'Don't be so foolish,' said Miss Aldclyffe. 'Come, make the best of it. I cannot upset the fact I have told you of, unfortunately. But I believe the match can be broken off.'
'O no, no.'
'Nonsense. I liked him much as a youth, and I like him now. I'll help you to captivate and chain him down. I have got over my absurd feeling of last night in not wanting you ever to go away from me—of course, I could not expect such a thing as that. There, now I have said I'll help you, and that's enough. He's tired of his first choice now that he's been away from home for a while. The love that no outer attack can frighten away quails before its idol's own homely ways; it is always so.... Come, finish what you are doing if you are going to, and don't be a little goose about such a trumpery affair as that.'
'Who—is he engaged to?' Cytherea inquired by a movement of her lips but no sound of her voice. But Miss Aldclyffe did not answer. It mattered not, Cytherea thought. Another woman—that was enough for her: curiosity was stunned.
She applied herself to the work of dressing, scarcely knowing how. Miss Aldclyffe went on:—
'You were too easily won. I'd have made him or anybody else speak out before he should have kissed my face for his pleasure. But you are one of those precipitantly fond things who are yearning to throw away their hearts upon the first worthless fellow who says good-morning. In the first place, you shouldn't have loved him so quickly: in the next, if you must have loved him off-hand, you should have concealed it. It tickled his vanity: "By Jove, that girl's in love with me already!" he thought.'
To hasten away at the end of the toilet, to tell Mrs. Morris—who stood waiting in a little room prepared for her, with tea poured out, bread-and-butter cut into diaphanous slices, and eggs arranged—that she wanted no breakfast: then to shut herself alone in her bedroom, was her only thought. She was followed thither by the well-intentioned matron with a cup of tea and one piece of bread-and-butter on a tray, cheerfully insisting that she should eat it.
To those who grieve, innocent cheerfulness seems heartless levity. 'No, thank you, Mrs. Morris,' she said, keeping the door closed. Despite the incivility of the action, Cytherea could not bear to let a pleasant person see her face then.
Immediate revocation—even if revocation would be more effective by postponement—is the impulse of young wounded natures. Cytherea went to her blotting-book, took out the long letter so carefully written, so full of gushing remarks and tender hints, and sealed up so neatly with a little seal bearing 'Good Faith' as its motto, tore the missive into fifty pieces, and threw them into the grate. It was then the bitterest of anguishes to look upon some of the words she had so lovingly written, and see them existing only in mutilated forms without meaning—to feel that his eye would never read them, nobody ever know how ardently she had penned them.
Pity for one's self for being wasted is mostly present in these moods of abnegation.
The meaning of all his allusions, his abruptness in telling her of his love, his constraint at first, then his desperate manner of speaking, was clear. They must have been the last flickerings of a conscience not quite dead to all sense of perfidiousness and fickleness. Now he had gone to London: she would be dismissed from his memory, in the same way as Miss Aldclyffe had said. And here she was in Edward's own parish, reminded continually of him by what she saw and heard. The landscape, yesterday so much and so bright to her, was now but as the banquet-hall deserted—all gone but herself.
Miss Aldclyffe had wormed her secret out of her, and would now be continually mocking her for her trusting simplicity in believing him. It was altogether unbearable: she would not stay there.
She went downstairs and found Miss Aldclyffe had gone into the breakfast-room, but that Captain Aldclyffe, who rose later with increasing infirmities, had not yet made his appearance. Cytherea entered. Miss Aldclyffe was looking out of the window, watching a trail of white smoke along the distant landscape—signifying a passing train. At Cytherea's entry she turned and looked inquiry.
'I must tell you now,' began Cytherea, in a tremulous voice.
'Well, what?' Miss Aldclyffe said.
'I am not going to stay with you. I must go away—a very long way. I am very sorry, but indeed I can't remain!'
'Pooh—what shall we hear next?' Miss Aldclyffe surveyed Cytherea's face with leisurely criticism. 'You are breaking your heart again about that worthless young Springrove. I knew how it would be. It is as Hallam says of Juliet—what little reason you may have possessed originally has all been whirled away by this love. I shan't take this notice, mind.'
'Do let me go!'
Miss Aldclyffe took her new pet's hand, and said with severity, 'As to hindering you, if you are determined to go, of course that's absurd. But you are not now in a state of mind fit for deciding upon any such proceeding, and I shall not listen to what you have to say. Now, Cythie, come with me; we'll let this volcano burst and spend itself, and after that we'll see what had better be done.' She took Cytherea into her workroom, opened a drawer, and drew forth a roll of linen.
'This is some embroidery I began one day, and now I should like it finished.'
She then preceded the maiden upstairs to Cytherea's own room. 'There,' she said, 'now sit down here, go on with this work, and remember one thing—that you are not to leave the room on any pretext whatever for two hours unless I send for you—I insist kindly, dear. Whilst you stitch—you are to stitch, recollect, and not go mooning out of the window—think over the whole matter, and get cooled; don't let the foolish love-affair prevent your thinking as a woman of the world. If at the end of that time you still say you must leave me, you may. I will have no more to say in the matter. Come, sit down, and promise to sit here the time I name.'
To hearts in a despairing mood, compulsion seems a relief; and docility was at all times natural to Cytherea. She promised, and sat down. Miss Aldclyffe shut the door upon her and retreated.
She sewed, stopped to think, shed a tear or two, recollected the articles of the treaty, and sewed again; and at length fell into a reverie which took no account whatever of the lapse of time.
4. TEN TO TWELVE O'CLOCK A.M.
A quarter of an hour might have passed when her thoughts became attracted from the past to the present by unwonted movements downstairs. She opened the door and listened.
There were hurryings along passages, opening and shutting of doors, trampling in the stable-yard. She went across into another bedroom, from which a view of the stable-yard could be obtained, and arrived there just in time to see the figure of the man who had driven her from the station vanishing down the coach-road on a black horse—galloping at the top of the animal's speed.
Another man went off in the direction of the village.
Whatever had occurred, it did not seem to be her duty to inquire or meddle with it, stranger and dependent as she was, unless she were requested to, especially after Miss Aldclyffe's strict charge to her. She sat down again, determined to let no idle curiosity influence her movements.
Her window commanded the front of the house; and the next thing she saw was a clergyman walk up and enter the door.
All was silent again till, a long time after the first man had left, he returned again on the same horse, now matted with sweat and trotting behind a carriage in which sat an elderly gentleman driven by a lad in livery. These came to the house, entered, and all was again the same as before.
The whole household—master, mistress, and servants—appeared to have forgotten the very existence of such a being as Cytherea. She almost wished she had not vowed to have no idle curiosity.
Half-an-hour later, the carriage drove off with the elderly gentleman, and two or three messengers left the house, speeding in various directions. Rustics in smock-frocks began to hang about the road opposite the house, or lean against trees, looking idly at the windows and chimneys.
A tap came to Cytherea's door. She opened it to a young maid-servant.
'Miss Aldclyffe wishes to see you, ma'am.' Cytherea hastened down.
Miss Aldclyffe was standing on the hearthrug, her elbow on the mantel, her hand to her temples, her eyes on the ground; perfectly calm, but very pale.
'Cytherea,' she said in a whisper, 'come here.'
Cytherea went close.
'Something very serious has taken place,' she said again, and then paused, with a tremulous movement of her mouth.
'Yes,' said Cytherea.
'My father. He was found dead in his bed this morning.'
'Dead!' echoed the younger woman. It seemed impossible that the announcement could be true; that knowledge of so great a fact could be contained in a statement so small.
'Yes, dead,' murmured Miss Aldclyffe solemnly. 'He died alone, though within a few feet of me. The room we slept in is exactly over his own.'
Cytherea said hurriedly, 'Do they know at what hour?'
'The doctor says it must have been between two and three o'clock this morning.'
'Then I heard him!'
'Heard him die!'
'You heard him die? What did you hear?'
'A sound I heard once before in my life—at the deathbed of my mother. I could not identify it—though I recognized it. Then the dog howled: you remarked it. I did not think it worth while to tell you what I had heard a little earlier.' She looked agonized.
'It would have been useless,' said Miss Aldclyffe. 'All was over by that time.' She addressed herself as much as Cytherea when she continued, 'Is it a Providence who sent you here at this juncture that I might not be left entirely alone?'
Till this instant Miss Aldclyffe had forgotten the reason of Cytherea's seclusion in her own room. So had Cytherea herself. The fact now recurred to both in one moment.
'Do you still wish to go?' said Miss Aldclyffe anxiously.
'I don't want to go now,' Cytherea had remarked simultaneously with the other's question. She was pondering on the strange likeness which Miss Aldclyffe's bereavement bore to her own; it had the appearance of being still another call to her not to forsake this woman so linked to her life, for the sake of any trivial vexation.
Miss Aldclyffe held her almost as a lover would have held her, and said musingly—
'We get more and more into one groove. I now am left fatherless and motherless as you were.' Other ties lay behind in her thoughts, but she did not mention them.
'You loved your father, Cytherea, and wept for him?'
'Yes, I did. Poor papa!'
'I was always at variance with mine, and can't weep for him now! But you must stay here always, and make a better woman of me.'
The compact was thus sealed, and Cytherea, in spite of the failure of her advertisements, was installed as a veritable Companion. And, once more in the history of human endeavour, a position which it was impossible to reach by any direct attempt, was come to by the seeker's swerving from the path, and regarding the original object as one of secondary importance.
VII. THE EVENTS OF EIGHTEEN DAYS
1. AUGUST THE SEVENTEENTH
The time of day was four o'clock in the afternoon. The place was the lady's study or boudoir, Knapwater House. The person was Miss Aldclyffe sitting there alone, clothed in deep mourning.
The funeral of the old Captain had taken place, and his will had been read. It was very concise, and had been executed about five years previous to his death. It was attested by his solicitors, Messrs. Nyttleton and Tayling, of Lincoln's Inn Fields. The whole of his estate, real and personal, was bequeathed to his daughter Cytherea, for her sole and absolute use, subject only to the payment of a legacy to the rector, their relative, and a few small amounts to the servants.
Miss Aldclyffe had not chosen the easiest chair of her boudoir to sit in, or even a chair of ordinary comfort, but an uncomfortable, high, narrow-backed, oak framed and seated chair, which was allowed to remain in the room only on the ground of being a companion in artistic quaintness to an old coffer beside it, and was never used except to stand in to reach for a book from the highest row of shelves. But she had sat erect in this chair for more than an hour, for the reason that she was utterly unconscious of what her actions and bodily feelings were. The chair had stood nearest her path on entering the room, and she had gone to it in a dream.
She sat in the attitude which denotes unflagging, intense, concentrated thought—as if she were cast in bronze. Her feet were together, her body bent a little forward, and quite unsupported by the back of the chair; her hands on her knees, her eyes fixed intently on the corner of a footstool.
At last she moved and tapped her fingers upon the table at her side. Her pent-up ideas had finally found some channel to advance in. Motions became more and more frequent as she laboured to carry further and further the problem which occupied her brain. She sat back and drew a long breath: she sat sideways and leant her forehead upon her hand. Later still she arose, walked up and down the room—at first abstractedly, with her features as firmly set as ever; but by degrees her brow relaxed, her footsteps became lighter and more leisurely; her head rode gracefully and was no longer bowed. She plumed herself like a swan after exertion.
'Yes,' she said aloud. 'To get him here without letting him know that I have any other object than that of getting a useful man—that's the difficulty—and that I think I can master.'
She rang for the new maid, a placid woman of forty with a few grey hairs.
'Ask Miss Graye if she can come to me.'
Cytherea was not far off, and came in.
'Do you know anything about architects and surveyors?' said Miss Aldclyffe abruptly.
'Know anything?' replied Cytherea, poising herself on her toe to consider the compass of the question.
'Yes—know anything,' said Miss Aldclyffe.
'Owen is an architect and surveyor's draughtsman,' the maiden said, and thought of somebody else who was likewise.
'Yes! that's why I asked you. What are the different kinds of work comprised in an architect's practice? They lay out estates, and superintend the various works done upon them, I should think, among other things?'
'Those are, more properly, a land or building steward's duties—at least I have always imagined so. Country architects include those things in their practice; city architects don't.'
'I know that, child. But a steward's is an indefinite fast and loose profession, it seems to me. Shouldn't you think that a man who had been brought up as an architect would do for a steward?'
Cytherea had doubts whether an architect pure would do.
The chief pleasure connected with asking an opinion lies in not adopting it. Miss Aldclyffe replied decisively—
'Nonsense; of course he would. Your brother Owen makes plans for country buildings—such as cottages, stables, homesteads, and so on?'
'Yes; he does.'
'And superintends the building of them?'
'Yes; he will soon.'
'And he surveys land?'
'And he knows about hedges and ditches—how wide they ought to be, boundaries, levelling, planting trees to keep away the winds, measuring timber, houses for ninety-nine years, and such things?'
'I have never heard him say that; but I think Mr. Gradfield does those things. Owen, I am afraid, is inexperienced as yet.'
'Yes; your brother is not old enough for such a post yet, of course. And then there are rent-days, the audit and winding up of tradesmen's accounts. I am afraid, Cytherea, you don't know much more about the matter than I do myself.... I am going out just now,' she continued. 'I shall not want you to walk with me to-day. Run away till dinner-time.'
Miss Aldclyffe went out of doors, and down the steps to the lawn: then turning to the left, through a shrubbery, she opened a wicket and passed into a neglected and leafy carriage-drive, leading down the hill. This she followed till she reached the point of its greatest depression, which was also the lowest ground in the whole grove.
The trees here were so interlaced, and hung their branches so near the ground, that a whole summer's day was scarcely long enough to change the air pervading the spot from its normal state of coolness to even a temporary warmth. The unvarying freshness was helped by the nearness of the ground to the level of the springs, and by the presence of a deep, sluggish stream close by, equally well shaded by bushes and a high wall. Following the road, which now ran along at the margin of the stream, she came to an opening in the wall, on the other side of the water, revealing a large rectangular nook from which the stream proceeded, covered with froth, and accompanied by a dull roar. Two more steps, and she was opposite the nook, in full view of the cascade forming its further boundary. Over the top could be seen the bright outer sky in the form of a crescent, caused by the curve of a bridge across the rapids, and the trees above.
Beautiful as was the scene she did not look in that direction. The same standing-ground afforded another prospect, straight in the front, less sombre than the water on the right or the trees all around. The avenue and grove which flanked it abruptly terminated a few yards ahead, where the ground began to rise, and on the remote edge of the greensward thus laid open, stood all that remained of the original manor-house, to which the dark margin-line of the trees in the avenue formed an adequate and well-fitting frame. It was the picture thus presented that was now interesting Miss Aldclyffe—not artistically or historically, but practically—as regarded its fitness for adaptation to modern requirements.
In front, detached from everything else, rose the most ancient portion of the structure—an old arched gateway, flanked by the bases of two small towers, and nearly covered with creepers, which had clambered over the eaves of the sinking roof, and up the gable to the crest of the Aldclyffe family perched on the apex. Behind this, at a distance of ten or twenty yards, came the only portion of the main building that still existed—an Elizabethan fragment, consisting of as much as could be contained under three gables and a cross roof behind. Against the wall could be seen ragged lines indicating the form of other destroyed gables which had once joined it there. The mullioned and transomed windows, containing five or six lights, were mostly bricked up to the extent of two or three, and the remaining portion fitted with cottage window-frames carelessly inserted, to suit the purpose to which the old place was now applied, it being partitioned out into small rooms downstairs to form cottages for two labourers and their families; the upper portion was arranged as a storehouse for divers kinds of roots and fruit.
The owner of the picturesque spot, after her survey from this point, went up to the walls and walked into the old court, where the paving-stones were pushed sideways and upwards by the thrust of the grasses between them. Two or three little children, with their fingers in their mouths, came out to look at her, and then ran in to tell their mothers in loud tones of secrecy that Miss Aldclyffe was coming. Miss Aldclyffe, however, did not come in. She concluded her survey of the exterior by making a complete circuit of the building; then turned into a nook a short distance off where round and square timber, a saw-pit, planks, grindstones, heaps of building stone and brick, explained that the spot was the centre of operations for the building work done on the estate.
She paused, and looked around. A man who had seen her from the window of the workshops behind, came out and respectfully lifted his hat to her. It was the first time she had been seen walking outside the house since her father's death.
'Strooden, could the Old House be made a decent residence of, without much trouble?' she inquired.
The mechanic considered, and spoke as each consideration completed itself.
'You don't forget, ma'am, that two-thirds of the place is already pulled down, or gone to ruin?'
'Yes; I know.'
'And that what's left may almost as well be, ma'am.'
'Why may it?'
''Twas so cut up inside when they made it into cottages, that the whole carcase is full of cracks.'
'Still by pulling down the inserted partitions, and adding a little outside, it could be made to answer the purpose of an ordinary six or eight-roomed house?'
'About what would it cost?' was the question which had invariably come next in every communication of this kind to which the superintending workman had been a party during his whole experience. To his surprise, Miss Aldclyffe did not put it. The man thought her object in altering an old house must have been an unusually absorbing one not to prompt what was so instinctive in owners as hardly to require any prompting at all.
'Thank you: that's sufficient, Strooden,' she said. 'You will understand that it is not unlikely some alteration may be made here in a short time, with reference to the management of the affairs.'
Strooden said 'Yes,' in a complex voice, and looked uneasy.
'During the life of Captain Aldclyffe, with you as the foreman of works, and he himself as his own steward, everything worked well. But now it may be necessary to have a steward, whose management will encroach further upon things which have hitherto been left in your hands than did your late master's. What I mean is, that he will directly and in detail superintend all.'
'Then—I shall not be wanted, ma'am?' he faltered.
'O yes; if you like to stay on as foreman in the yard and workshops only. I should be sorry to lose you. However, you had better consider. I will send for you in a few days.'
Leaving him to suspense, and all the ills that came in its train—distracted application to his duties, and an undefined number of sleepless nights and untasted dinners, Miss Aldclyffe looked at her watch and returned to the House. She was about to keep an appointment with her solicitor, Mr. Nyttleton, who had been to Budmouth, and was coming to Knapwater on his way back to London.
2. AUGUST THE TWENTIETH
On the Saturday subsequent to Mr. Nyttleton's visit to Knapwater House, the subjoined advertisement appeared in the Field and the Builder newspapers:—
'A gentleman of integrity and professional skill is required immediately for the MANAGEMENT of an ESTATE, containing about 1000 acres, upon which agricultural improvements and the erection of buildings are contemplated. He must be a man of superior education, unmarried, and not more than thirty years of age. Considerable preference will be shown for one who possesses an artistic as well as a practical knowledge of planning and laying out. The remuneration will consist of a salary of 220 pounds, with the old manor-house as a residence—Address Messrs. Nyttleton and Tayling, solicitors, Lincoln's Inn Fields.'
A copy of each paper was sent to Miss Aldclyffe on the day of publication. The same evening she told Cytherea that she was advertising for a steward, who would live at the old manor-house, showing her the papers containing the announcement.
What was the drift of that remark? thought the maiden; or was it merely made to her in confidential intercourse, as other arrangements were told her daily. Yet it seemed to have more meaning than common. She remembered the conversation about architects and surveyors, and her brother Owen. Miss Aldclyffe knew that his situation was precarious, that he was well educated and practical, and was applying himself heart and soul to the details of the profession and all connected with it. Miss Aldclyffe might be ready to take him if he could compete successfully with others who would reply. She hazarded a question:
'Would it be desirable for Owen to answer it?'
'Not at all,' said Miss Aldclyffe peremptorily.
A flat answer of this kind had ceased to alarm Cytherea. Miss Aldclyffe's blunt mood was not her worst. Cytherea thought of another man, whose name, in spite of resolves, tears, renunciations and injured pride, lingered in her ears like an old familiar strain. That man was qualified for a stewardship under a king.
'Would it be of any use if Edward Springrove were to answer it?' she said, resolutely enunciating the name.
'None whatever,' replied Miss Aldclyffe, again in the same decided tone.
'You are very unkind to speak in that way.'
'Now don't pout like a goosie, as you are. I don't want men like either of them, for, of course, I must look to the good of the estate rather than to that of any individual. The man I want must have been more specially educated. I have told you that we are going to London next week; it is mostly on this account.'
Cytherea found that she had mistaken the drift of Miss Aldclyffe's peculiar explicitness on the subject of advertising, and wrote to tell her brother that if he saw the notice it would be useless to reply.
3. AUGUST THE TWENTY-FIFTH
Five days after the above-mentioned dialogue took place they went to London, and, with scarcely a minute's pause, to the solicitors' offices in Lincoln's Inn Fields.
They alighted opposite one of the characteristic entrances about the place—a gate which was never, and could never be, closed, flanked by lamp-standards carrying no lamp. Rust was the only active agent to be seen there at this time of the day and year. The palings along the front were rusted away at their base to the thinness of wires, and the successive coats of paint, with which they were overlaid in bygone days, had been completely undermined by the same insidious canker, which lifted off the paint in flakes, leaving the raw surface of the iron on palings, standards, and gate hinges, of a staring blood-red.
But once inside the railings the picture changed. The court and offices were a complete contrast to the grand ruin of the outwork which enclosed them. Well-painted respectability extended over, within, and around the doorstep; and in the carefully swept yard not a particle of dust was visible.
Mr. Nyttleton, who had just come up from Margate, where he was staying with his family, was standing at the top of his own staircase as the pair ascended. He politely took them inside.
'Is there a comfortable room in which this young lady can sit during our interview?' said Miss Aldclyffe.
It was rather a favourite habit of hers to make much of Cytherea when they were out, and snub her for it afterwards when they got home.
'Certainly—Mr. Tayling's.' Cytherea was shown into an inner room.
Social definitions are all made relatively: an absolute datum is only imagined. The small gentry about Knapwater seemed unpractised to Miss Aldclyffe, Miss Aldclyffe herself seemed unpractised to Mr. Nyttleton's experienced old eyes.
'Now then,' the lady said, when she was alone with the lawyer; 'what is the result of our advertisement?'
It was late summer; the estate-agency, building, engineering, and surveying worlds were dull. There were forty-five replies to the advertisement.
Mr. Nyttleton spread them one by one before Miss Aldclyffe. 'You will probably like to read some of them yourself, madam?' he said.
'Yes, certainly,' said she.
'I will not trouble you with those which are from persons manifestly unfit at first sight,' he continued; and began selecting from the heap twos and threes which he had marked, collecting others into his hand.
'The man we want lies among these, if my judgment doesn't deceive me, and from them it would be advisable to select a certain number to be communicated with.'
'I should like to see every one—only just to glance them over—exactly as they came,' she said suasively.
He looked as if he thought this a waste of his time, but dismissing his sentiment unfolded each singly and laid it before her. As he laid them out, it struck him that she studied them quite as rapidly as he could spread them. He slyly glanced up from the outer corner of his eye to hers, and noticed that all she did was look at the name at the bottom of the letter, and then put the enclosure aside without further ceremony. He thought this an odd way of inquiring into the merits of forty-five men who at considerable trouble gave in detail reasons why they believed themselves well qualified for a certain post. She came to the final one, and put it down with the rest.
Then the lady said that in her opinion it would be best to get as many replies as they possibly could before selecting—'to give us a wider choice. What do you think, Mr. Nyttleton?'
It seemed to him, he said, that a greater number than those they already had would scarcely be necessary, and if they waited for more, there would be this disadvantage attending it, that some of those they now could command would possibly not be available.
'Never mind, we will run that risk,' said Miss Aldclyffe. 'Let the advertisement be inserted once more, and then we will certainly settle the matter.'
Mr. Nyttleton bowed, and seemed to think Miss Aldclyffe, for a single woman, and one who till so very recently had never concerned herself with business of any kind, a very meddlesome client. But she was rich, and handsome still. 'She's a new broom in estate-management as yet,' he thought. 'She will soon get tired of this,' and he parted from her without a sentiment which could mar his habitual blandness.
The two ladies then proceeded westward. Dismissing the cab in Waterloo Place, they went along Pall Mall on foot, where in place of the usual well-dressed clubbists—rubicund with alcohol—were to be seen, in linen pinafores, flocks of house-painters pallid from white lead. When they had reached the Green Park, Cytherea proposed that they should sit down awhile under the young elms at the brow of the hill. This they did—the growl of Piccadilly on their left hand—the monastic seclusion of the Palace on their right: before them, the clock tower of the Houses of Parliament, standing forth with a metallic lustre against a livid Lambeth sky.
Miss Aldclyffe still carried in her hand a copy of the newspaper, and while Cytherea had been interesting herself in the picture around, glanced again at the advertisement.
She heaved a slight sigh, and began to fold it up again. In the action her eye caught sight of two consecutive advertisements on the cover, one relating to some lecture on Art, and addressed to members of the Institute of Architects. The other emanated from the same source, but was addressed to the public, and stated that the exhibition of drawings at the Institute's rooms would close at the end of that week.
Her eye lighted up. She sent Cytherea back to the hotel in a cab, then turned round by Piccadilly into Bond Street, and proceeded to the rooms of the Institute. The secretary was sitting in the lobby. After making her payment, and looking at a few of the drawings on the walls, in the company of three gentlemen, the only other visitors to the exhibition, she turned back and asked if she might be allowed to see a list of the members. She was a little connected with the architectural world, she said, with a smile, and was interested in some of the names.
'Here it is, madam,' he replied, politely handing her a pamphlet containing the names.
Miss Aldclyffe turned the leaves till she came to the letter M. The name she hoped to find there was there, with the address appended, as was the case with all the rest.
The address was at some chambers in a street not far from Charing Cross. 'Chambers,' as a residence, had always been assumed by the lady to imply the condition of a bachelor. She murmured two words, 'There still.'
Another request had yet to be made, but it was of a more noticeable kind than the first, and might compromise the secrecy with which she wished to act throughout this episode. Her object was to get one of the envelopes lying on the secretary's table, stamped with the die of the Institute; and in order to get it she was about to ask if she might write a note.
But the secretary's back chanced to be turned, and he now went towards one of the men at the other end of the room, who had called him to ask some question relating to an etching on the wall. Quick as thought, Miss Aldclyffe stood before the table, slipped her hand behind her, took one of the envelopes and put it in her pocket.
She sauntered round the rooms for two or three minutes longer, then withdrew and returned to her hotel.
Here she cut the Knapwater advertisement from the paper, put it into the envelope she had stolen, embossed with the society's stamp, and directed it in a round clerkly hand to the address she had seen in the list of members' names submitted to her:—
AENEAS MANSTON, ESQ., WYKEHAM CHAMBERS, SPRING GARDENS.
This ended her first day's work in London.
4. FROM AUGUST THE TWENTY-SIXTH TO SEPTEMBER THE FIRST
The two Cythereas continued at the Westminster Hotel, Miss Aldclyffe informing her companion that business would detain them in London another week. The days passed as slowly and quietly as days can pass in a city at that time of the year, the shuttered windows about the squares and terraces confronting their eyes like the white and sightless orbs of blind men. On Thursday Mr. Nyttleton called, bringing the whole number of replies to the advertisement. Cytherea was present at the interview, by Miss Aldclyffe's request—either from whim or design.
Ten additional letters were the result of the second week's insertion, making fifty-five in all. Miss Aldclyffe looked them over as before. One was signed—
AENEAS MANSTON, 133, TURNGATE STREET, LIVERPOOL.
'Now, then, Mr. Nyttleton, will you make a selection, and I will add one or two,' Miss Aldclyffe said.
Mr. Nyttleton scanned the whole heap of letters, testimonials, and references, sorting them into two heaps. Manston's missive, after a mere glance, was thrown amongst the summarily rejected ones.
Miss Aldclyffe read, or pretended to read after the lawyer. When he had finished, five lay in the group he had selected. 'Would you like to add to the number?' he said, turning to the lady.
'No,' she said carelessly. 'Well, two or three additional ones rather took my fancy,' she added, searching for some in the larger collection.
She drew out three. One was Manston's.
'These eight, then, shall be communicated with,' said the lawyer, taking up the eight letters and placing them by themselves.
They stood up. 'If I myself, Miss Aldclyffe, were only concerned personally,' he said, in an off-hand way, and holding up a letter singly, 'I should choose this man unhesitatingly. He writes honestly, is not afraid to name what he does not consider himself well acquainted with—a rare thing to find in answers to advertisements; he is well recommended, and possesses some qualities rarely found in combination. Oddly enough, he is not really a steward. He was bred a farmer, studied building affairs, served on an estate for some time, then went with an architect, and is now well qualified as architect, estate agent, and surveyor. That man is sure to have a fine head for a manor like yours.' He tapped the letter as he spoke. 'Yes, I should choose him without hesitation—speaking personally.'
'And I think,' she said artificially, 'I should choose this one as a matter of mere personal whim, which, of course, can't be given way to when practical questions have to be considered.'
Cytherea, after looking out of the window, and then at the newspapers, had become interested in the proceedings between the clever Miss Aldclyffe and the keen old lawyer, which reminded her of a game at cards. She looked inquiringly at the two letters—one in Miss Aldclyffe's hand, the other in Mr. Nyttleton's.
'What is the name of your man?' said Miss Aldclyffe.
'His name—' said the lawyer, looking down the page; 'what is his name?—it is Edward Springrove.'
Miss Aldclyffe glanced towards Cytherea, who was getting red and pale by turns. She looked imploringly at Miss Aldclyffe.
'The name of my man,' said Miss Aldclyffe, looking at her letter in turn; 'is, I think—yes—AEneas Manston.'
5. SEPTEMBER THE THIRD
The next morning but one was appointed for the interviews, which were to be at the lawyer's offices. Mr. Nyttleton and Mr. Tayling were both in town for the day, and the candidates were admitted one by one into a private room. In the window recess was seated Miss Aldclyffe, wearing her veil down.
The lawyer had, in his letters to the selected number, timed each candidate at an interval of ten or fifteen minutes from those preceding and following. They were shown in as they arrived, and had short conversations with Mr. Nyttleton—terse, and to the point. Miss Aldclyffe neither moved nor spoke during this proceeding; it might have been supposed that she was quite unmindful of it, had it not been for what was revealed by a keen penetration of the veil covering her countenance—the rays from two bright black eyes, directed towards the lawyer and his interlocutor.
Springrove came fifth; Manston seventh. When the examination of all was ended, and the last man had retired, Nyttleton, again as at the former time, blandly asked his client which of the eight she personally preferred. 'I still think the fifth we spoke to, Springrove, the man whose letter I pounced upon at first, to be by far the best qualified, in short, most suitable generally.'
'I am sorry to say that I differ from you; I lean to my first notion still—that Mr.—Mr. Manston is most desirable in tone and bearing, and even specifically; I think he would suit me best in the long-run.'
Mr. Nyttleton looked out of the window at the whitened wall of the court.
'Of course, madam, your opinion may be perfectly sound and reliable; a sort of instinct, I know, often leads ladies by a short cut to conclusions truer than those come to by men after laborious round-about calculations, based on long experience. I must say I shouldn't recommend him.'
'Well, let us look first at his letter of answer to the advertisement. He didn't reply till the last insertion; that's one thing. His letter is bold and frank in tone, so bold and frank that the second thought after reading it is that not honesty, but unscrupulousness of conscience dictated it. It is written in an indifferent mood, as if he felt that he was humbugging us in his statement that he was the right man for such an office, that he tried hard to get it only as a matter of form which required that he should neglect no opportunity that came in his way.'
'You may be right, Mr. Nyttleton, but I don't quite see the grounds of your reasoning.'
'He has been, as you perceive, almost entirely used to the office duties of a city architect, the experience we don't want. You want a man whose acquaintance with rural landed properties is more practical and closer—somebody who, if he has not filled exactly such an office before, has lived a country life, knows the ins and outs of country tenancies, building, farming, and so on.'
'He's by far the most intellectual looking of them all.'
'Yes; he may be—your opinion, Miss Aldclyffe, is worth more than mine in that matter. And more than you say, he is a man of parts—his brain power would soon enable him to master details and fit him for the post, I don't much doubt that. But to speak clearly' (here his words started off at a jog-trot) 'I wouldn't run the risk of placing the management of an estate of mine in his hands on any account whatever. There, that's flat and plain, madam.'
'But, definitely,' she said, with a show of impatience, 'what is your reason?'
'He is a voluptuary with activity; which is a very bad form of man—as bad as it is rare.'
'Oh. Thank you for your explicit statement, Mr. Nyttleton,' said Miss Aldclyffe, starting a little and flushing with displeasure.
Mr. Nyttleton nodded slightly, as a sort of neutral motion, simply signifying a receipt of the information, good or bad.
'And I really think it is hardly worth while to trouble you further in this,' continued the lady. 'He's quite good enough for a little insignificant place like mine at Knapwater; and I know that I could not get on with one of the others for a single month. We'll try him.'
'Certainly, Miss Aldclyffe,' said the lawyer. And Mr. Manston was written to, to the effect that he was the successful competitor.
'Did you see how unmistakably her temper was getting the better of her, that minute you were in the room?' said Nyttleton to Tayling, when their client had left the house. Nyttleton was a man who surveyed everybody's character in a sunless and shadowless northern light. A culpable slyness, which marked him as a boy, had been moulded by Time, the Improver, into honourable circumspection.
We frequently find that the quality which, conjoined with the simplicity of the child, is vice, is virtue when it pervades the knowledge of the man.
'She was as near as damn-it to boiling over when I added up her man,' continued Nyttleton. 'His handsome face is his qualification in her eyes. They have met before; I saw that.'
'He didn't seem conscious of it,' said the junior.
'He didn't. That was rather puzzling to me. But still, if ever a woman's face spoke out plainly that she was in love with a man, hers did that she was with him. Poor old maid, she's almost old enough to be his mother. If that Manston's a schemer he'll marry her, as sure as I am Nyttleton. Let's hope he's honest, however.'
'I don't think she's in love with him,' said Tayling. He had seen but little of the pair, and yet he could not reconcile what he had noticed in Miss Aldclyffe's behaviour with the idea that it was the bearing of a woman towards her lover.
'Well, your experience of the fiery phenomenon is more recent than mine,' rejoined Nyttleton carelessly. 'And you may remember the nature of it best.'
VIII. THE EVENTS OF EIGHTEEN DAYS
1. FROM THE THIRD TO THE NINETEENTH OF SEPTEMBER
Miss Aldclyffe's tenderness towards Cytherea, between the hours of her irascibility, increased till it became no less than doting fondness. Like Nature in the tropics, with her hurricanes and the subsequent luxuriant vegetation effacing their ravages, Miss Aldclyffe compensated for her outbursts by excess of generosity afterwards. She seemed to be completely won out of herself by close contact with a young woman whose modesty was absolutely unimpaired, and whose artlessness was as perfect as was compatible with the complexity necessary to produce the due charm of womanhood. Cytherea, on her part, perceived with honest satisfaction that her influence for good over Miss Aldclyffe was considerable. Ideas and habits peculiar to the younger, which the elder lady had originally imitated as a mere whim, she grew in course of time to take a positive delight in. Among others were evening and morning prayers, dreaming over out-door scenes, learning a verse from some poem whilst dressing.
Yet try to force her sympathies as much as she would, Cytherea could feel no more than thankful for this, even if she always felt as much as thankful. The mysterious cloud hanging over the past life of her companion, of which the uncertain light already thrown upon it only seemed to render still darker the unpenetrated remainder, nourished in her a feeling which was scarcely too slight to be called dread. She would have infinitely preferred to be treated distantly, as the mere dependent, by such a changeable nature—like a fountain, always herself, yet always another. That a crime of any deep dye had ever been perpetrated or participated in by her namesake, she would not believe; but the reckless adventuring of the lady's youth seemed connected with deeds of darkness rather than of light.
Sometimes Miss Aldclyffe appeared to be on the point of making some absorbing confidence, but reflection invariably restrained her. Cytherea hoped that such a confidence would come with time, and that she might thus be a means of soothing a mind which had obviously known extreme suffering.
But Miss Aldclyffe's reticence concerning her past was not imitated by Cytherea. Though she never disclosed the one fact of her knowledge that the love-suit between Miss Aldclyffe and her father terminated abnormally, the maiden's natural ingenuousness on subjects not set down for special guard had enabled Miss Aldclyffe to worm from her, fragment by fragment, every detail of her father's history. Cytherea saw how deeply Miss Aldclyffe sympathized—and it compensated her, to some extent, for the hasty resentments of other times.
Thus uncertainly she lived on. It was perceived by the servants of the House that some secret bond of connection existed between Miss Aldclyffe and her companion. But they were woman and woman, not woman and man, the facts were ethereal and refined, and so they could not be worked up into a taking story. Whether, as old critics disputed, a supernatural machinery be necessary to an epic or no, an ungodly machinery is decidedly necessary to a scandal.
Another letter had come to her from Edward—very short, but full of entreaty, asking why she would not write just one line—just one line of cold friendship at least? She then allowed herself to think, little by little, whether she had not perhaps been too harsh with him; and at last wondered if he were really much to blame for being engaged to another woman. 'Ah, Brain, there is one in me stronger than you!' she said. The young maid now continually pulled out his letter, read it and re-read it, almost crying with pity the while, to think what wretched suspense he must be enduring at her silence, till her heart chid her for her cruelty. She felt that she must send him a line—one little line—just a wee line to keep him alive, poor thing; sighing like Donna Clara—
'Ah, were he now before me, In spite of injured pride, I fear my eyes would pardon Before my tongue could chide.'
2. SEPTEMBER THE TWENTIETH. THREE TO FOUR P.M.
It was the third week in September, about five weeks after Cytherea's arrival, when Miss Aldclyffe requested her one day to go through the village of Carriford and assist herself in collecting the subscriptions made by some of the inhabitants of the parish to a religious society she patronized. Miss Aldclyffe formed one of what was called a Ladies' Association, each member of which collected tributary streams of shillings from her inferiors, to add to her own pound at the end.
Miss Aldclyffe took particular interest in Cytherea's appearance that afternoon, and the object of her attention was, indeed, gratifying to look at. The sight of the lithe girl, set off by an airy dress, coquettish jacket, flexible hat, a ray of starlight in each eye and a war of lilies and roses in each cheek, was a palpable pleasure to the mistress of the mansion, yet a pleasure which appeared to partake less of the nature of affectionate satisfaction than of mental gratification.
Eight names were printed in the report as belonging to Miss Aldclyffe's list, with the amount of subscription-money attached to each.
'I will collect the first four, whilst you do the same with the last four,' said Miss Aldclyffe.
The names of two tradespeople stood first in Cytherea's share: then came a Miss Hinton: last of all in the printed list was Mr. Springrove the elder. Underneath his name was pencilled, in Miss Aldclyffe's handwriting, 'Mr. Manston.'
Manston had arrived on the estate, in the capacity of steward, three or four days previously, and occupied the old manor-house, which had been altered and repaired for his reception.
'Call on Mr. Manston,' said the lady impressively, looking at the name written under Cytherea's portion of the list.
'But he does not subscribe yet?'
'I know it; but call and leave him a report. Don't forget it.'
'Say you would be pleased if he would subscribe?'
'Yes—say I should be pleased if he would,' repeated Miss Aldclyffe, smiling. 'Good-bye. Don't hurry in your walk. If you can't get easily through your task to-day put off some of it till to-morrow.'
Each then started on her rounds: Cytherea going in the first place to the old manor-house. Mr. Manston was not indoors, which was a relief to her. She called then on the two gentleman-farmers' wives, who soon transacted their business with her, frigidly indifferent to her personality. A person who socially is nothing is thought less of by people who are not much than by those who are a great deal.
She then turned towards Peakhill Cottage, the residence of Miss Hinton, who lived there happily enough, with an elderly servant and a house-dog as companions. Her father, and last remaining parent, had retired thither four years before this time, after having filled the post of editor to the Casterbridge Chronicle for eighteen or twenty years. There he died soon after, and though comparatively a poor man, he left his daughter sufficiently well provided for as a modest fundholder and claimant of sundry small sums in dividends to maintain herself as mistress at Peakhill.
At Cytherea's knock an inner door was heard to open and close, and footsteps crossed the passage hesitatingly. The next minute Cytherea stood face to face with the lady herself.
Adelaide Hinton was about nine-and-twenty years of age. Her hair was plentiful, like Cytherea's own; her teeth equalled Cytherea's in regularity and whiteness. But she was much paler, and had features too transparent to be in place among household surroundings. Her mouth expressed love less forcibly than Cytherea's, and, as a natural result of her greater maturity, her tread was less elastic, and she was more self-possessed.
She had been a girl of that kind which mothers praise as not forward, by way of contrast, when disparaging those warmer ones with whom loving is an end and not a means. Men of forty, too, said of her, 'a good sensible wife for any man, if she cares to marry,' the caring to marry being thrown in as the vaguest hypothesis, because she was so practical. Yet it would be singular if, in such cases, the important subject of marriage should be excluded from manipulation by hands that are ready for practical performance in every domestic concern besides.
Cytherea was an acquisition, and the greeting was hearty.
'Good afternoon! O yes—Miss Graye, from Miss Aldclyffe's. I have seen you at church, and I am so glad you have called! Come in. I wonder if I have change enough to pay my subscription.' She spoke girlishly.
Adelaide, when in the company of a younger woman, always levelled herself down to that younger woman's age from a sense of justice to herself—as if, though not her own age at common law, it was in equity.
'It doesn't matter. I'll come again.'
'Yes, do at any time; not only on this errand. But you must step in for a minute. Do.'
'I have been wanting to come for several weeks.'
'That's right. Now you must see my house—lonely, isn't it, for a single person? People said it was odd for a young woman like me to keep on a house; but what did I care? If you knew the pleasure of locking up your own door, with the sensation that you reigned supreme inside it, you would say it was worth the risk of being called odd. Mr. Springrove attends to my gardening, the dog attends to robbers, and whenever there is a snake or toad to kill, Jane does it.'
'How nice! It is better than living in a town.'
'Far better. A town makes a cynic of me.'
The remark recalled, somewhat startlingly, to Cytherea's mind, that Edward had used those very words to herself one evening at Budmouth.
Miss Hinton opened an interior door and led her visitor into a small drawing-room commanding a view of the country for miles.
The missionary business was soon settled; but the chat continued.
'How lonely it must be here at night!' said Cytherea. 'Aren't you afraid?'
'At first I was, slightly. But I got used to the solitude. And you know a sort of commonsense will creep even into timidity. I say to myself sometimes at night, "If I were anybody but a harmless woman, not worth the trouble of a worm's ghost to appear to me, I should think that every sound I hear was a spirit." But you must see all over my house.'
Cytherea was highly interested in seeing.
'I say you must do this, and you must do that, as if you were a child,' remarked Adelaide. 'A privileged friend of mine tells me this use of the imperative comes of being so constantly in nobody's society but my own.'
'Ah, yes. I suppose she is right.'
Cytherea called the friend 'she' by a rule of ladylike practice; for a woman's 'friend' is delicately assumed by another friend to be of their own sex in the absence of knowledge to the contrary; just as cats are called she's until they prove themselves he's.
Miss Hinton laughed mysteriously.
'I get a humorous reproof for it now and then, I assure you,' she continued.
'"Humorous reproof:" that's not from a woman: who can reprove humorously but a man?' was the groove of Cytherea's thought at the remark. 'Your brother reproves you, I expect,' said that innocent young lady.
'No,' said Miss Hinton, with a candid air. ''Tis only a professional man I am acquainted with.' She looked out of the window.
Women are persistently imitative. No sooner did a thought flash through Cytherea's mind that the man was a lover than she became a Miss Aldclyffe in a mild form.
'I imagine he's a lover,' she said.
Miss Hinton smiled a smile of experience in that line.
Few women, if taxed with having an admirer, are so free from vanity as to deny the impeachment, even if it is utterly untrue. When it does happen to be true, they look pityingly away from the person who is so benighted as to have got no further than suspecting it.
'There now—Miss Hinton; you are engaged to be married!' said Cytherea accusingly.
Adelaide nodded her head practically. 'Well, yes, I am,' she said.
The word 'engaged' had no sooner passed Cytherea's lips than the sound of it—the mere sound of her own lips—carried her mind to the time and circumstances under which Miss Aldclyffe had used it towards herself. A sickening thought followed—based but on a mere surmise; yet its presence took every other idea away from Cytherea's mind. Miss Hinton had used Edward's words about towns; she mentioned Mr. Springrove as attending to her garden. It could not be that Edward was the man! that Miss Aldclyffe had planned to reveal her rival thus!
'Are you going to be married soon?' she inquired, with a steadiness the result of a sort of fascination, but apparently of indifference.
'Not very soon—still, soon.'
'Ah-ha! In less than three months?' said Cytherea.
Now that the subject was well in hand, Adelaide wanted no more prompting. 'You won't tell anybody if I show you something?' she said, with eager mystery.
'O no, nobody. But does he live in this parish?'
Nothing proved yet.
'What's his name?' said Cytherea flatly. Her breath and heart had begun their old tricks, and came and went hotly. Miss Hinton could not see her face.
'What do you think?' said Miss Hinton.
'George?' said Cytherea, with deceitful agony.
'No,' said Adelaide. 'But now, you shall see him first; come here;' and she led the way upstairs into her bedroom. There, standing on the dressing table in a little frame, was the unconscious portrait of Edward Springrove.
'There he is,' Miss Hinton said, and a silence ensued.
'Are you very fond of him?' continued the miserable Cytherea at length.
'Yes, of course I am,' her companion replied, but in the tone of one who 'lived in Abraham's bosom all the year,' and was therefore untouched by solemn thought at the fact. 'He's my cousin—a native of this village. We were engaged before my father's death left me so lonely. I was only twenty, and a much greater belle than I am now. We know each other thoroughly, as you may imagine. I give him a little sermonizing now and then.'
'O, it's only in fun. He's very naughty sometimes—not really, you know—but he will look at any pretty face when he sees it.'
Storing up this statement of his susceptibility as another item to be miserable upon when she had time, 'How do you know that?' Cytherea asked, with a swelling heart.
'Well, you know how things do come to women's ears. He used to live at Budmouth as an assistant-architect, and I found out that a young giddy thing of a girl who lives there somewhere took his fancy for a day or two. But I don't feel jealous at all—our engagement is so matter-of-fact that neither of us can be jealous. And it was a mere flirtation—she was too silly for him. He's fond of rowing, and kindly gave her an airing for an evening or two. I'll warrant they talked the most unmitigated rubbish under the sun—all shallowness and pastime, just as everything is at watering places—neither of them caring a bit for the other—she giggling like a goose all the time—'
Concentrated essence of woman pervaded the room rather than air. 'She didn't! and it wasn't shallowness!' Cytherea burst out, with brimming eyes. ''Twas deep deceit on one side, and entire confidence on the other—yes, it was!' The pent-up emotion had swollen and swollen inside the young thing till the dam could no longer embay it. The instant the words were out she would have given worlds to have been able to recall them.
'Do you know her—or him?' said Miss Hinton, starting with suspicion at the warmth shown.
The two rivals had now lost their personality quite. There was the same keen brightness of eye, the same movement of the mouth, the same mind in both, as they looked doubtingly and excitedly at each other. As is invariably the case with women when a man they care for is the subject of an excitement among them, the situation abstracted the differences which distinguished them as individuals, and left only the properties common to them as atoms of a sex.
Cytherea caught at the chance afforded her of not betraying herself. 'Yes, I know her,' she said.
'Well,' said Miss Hinton, 'I am really vexed if my speaking so lightly of any friend of yours has hurt your feelings, but—'
'O, never mind,' Cytherea returned; 'it doesn't matter, Miss Hinton. I think I must leave you now. I have to call at other places. Yes—I must go.'
Miss Hinton, in a perplexed state of mind, showed her visitor politely downstairs to the door. Here Cytherea bade her a hurried adieu, and flitted down the garden into the lane.
She persevered in her duties with a wayward pleasure in giving herself misery, as was her wont. Mr. Springrove's name was next on the list, and she turned towards his dwelling, the Three Tranters Inn.
3. FOUR TO FIVE P.M.
The cottages along Carriford village street were not so close but that on one side or other of the road was always a hedge of hawthorn or privet, over or through which could be seen gardens or orchards rich with produce. It was about the middle of the early apple-harvest, and the laden trees were shaken at intervals by the gatherers; the soft pattering of the falling crop upon the grassy ground being diversified by the loud rattle of vagrant ones upon a rail, hencoop, basket, or lean-to roof, or upon the rounded and stooping backs of the collectors—mostly children, who would have cried bitterly at receiving such a smart blow from any other quarter, but smilingly assumed it to be but fun in apples.
The Three Tranters Inn, a many-gabled, mediaeval building, constructed almost entirely of timber, plaster, and thatch, stood close to the line of the roadside, almost opposite the churchyard, and was connected with a row of cottages on the left by thatched outbuildings. It was an uncommonly characteristic and handsome specimen of the genuine roadside inn of bygone times; and standing on one of the great highways in this part of England, had in its time been the scene of as much of what is now looked upon as the romantic and genial experience of stage-coach travelling as any halting-place in the country. The railway had absorbed the whole stream of traffic which formerly flowed through the village and along by the ancient door of the inn, reducing the empty-handed landlord, who used only to farm a few fields at the back of the house, to the necessity of eking out his attenuated income by increasing the extent of his agricultural business if he would still maintain his social standing. Next to the general stillness pervading the spot, the long line of outbuildings adjoining the house was the most striking and saddening witness to the passed-away fortunes of the Three Tranters Inn. It was the bulk of the original stabling, and where once the hoofs of two-score horses had daily rattled over the stony yard, to and from the stalls within, thick grass now grew, whilst the line of roofs—once so straight—over the decayed stalls, had sunk into vast hollows till they seemed like the cheeks of toothless age.
On a green plot at the other end of the building grew two or three large, wide-spreading elm-trees, from which the sign was suspended—representing the three men called tranters (irregular carriers), standing side by side, and exactly alike to a hair's-breadth, the grain of the wood and joints of the boards being visible through the thin paint depicting their forms, which were still further disfigured by red stains running downwards from the rusty nails above.
Under the trees now stood a cider-mill and press, and upon the spot sheltered by the boughs were gathered Mr. Springrove himself, his men, the parish clerk, two or three other men, grinders and supernumeraries, a woman with an infant in her arms, a flock of pigeons, and some little boys with straws in their mouths, endeavouring, whenever the men's backs were turned, to get a sip of the sweet juice issuing from the vat.
Edward Springrove the elder, the landlord, now more particularly a farmer, and for two months in the year a cider-maker, was an employer of labour of the old school, who worked himself among his men. He was now engaged in packing the pomace into horsehair bags with a rammer, and Gad Weedy, his man, was occupied in shovelling up more from a tub at his side. The shovel shone like silver from the action of the juice, and ever and anon, in its motion to and fro, caught the rays of the declining sun and reflected them in bristling stars of light.
Mr. Springrove had been too young a man when the pristine days of the Three Tranters had departed for ever to have much of the host left in him now. He was a poet with a rough skin: one whose sturdiness was more the result of external circumstances than of intrinsic nature. Too kindly constituted to be very provident, he was yet not imprudent. He had a quiet humorousness of disposition, not out of keeping with a frequent melancholy, the general expression of his countenance being one of abstraction. Like Walt Whitman he felt as his years increased—
'I foresee too much; it means more than I thought.'
On the present occasion he wore gaiters and a leathern apron, and worked with his shirt-sleeves rolled up beyond his elbows, disclosing solid and fleshy rather than muscular arms. They were stained by the cider, and two or three brown apple-pips from the pomace he was handling were to be seen sticking on them here and there.
The other prominent figure was that of Richard Crickett, the parish clerk, a kind of Bowdlerized rake, who ate only as much as a woman, and had the rheumatism in his left hand. The remainder of the group, brown-faced peasants, wore smock-frocks embroidered on the shoulders with hearts and diamonds, and were girt round their middle with a strap, another being worn round the right wrist.
'And have you seen the steward, Mr. Springrove?' said the clerk.
'Just a glimpse of him; but 'twas just enough to show me that he's not here for long.'
'Why mid that be?'
'He'll never stand the vagaries of the female figure holden the reins—not he.'
'She d' pay en well,' said a grinder; 'and money's money.'
'Ah—'tis: very much so,' the clerk replied.
'Yes, yes, naibour Crickett,' said Springrove, 'but she'll vlee in a passion—all the fat will be in the fire—and there's an end o't.... Yes, she is a one,' continued the farmer, resting, raising his eyes, and reading the features of a distant apple.
'She is,' said Gad, resting too (it is wonderful how prompt a journeyman is in following his master's initiative to rest) and reflectively regarding the ground in front of him.
'True: a one is she,' the clerk chimed in, shaking his head ominously.
'She has such a temper,' said the farmer, 'and is so wilful too. You may as well try to stop a footpath as stop her when she has taken anything into her head. I'd as soon grind little green crabs all day as live wi' her.'
''Tis a temper she hev, 'tis,' the clerk replied, 'though I be a servant of the Church that say it. But she isn't goen to flee in a passion this time.'
The audience waited for the continuation of the speech, as if they knew from experience the exact distance off it lay in the future.
The clerk swallowed nothing as if it were a great deal, and then went on, 'There's some'at between 'em: mark my words, naibours—there's some'at between 'em.'
'D'ye mean it?'
'I d' know it. He came last Saturday, didn't he?'
''A did, truly,' said Gad Weedy, at the same time taking an apple from the hopper of the mill, eating a piece, and flinging back the remainder to be ground up for cider.
'He went to church a-Sunday,' said the clerk again.
'And she kept her eye upon en all the service, her face flickeren between red and white, but never stoppen at either.'
Mr. Springrove nodded, and went to the press.
'Well,' said the clerk, 'you don't call her the kind o' woman to make mistakes in just trotten through the weekly service o' God? Why, as a rule she's as right as I be myself.'
Mr. Springrove nodded again, and gave a twist to the screw of the press, followed in the movement by Gad at the other side; the two grinders expressing by looks of the greatest concern that, if Miss Aldclyffe were as right at church as the clerk, she must be right indeed.
'Yes, as right in the service o' God as I be myself,' repeated the clerk. 'But last Sunday, when we were in the tenth commandment, says she, "Incline our hearts to keep this law," says she, when 'twas "Laws in our hearts, we beseech Thee," all the church through. Her eye was upon him—she was quite lost—"Hearts to keep this law," says she; she was no more than a mere shadder at that tenth time—a mere shadder. You mi't ha' mouthed across to her "Laws in our hearts we beseech Thee," fifty times over—she'd never ha' noticed ye. She's in love wi' the man, that's what she is.'
'Then she's a bigger stunpoll than I took her for,' said Mr. Springrove. 'Why, she's old enough to be his mother.'
'The row'll be between her and that young Curlywig, you'll see. She won't run the risk of that pretty face be-en near.'
'Clerk Crickett, I d' fancy you d' know everything about everybody,' said Gad.
'Well so's,' said the clerk modestly. 'I do know a little. It comes to me.'
'And I d' know where from.'
'That wife o' thine. She's an entertainen woman, not to speak disrespectful.'
'She is: and a winnen one. Look at the husbands she've had—God bless her!'
'I wonder you could stand third in that list, Clerk Crickett,' said Mr. Springrove.
'Well, 't has been a power o' marvel to myself oftentimes. Yes, matrimony do begin wi' "Dearly beloved," and ends wi' "Amazement," as the prayer-book says. But what could I do, naibour Springrove? 'Twas ordained to be. Well do I call to mind what your poor lady said to me when I had just married. "Ah, Mr. Crickett," says she, "your wife will soon settle you as she did her other two: here's a glass o' rum, for I shan't see your poor face this time next year." I swallered the rum, called again next year, and said, "Mrs. Springrove, you gave me a glass o' rum last year because I was going to die—here I be alive still, you see." "Well said, clerk! Here's two glasses for you now, then," says she. "Thank you, mem," I said, and swallered the rum. Well, dang my old sides, next year I thought I'd call again and get three. And call I did. But she wouldn't give me a drop o' the commonest. "No, clerk," says she, "you be too tough for a woman's pity."... Ah, poor soul, 'twas true enough! Here be I, that was expected to die, alive and hard as a nail, you see, and there's she moulderen in her grave.'
'I used to think 'twas your wife's fate not to have a liven husband when I zid 'em die off so,' said Gad.
'Fate? Bless thy simplicity, so 'twas her fate; but she struggled to have one, and would, and did. Fate's nothen beside a woman's schemen!'
'I suppose, then, that Fate is a He, like us, and the Lord, and the rest o' 'em up above there,' said Gad, lifting his eyes to the sky.
'Hullo! Here's the young woman comen that we were a-talken about by-now,' said a grinder, suddenly interrupting. 'She's comen up here, as I be alive!'
The two grinders stood and regarded Cytherea as if she had been a ship tacking into a harbour, nearly stopping the mill in their new interest.
'Stylish accoutrements about the head and shoulders, to my thinken,' said the clerk. 'Sheenen curls, and plenty o' em.'
'If there's one kind of pride more excusable than another in a young woman, 'tis being proud of her hair,' said Mr. Springrove.
'Dear man!—the pride there is only a small piece o' the whole. I warrant now, though she can show such a figure, she ha'n't a stick o' furniture to call her own.'
'Come, Clerk Crickett, let the maid be a maid while she is a maid,' said Farmer Springrove chivalrously.
'O,' replied the servant of the Church; 'I've nothen to say against it—O no:
'"The chimney-sweeper's daughter Sue As I have heard declare, O, Although she's neither sock nor shoe Will curl and deck her hair, O."'
Cytherea was rather disconcerted at finding that the gradual cessation of the chopping of the mill was on her account, and still more when she saw all the cider-makers' eyes fixed upon her except Mr. Springrove's, whose natural delicacy restrained him. She neared the plot of grass, but instead of advancing further, hesitated on its border.
Mr. Springrove perceived her embarrassment, which was relieved when she saw his old-established figure coming across to her, wiping his hands in his apron.
'I know your errand, missie,' he said, 'and am glad to see you, and attend to it. I'll step indoors.'
'If you are busy I am in no hurry for a minute or two,' said Cytherea.
'Then if so be you really wouldn't mind, we'll wring down this last filling to let it drain all night?'
'Not at all. I like to see you.'
'We are only just grinding down the early pickthongs and griffins,' continued the farmer, in a half-apologetic tone for detaining by his cider-making any well-dressed woman. 'They rot as black as a chimney-crook if we keep 'em till the regulars turn in.' As he spoke he went back to the press, Cytherea keeping at his elbow. 'I'm later than I should have been by rights,' he continued, taking up a lever for propelling the screw, and beckoning to the men to come forward. 'The truth is, my son Edward had promised to come to-day, and I made preparations; but instead of him comes a letter: "London, September the eighteenth, Dear Father," says he, and went on to tell me he couldn't. It threw me out a bit.'
'Of course,' said Cytherea.
'He's got a place 'a b'lieve?' said the clerk, drawing near.
'No, poor mortal fellow, no. He tried for this one here, you know, but couldn't manage to get it. I don't know the rights o' the matter, but willy-nilly they wouldn't have him for steward. Now mates, form in line.'
Springrove, the clerk, the grinders, and Gad, all ranged themselves behind the lever of the screw, and walked round like soldiers wheeling.
'The man that the old quean hev got is a man you can hardly get upon your tongue to gainsay, by the look o' en,' rejoined Clerk Crickett.
'One o' them people that can contrive to be thought no worse o' for stealen a horse than another man for looken over hedge at en,' said a grinder.
'Well, he's all there as steward, and is quite the gentleman—no doubt about that.'
'So would my Ted ha' been, for the matter o' that,' the farmer said.
'That's true: 'a would, sir.'
'I said, I'll give Ted a good education if it do cost me my eyes, and I would have done it.'
'Ay, that you would so,' said the chorus of assistants solemnly.
'But he took to books and drawing naturally, and cost very little; and as a wind-up the womenfolk hatched up a match between him and his cousin.'
'When's the wedden to be, Mr. Springrove?'
'Uncertain—but soon, I suppose. Edward, you see, can do anything pretty nearly, and yet can't get a straightforward living. I wish sometimes I had kept him here, and let professions go. But he was such a one for the pencil.'
He dropped the lever in the hedge, and turned to his visitor.
'Now then, missie, if you'll come indoors, please.'
Gad Weedy looked with a placid criticism at Cytherea as she withdrew with the farmer.
'I could tell by the tongue o' her that she didn't take her degrees in our county,' he said in an undertone.
'The railways have left you lonely here,' she observed, when they were indoors.
Save the withered old flies, which were quite tame from the solitude, not a being was in the house. Nobody seemed to have entered it since the last passenger had been called out to mount the last stage-coach that had run by.
'Yes, the Inn and I seem almost a pair of fossils,' the farmer replied, looking at the room and then at himself.
'O, Mr. Springrove,' said Cytherea, suddenly recollecting herself; 'I am much obliged to you for recommending me to Miss Aldclyffe.' She began to warm towards the old man; there was in him a gentleness of disposition which reminded her of her own father.
'Recommending? Not at all, miss. Ted—that's my son—Ted said a fellow-draughtsman of his had a sister who wanted to be doing something in the world, and I mentioned it to the housekeeper, that's all. Ay, I miss my son very much.'
She kept her back to the window that he might not see her rising colour.
'Yes,' he continued, 'sometimes I can't help feeling uneasy about him. You know, he seems not made for a town life exactly: he gets very queer over it sometimes, I think. Perhaps he'll be better when he's married to Adelaide.'
A half-impatient feeling arose in her, like that which possesses a sick person when he hears a recently-struck hour struck again by a slow clock. She had lived further on.
'Everything depends upon whether he loves her,' she said tremulously.
'He used to—he doesn't show it so much now; but that's because he's older. You see, it was several years ago they first walked together as young man and young woman. She's altered too from what she was when he first courted her.'
'O, she's more sensible by half. When he used to write to her she'd creep up the lane and look back over her shoulder, and slide out the letter, and read a word and stand in thought looking at the hills and seeing none. Then the cuckoo would cry—away the letter would slip, and she'd start wi' fright at the mere bird, and have a red skin before the quickest man among ye could say, "Blood rush up."'
He came forward with the money and dropped it into her hand. His thoughts were still with Edward, and he absently took her little fingers in his as he said, earnestly and ingenuously—
''Tis so seldom I get a gentlewoman to speak to that I can't help speaking to you, Miss Graye, on my fears for Edward; I sometimes am afraid that he'll never get on—that he'll die poor and despised under the worst mental conditions, a keen sense of having been passed in the race by men whose brains are nothing to his own, all through his seeing too far into things—being discontented with make-shifts—thinking o' perfection in things, and then sickened that there's no such thing as perfection. I shan't be sorry to see him marry, since it may settle him down and do him good.... Ay, we'll hope for the best.'
He let go her hand and accompanied her to the door saying, 'If you should care to walk this way and talk to an old man once now and then, it will be a great delight to him, Miss Graye. Good-evening to ye.... Ah look! a thunderstorm is brewing—be quick home. Or shall I step up with you?'
'No, thank you, Mr. Springrove. Good evening,' she said in a low voice, and hurried away. One thought still possessed her; Edward had trifled with her love.
4. FIVE TO SIX P.M.
She followed the road into a bower of trees, overhanging it so densely that the pass appeared like a rabbit's burrow, and presently reached a side entrance to the park. The clouds rose more rapidly than the farmer had anticipated: the sheep moved in a trail, and complained incoherently. Livid grey shades, like those of the modern French painters, made a mystery of the remote and dark parts of the vista, and seemed to insist upon a suspension of breath. Before she was half-way across the park the thunder rumbled distinctly.
The direction in which she had to go would take her close by the old manor-house. The air was perfectly still, and between each low rumble of the thunder behind she could hear the roar of the waterfall before her, and the creak of the engine among the bushes hard by it. Hurrying on, with a growing dread of the gloom and of the approaching storm, she drew near the Old House, now rising before her against the dark foliage and sky in tones of strange whiteness.
On the flight of steps, which descended from a terrace in front to the level of the park, stood a man. He appeared, partly from the relief the position gave to his figure, and partly from fact, to be of towering height. He was dark in outline, and was looking at the sky, with his hands behind him.
It was necessary for Cytherea to pass directly across the line of his front. She felt so reluctant to do this, that she was about to turn under the trees out of the path and enter it again at a point beyond the Old House; but he had seen her, and she came on mechanically, unconsciously averting her face a little, and dropping her glance to the ground.
Her eyes unswervingly lingered along the path until they fell upon another path branching in a right line from the path she was pursuing. It came from the steps of the Old House. 'I am exactly opposite him now,' she thought, 'and his eyes are going through me.'
A clear masculine voice said, at the same instant—
'Are you afraid?'
She, interpreting his question by her feelings at the moment, assumed himself to be the object of fear, if any. 'I don't think I am,' she stammered.
He seemed to know that she thought in that sense.
'Of the thunder, I mean,' he said; 'not of myself.'
She must turn to him now. 'I think it is going to rain,' she remarked for the sake of saying something.
He could not conceal his surprise and admiration of her face and bearing. He said courteously, 'It may possibly not rain before you reach the House, if you are going there?'
'Yes, I am,'
'May I walk up with you? It is lonely under the trees.'
'No.' Fearing his courtesy arose from a belief that he was addressing a woman of higher station than was hers, she added, 'I am Miss Aldclyffe's companion. I don't mind the loneliness.'
'O, Miss Aldclyffe's companion. Then will you be kind enough to take a subscription to her? She sent to me this afternoon to ask me to become a subscriber to her Society, and I was out. Of course I'll subscribe if she wishes it. I take a great interest in the Society.'
'Miss Aldclyffe will be glad to hear that, I know.'
'Yes; let me see—what Society did she say it was? I am afraid I haven't enough money in my pocket, and yet it would be a satisfaction to her to have practical proof of my willingness. I'll get it, and be out in one minute.'
He entered the house and was at her side again within the time he had named. 'This is it,' he said pleasantly.
She held up her hand. The soft tips of his fingers brushed the palm of her glove as he placed the money within it. She wondered why his fingers should have touched her.
'I think after all,' he continued, 'that the rain is upon us, and will drench you before you reach the House. Yes: see there.'
He pointed to a round wet spot as large as a nasturtium leaf, which had suddenly appeared upon the white surface of the step.
'You had better come into the porch. It is not nearly night yet. The clouds make it seem later than it really is.'
Heavy drops of rain, followed immediately by a forked flash of lightning and sharp rattling thunder compelled her, willingly or no, to accept his invitation. She ascended the steps, stood beside him just within the porch, and for the first time obtained a series of short views of his person, as they waited there in silence.
He was an extremely handsome man, well-formed, and well-dressed, of an age which seemed to be two or three years less than thirty. The most striking point in his appearance was the wonderful, almost preternatural, clearness of his complexion. There was not a blemish or speck of any kind to mar the smoothness of its surface or the beauty of its hue. Next, his forehead was square and broad, his brows straight and firm, his eyes penetrating and clear. By collecting the round of expressions they gave forth, a person who theorized on such matters would have imbibed the notion that their owner was of a nature to kick against the pricks; the last man in the world to put up with a position because it seemed to be his destiny to do so; one who took upon himself to resist fate with the vindictive determination of a Theomachist. Eyes and forehead both would have expressed keenness of intellect too severely to be pleasing, had their force not been counteracted by the lines and tone of the lips. These were full and luscious to a surprising degree, possessing a woman-like softness of curve, and a ruby redness so intense, as to testify strongly to much susceptibility of heart where feminine beauty was concerned—a susceptibility that might require all the ballast of brain with which he had previously been credited to confine within reasonable channels.
His manner was rather elegant than good: his speech well-finished and unconstrained.
The pause in their discourse, which had been caused by the peal of thunder was unbroken by either for a minute or two, during which the ears of both seemed to be absently following the low roar of the waterfall as it became gradually rivalled by the increasing rush of rain upon the trees and herbage of the grove. After her short looks at him, Cytherea had turned her head towards the avenue for a while, and now, glancing back again for an instant, she discovered that his eyes were engaged in a steady, though delicate, regard of her face and form.
At this moment, by reason of the narrowness of the porch, their dresses touched, and remained in contact.
His clothes are something exterior to every man; but to a woman her dress is part of her body. Its motions are all present to her intelligence if not to her eyes; no man knows how his coat-tails swing. By the slightest hyperbole it may be said that her dress has sensation. Crease but the very Ultima Thule of fringe or flounce, and it hurts her as much as pinching her. Delicate antennae, or feelers, bristle on every outlying frill. Go to the uppermost: she is there; tread on the lowest: the fair creature is there almost before you.
Thus the touch of clothes, which was nothing to Manston, sent a thrill through Cytherea, seeing, moreover, that he was of the nature of a mysterious stranger. She looked out again at the storm, but still felt him. At last to escape the sensation she moved away, though by so doing it was necessary to advance a little into the rain.
'Look, the rain is coming into the porch upon you,' he said. 'Step inside the door.'
'Perfectly safe, I assure you,' he added, laughing, and holding the door open. 'You shall see what a state of disorganization I am in—boxes on boxes, furniture, straw, crockery, in every form of transposition. An old woman is in the back quarters somewhere, beginning to put things to rights.... You know the inside of the house, I dare say?'
'I have never been in.'
'O well, come along. Here, you see, they have made a door through, here, they have put a partition dividing the old hall into two, one part is now my parlour; there they have put a plaster ceiling, hiding the old chestnut-carved roof because it was too high and would have been chilly for me; you see, being the original hall, it was open right up to the top, and here the lord of the manor and his retainers used to meet and be merry by the light from the monstrous fire which shone out from that monstrous fire-place, now narrowed to a mere nothing for my grate, though you can see the old outline still. I almost wish I could have had it in its original state.'
'With more romance and less comfort.'
'Yes, exactly. Well, perhaps the wish is not deep-seated. You will see how the things are tumbled in anyhow, packing-cases and all. The only piece of ornamental furniture yet unpacked is this one.'
'Yes, an organ. I made it myself, except the pipes. I opened the case this afternoon to commence soothing myself at once. It is not a very large one, but quite big enough for a private house. You play, I dare say?'
'The piano. I am not at all used to an organ.'
'You would soon acquire the touch for an organ, though it would spoil your touch for the piano. Not that that matters a great deal. A piano isn't much as an instrument.'
'It is the fashion to say so now. I think it is quite good enough.'
'That isn't altogether a right sentiment about things being good enough.'
'No—no. What I mean is, that the men who despise pianos do it as a rule from their teeth, merely for fashion's sake, because cleverer men have said it before them—not from the experience of their ears.'
Now Cytherea all at once broke into a blush at the consciousness of a great snub she had been guilty of in her eagerness to explain herself. He charitably expressed by a look that he did not in the least mind her blunder, if it were one; and this attitude forced him into a position of mental superiority which vexed her.
'I play for my private amusement only,' he said. 'I have never learned scientifically. All I know is what I taught myself.'
The thunder, lightning, and rain had now increased to a terrific force. The clouds, from which darts, forks, zigzags, and balls of fire continually sprang, did not appear to be more than a hundred yards above their heads, and every now and then a flash and a peal made gaps in the steward's descriptions. He went towards the organ, in the midst of a volley which seemed to shake the aged house from foundations to chimney.
'You are not going to play now, are you?' said Cytherea uneasily.
'O yes. Why not now?' he said. 'You can't go home, and therefore we may as well be amused, if you don't mind sitting on this box. The few chairs I have unpacked are in the other room.'