and not, as had been the poet's, to drain those dregs to the bottom. But when he got home he bade Mary tell him what Mr Lowlad had said in his sermon, and was quite cheery in his manner of picking Mr Lowlad's theology to pieces;—for Mr Whittlestaff did not altogether agree with Mr Lowlad as to the uses to be made of the Sabbath.
On the next morning he began to bustle about a little, as was usual with him before he made a journey; and it did escape him, while he was talking to Mrs Baggett about a pair of trousers which it turned out that he had given away last summer, that he meditated a journey to London on the next day.
"You ain't a-going?" said Mrs Baggett.
"I think I shall."
"Then don't. Take my word for it, sir,—don't." But Mr Whittlestaff only snubbed her, and nothing more was said about the journey at the moment.
In the course of the afternoon visitors came. Miss Evelina Hall with Miss Forrester had been driven into Alresford, and now called in company with Mr Blake. Mr Blake was full of his own good tidings, but not so full but that he could remember, before he took his departure, to say a half whispered word on behalf of John Gordon. "What do you think, Mr Whittlestaff? Since you were at Little Alresford we've settled the day."
"You needn't be telling it to everybody about the county," said Kattie Forrester.
"Why shouldn't I tell it to my particular friends? I am sure Miss Lawrie will be delighted to hear it."
"Indeed I am," said Mary.
"And Mr Whittlestaff also. Are you not, Mr Whittlestaff?"
"I am very happy to hear that a couple whom I like so well are soon to be made happy. But you have not yet told us the day."
"The 1st of August," said Evelina Hall.
"The 1st of August," said Mr Blake, "is an auspicious day. I am sure there is some reason for regarding it as auspicious, though I cannot exactly remember what. It is something about Augustus, I think."
"I never heard of such an idea to come from a clergyman of the Church of England," said the bride. "I declare Montagu never seems to think that he's a clergyman at all."
"It will be better for him," said Mr Whittlestaff, "and for all those about him, that he should ever remember the fact and never seem to do so."
"All the same," said Blake, "although the 1st of August is auspicious, I was very anxious to be married in July, only the painters said they couldn't be done with the house in time. One is obliged to go by what these sort of people say and do. We're to have a month's honeymoon,—only just a month, because Mr Lowlad won't make himself as agreeable as he ought to do about the services; and Newface, the plumber and glazier, says he can't have the house done as Kattie would like to live in it before the end of August. Where do you think we're going to, Miss Lawrie? You would never guess."
"Perhaps to Rome," said Mary at a shot.
"Not quite so far. We're going to the Isle of Wight. It's rather remarkable that I never spent but one week in the Isle of Wight since I was born. We haven't quite made up our mind whether it's to be Black Gang Chine or Ventnor. It's a matter of dresses, you see."
"Don't be a fool, Montagu," said Miss Forrester.
"Well, it is. If we decide upon Ventnor, she must have frocks and things to come out with."
"I suppose so," said Mr Whittlestaff.
"But she'll want nothing of the kind at Black Gang."
"Do hold your tongue, and not make an ass of yourself. What do you know what dresses I shall want? As it is, I don't think I shall go either to the one place or the other. The Smiths are at Ryde, and the girls are my great friends. I think we'll go to Ryde, after all."
"I'm so sorry, Mr Whittlestaff, that we can't expect the pleasure of seeing you at our wedding. It is, of course, imperative that Kattie should be married in the cathedral. Her father is one of the dignitaries, and could not bear not to put his best foot foremost on such an occasion. The Dean will be there, of course. I'm afraid the Bishop cannot come up from Farnham, because he will have friends with him. I am afraid John Gordon will have gone by that time, or else we certainly would have had him down. I should like John Gordon to be present, because he would see how the kind of thing is done." The name of John Gordon at once silenced all the matrimonial chit-chat which was going on among them. It was manifest both to Mr Whittlestaff and to Mary that it had been lugged in without a cause, to enable Mr Blake to talk about the absent man. "It would have been pleasant; eh, Kattie?"
"We should have been very glad to see Mr Gordon, if it would have suited him to come," said Miss Forrester.
"It would have been just the thing for him; and we at Oxford together, and everything. Don't you think he would have liked to be there? It would have put him in mind of other things, you know."
To this appeal there was no answer made. It was impossible that Mary should bring herself to talk about John Gordon in mixed company. And the allusion to him stirred Mr Whittlestaff's wrath. Of course it was understood as having been spoken in Mary's favour. And Mr Whittlestaff had been made to perceive by what had passed at Little Alresford that the Little Alresford people all took the side of John Gordon, and were supposed to be taking the side of Mary at the same time. There was not one of them, he said to himself, that had half the sense of Mrs Baggett. And there was a vulgarity about their interference of which Mrs Baggett was not guilty.
"He is half way on his road to the diamond-fields," said Evelina.
"And went away from here on Saturday morning!" said Montagu Blake. "He has not started yet,—not dreamed of it. I heard him whisper to Mr Whittlestaff about his address. He's to be in London at his club. I didn't hear him say for how long, but when a man gives his address at his club he doesn't mean to go away at once. I have a plan in my head. Some of those boats go to the diamond-fields from Southampton. All the steamers go everywhere from Southampton. Winchester is on the way to Southampton. Nothing will be easier for him than to drop in for our marriage on his way out. That is, if he must go at last." Then he looked hard at Mary Lawrie.
"And bring some of his diamonds with him," said Evelina Hall. "That would be very nice." But not a word more was said then about John Gordon by the inhabitants of Croker's Hall. After that the visitors went, and Montagu Blake chaperoned the girls out of the house, without an idea that he had made himself disagreeable.
"That young man is a most egregious ass," said Mr Whittlestaff.
"He is good-natured and simple, but I doubt whether he sees things very plainly."
"He has not an idea of what a man may talk about and when he should hold his tongue. And he is such a fool as to think that his idle chatter can influence others. I don't suppose a bishop can refuse to ordain a gentleman because he is a general idiot. Otherwise I think the bishop is responsible for letting in such an ass as this." Mary said to herself, as she heard this, that it was the most ill-natured remark which she had ever known to fall from the mouth of Mr Whittlestaff.
"I think I am going away for a few days," Mr Whittlestaff said to Mary, when the visitors were gone.
"Where are you going?"
"Well, I suppose I shall be in London. When one goes anywhere, it is generally to London; though I haven't been there for more than two months."