Thursday.—Up at half-past seven; peeped in the glass the instant I was out of bed, and wondered how Cousin Amelia looks when she wakes. Yellowish, I should think, and by no means captivating, particularly if she wears a nightcap. I don't care how ugly a woman is, she has no right to look anything but fresh in the morning; and yet how few possess this advantage! Nothing like open air and plenty of exercise; saving one's complexion is undoubtedly the very way to spoil it. Saw Brilliant and White Stockings going to exercise in the Park. What coddles they look on these fine autumn mornings, covered with clothing! Felt very keen about hunting; the same feeling always comes on at the fall of the leaf; shouldn't wonder if I could jump a gate, with my present nerves. Should like once in my life to plant a field of horsemen, and show these gentlemen how a woman can ride. Interrupted in my daydreams by Lady Horsingham's bell, and huddled on my things in a tremendous hurry; forced to wash my hands in cold water, which made the tips of my fingers as red as radishes for the rest of the day. Got down to prayers by half-past eight, and took Aunt Deborah her tea and toast from the breakfast-table at nine.
Breakfast dull, and most of the party cross: Aunt Horsingham is generally out of humour at breakfast-time, particularly on Sundays. Cousin Amelia suggested my towels were too coarse: "they had rubbed a colour into my cheeks like a dairymaid's." John said I looked like a rose—a tea-rose, he added, as I handed him his cup. Cousin John is getting quite poetical, and decidedly improved since he left London. I wonder whom he got that letter from that was lying on his plate when he came down. I am not curious, but I just glanced at the direction, and I am certain it was in a lady's hand. Not that it's any business of mine; only I should think Miss Molasses would hardly have the face to write to him. I wonder whether there is anything between John and Miss Molasses. I asked him, half spitefully, the other day how he could bear to be parted from her now the season was over; and he seemed so pleased at my taking an interest in the thing at all that I had no patience to go on with my cross-questioning. I don't think she's good enough for John, I must confess; but he is easily imposed on by young ladies—as indeed, for that matter, are the rest of his great thick-headed sex. When breakfast was over and Cousin Amelia went off as usual to practise her music for an hour or two, I thought I might steal away for a visit to my favourites in the stable; indeed I saw John at the front door in a hideous wide-awake, with a long cigar in his mouth. But I was waylaid by Aunt Horsingham; and as these visits to the stable are strictly forbidden, I was obliged to follow her into the drawing-room, and resign myself for the whole morning to that dreadful worsted-work, more especially as it was coming on a drizzling mist, and there was no pretext for my usual walk.
"I am glad to see you getting more sociable, Kate," said Lady Horsingham, in her dry, harsh voice, as I took a seat beside her and opened my work-basket. "It is never advisable for any young lady to affect singularity, and I have observed with some concern that your demeanour on many occasions is very unlike that of the rest of your sex."
I never give in to Aunt Horsingham—after all she's not my own aunt—so I answered as pertly as ever I could:
"No: you mean I don't spend the morning in looking in the glass and talking evil of my neighbours; I don't scream when I see a beetle, or go into convulsions because there's a mouse in the room. I've got two legs, very good legs, Aunt Horsingham—shall I show you them?—and I like to use them, and to be out of doors amongst the trees and the grass and the daisies, instead of counting stitches for work that nobody wants or writing letters that nobody reads. I had rather give Brilliant a good 'bucketing' (Aunt Horsingham shuddered; I knew she would, and used the word on purpose) over an open heath or a line of grass than go bodkin in a chariot, seven miles an hour, and both windows up. Thank you, Aunt Horsingham; you would like to make a fine lady of me—a useless, sickly, lackadaisical being instead of a healthy, active, light-hearted woman. Much obliged to you; I had rather stay as I am."
"Miss Coventry," said my aunt, who was completely posed by my volubility, and apparently shocked beyond the power of expression at my opinions—"Miss Coventry," she repeated, "if these are indeed your sentiments, I must beg—nay, I must insist—on your keeping them to yourself whilst under this roof.—Amelia, my dear" (to my cousin, who was gliding quietly into the room)—"Amelia, go back to your music for ten minutes.—I must insist, Miss Coventry, that you do not inoculate my daughter with these pernicious doctrines—this mistaken view of the whole duties and essentials of your sex. Do you think men appreciate a woman who, if she had but a beard, would be exactly like one of themselves? Do you think they like to see their ideal hot and dishevelled, plastered with mud, and draggled with wet? Do you think they wish her to be strong and independent of them, and perhaps their superior at those very sports and exercises on which they plume themselves? Do you think they are to be taken by storm, and, so to speak, bullied into admiration? You're wrong, Kate, you're wrong; and I believe I am equally wrong to talk to you in this strain, inasmuch as the admiration of the other sex ought to be the last thing coveted or thought of by a young person of yours."
"I'm sure, aunt, I don't want the men to admire me," I replied; "but I would not give much for the admiration of one who could be jealous of me for so paltry a cause as my riding better than himself; and as for ideals, I don't know much about such things, but I think a man's ideal may do pretty well what she likes, and he is sure to think everything she does do is perfect. Besides, I don't see why I should bully him into liking me because I'm fond of the beautiful 'out of doors' instead of the fireside. And courageous women, like courageous men, are generally a deal more gentle than the timid ones. I've known ladies who would not venture into a carriage or a boat who could wage a war of words bitterer than the veriest trooper would have at his command; and I've heard Cousin John say that there is scarcely an instance of a veritable heroine in history, from Joan of Arc downwards, who was not in her private life as sweet, as gentle, and as womanly as she was high-couraged and undaunted when the moment came that summoned her energies to the encounter. Unselfishness is the cause in both cases, you may depend. People that are always so dreadfully afraid something is going to happen to them think a great deal more of self than anything else; and the same cause which makes them tremble at imaginary danger for their own sakes will make them forgetful of real sufferings in which they themselves have no share. I had rather be a hoyden, Aunt Horsingham, and go on in my own way. I have much more enjoyment; and, upon my word, I don't think I'm one bit a worse member of society than if I was the most delicate fine lady that ever fainted away at the overpowering smell of a rose leaf or the merry peal of a noisy child's laugh."
My aunt lifted up her hands and gave in, for the return of Cousin Amelia from the music-room effectually prevented further discussion; and we beguiled the time till luncheon by alternate fits of scandal and work, running through the characters of most of the neighbours within twenty miles, and completely demolishing the reputation of my friend, as they called her—lively, sarcastic little Mrs. Plumridge. John was off rabbit-shooting, so of course he did not appear at that meal so essential to ladies; and after Cousin Amelia, by way of being delicate, had got through two cutlets, the best part of a chicken, a plateful of rice-pudding, and a large glass of sherry, I ventured to propose to her that if the afternoon held up we should have a walk.
"I'm not equal to much fatigue," said she, with a languid air and a heavy look about her eyes which I attributed to the luncheon; "but if you like we'll go to the garden and the hothouses, and be back in time for a cup of tea at five o'clock."
"Anything to get out of the house," was my reply, and forthwith I rushed upstairs, two steps at a time, to put on my things; whilst my aunt whispered to her daughter, loud enough for me to hear, "She really ought to have been a man, Emmy; did you ever see such a hoyden in your life?"
It was pleasant to get out even into that formal garden. The day was soft and misty, such as one often finds it towards the close of autumn—dark without being chill—and the withered leaves strewed the earth in all the beauty of wholesome natural decay. Autumn makes some people miserable; I confess it is the time of year that I like best. Spring makes me cross if it's bad weather, and melancholy if it's fine. Summer is very enjoyable certainly, but it has a luxuriance of splendour that weighs down my spirits; and in those glorious hot, dreamy haymaking days I seem unable to identify myself sufficiently with all the beauty around me, and to pine for I don't exactly know what. Winter is charming when it don't freeze, with its early candle-light and long evenings; but autumn combines everything that to me is most delightful—the joys of reality and the pleasures of anticipation. Cousin Amelia don't think so at all.
"A nasty raw day, Kate," she remarked as we emerged from the hothouse into the moist, heavy air. "How I hate the country! except whilst the strawberries are ripe. Let's go back to the house, and read with our feet on the fender till tea-time."
"Not yet, Emmy," I pleaded, for I really pined for a good walk; "let's go on the highroad as far as the milestone—it's market day at Muddlebury, and we shall see the tipsy farmers riding home and the carriers' carts with their queer-looking loads; besides, think what a colour you'll have for dinner. Come on, there's a dear!"
The last argument was unanswerable; and Cousin Amelia putting her best foot foremost, we soon cleared the garden and the approach, and emerged on the highroad three miles from Muddlebury, and well out of the sight of the windows of Dangerfield Hall. As we rose the hill, on the top of which is perched the well-known milestone, and my cousin began already to complain of fatigue, the sound of hoofs behind us caused us both to stop and look round.
"It's cavalry," said Amelia, who jumps rather rapidly to conclusions, and is no judge of a horse.
"It's a stud," was my reply; "somebody coming to hunt with 'the Heavy-top.' Let's stand in this gateway and see them pass." We took up a position accordingly; and if I felt keen about the commencement of the season previously, how much more so did I become to watch the string of gallant well-bred horses now jogging quietly towards us with all the paraphernalia and accessories of the chase!
Two, four, six, and a hack, all clothed and hooded, and packed for travelling. Such a chestnut in the van, with a minute boy on him, who cannot have weighed four stone; strong, flat, sinewy legs (the chestnut's, not the boy's), hocks and thighs clean, full, and muscular as Brilliant's, only twice the size; a long, square tail, and a wicked eye. How I should like to ride that chestnut! Then a brown and two bays, one of the latter scarcely big enough for a hunter, to my fancy, but apparently as thoroughbred as Eclipse; then a gray, who seemed to have a strong objection to being led, and who held back and dragged at his rein in a most provoking manner; and lastly, by the side of a brown hack that I fancied I had seen before, a beautiful black horse, the very impersonation of strength, symmetry, courage, speed, and all that a horse should be.
"Ask the groom whose they are," whispered Amelia as he went by. "I don't quite like to speak to him; he looks an impudent fellow with those dark whiskers."
I should like to see the whiskers that would frighten me; so I stepped boldly out into the road, and accosted him at once.
"Whose horses are those, my man?" I asked, with my most commanding air.
"Captain Lovell's, miss," was the reply. My heart jumped into my mouth, and you might have knocked me down with a feather.
"Captain Lovell's!" exclaimed Amelia; "why, that's your old flirt, Kate. I see it all now." But I hardly heard her, and when I looked up the horses were a mile off, and we were retracing our steps towards Dangerfield Hall.
What a happy day this has been, and how unpromising was its beginning! And yet I don't know why I should have been so happy. After all, there is nothing extraordinary in Captain Lovell's sending down a stud of horses to hunt with so favourite a pack as "the Heavy-top" hounds. I wish I had summoned courage to ask the man when his master was coming and where he was going to stay; but I really couldn't do it—no, not if my life depended on it. All the way home Cousin Amelia laughed and sneered and chattered, and once she acknowledged I was "the best-tempered girl in the world;" but I am sure I have not an idea why I deserve this character. Her words fell perfectly unheeded on my ear. I was glad to get to the solitude of my own room, when it was time to dress for dinner, that I might have the luxury, if it was only for five minutes, of thinking undisturbed. But there was Aunt Deborah to be attended to; for poor Aunt Deborah, I am sorry to say, is by no means well. And Gertrude came in "to do my hair;" and then the dinner-bell rang, and the wearisome meal, and the long evening dragged on in their accustomed monotony. But I did not find it as dull as usual, though I was more rejoiced than ever when the hand-candles came and we were dismissed to go to bed.
And now they are all fast asleep, and I can sit at my open window and think, think, think as much as I like. What a lovely night it is! The mist has cleared off, and the moat is glistening in the moonlight, and the old trees are silvered over and blackened alternately by its beams; the church tower stands out massively against the sky. How dark the old belfry looks on such a night as this, contrasting with the white tombstones in the churchyard, and the slated roof shimmering above the aisle! There is a faint breeze sighing amongst the few remaining leaves, now rising into a pleading whisper, now dying away with a sad, unearthly moan. The deer are moving restlessly about the Park, now standing out in bold relief on some open space brightened by the moonlight, now flitting like spectres athwart the shade. Everything breathes of romance and illusion; and I do believe it is very bad for one to be watching here, dreaming wide awake, instead of snoring healthily in bed. I wonder what he is about at this moment. Perhaps smoking a cigar out of doors, and enjoying this beautiful night. I wonder what he is thinking of. Perhaps, after all, he's stewed up in some lamplit drawing-room talking nonsense to Lady Scapegrace and Mrs. Lumley, or playing that odious whist at his club. Well, I suppose I may as well go to bed. One more look into the night, and then—hark! what is it? how beautiful, how charming! Distant music from the wood at the low end of the Park. The deer are all listening, and now they troop down towards the noise in scores. How softly it dies away and rises again! 'Tis a cornet-a-piston, I think, and though not very skilfully played it sounds heavenly by moonlight. I never thought that old air of "You'll Remember Me" half so beautiful before. Who can it be? I have never heard it since I came here. It can't be Captain Lovell's groom; it's not quite impossible it might be Captain Lovell himself. Ah, if I thought that! Well, it has ceased now. I may as well go to bed. What a happy day this has been, and what dreams I shall have!
Friday.—This has been an eventful day. I thought somehow it would be so; at all events, the first day's hunting is always an era to me—so when I came down to breakfast in my riding-habit, and braved the cold glances of my aunt and the sarcasms of my cousin, I was prepared for a certain amount of excitement, although, I confess, I did not bargain for quite so much as I got.
"You'll enjoy yourself to-day, I trust, Miss Coventry," said Aunt Horsingham, looking as black as thunder.
"Mind you don't get a fall," observed Cousin Amelia with a sneer; but I cared little for their remarks and remonstrances. White Stockings was at the door, Cousin John ready to lift me into my saddle, and I envied no mortal woman on earth, no not our gracious Queen upon the throne, when I found myself fairly mounted, and jogging gently down the park in all the delightful anticipation of a good day's sport. I think I would rather have ridden Brilliant of the two, but John suggested that the country was cramped and sticky, with small fields and blind fences. Now, White Stockings is an animal of great circumspection, and allows no earthly consideration to hurry him. He is, moreover, as strong as a dray-horse, and as handy, so John declares, "as a fiddle." To him, therefore, was entrusted the honour of carrying me on my first appearance with the Heavy-top hounds. The meet was at no great distance from Dangerfield Hall, and being the beginning of the season, and a favourite place, there was a considerable muster of the elite of the county, and a goodly show of very respectable horses to grace the covert side. As we rode up to the mounted assemblage, I perceived, by the glance of curiosity, not to say admiration, directed at myself and White Stockings, that ladies were unusual visitors in that field, and that the Heavy-top gentlemen were not prepared to be cut down, at all events by a woman. Cousin John seems to know them all and to be a universal favourite.
"Who's the lady, John, my boy?" whispered a fat squire in a purple garment, with a face to match; "good seat on a horse, eh? rides like a bird, I'll warrant her." I did not catch John's answer; but the corpulent sportsman nodded, and smiled, and winked, and wheezed out, "Lucky dog—pretty cousin—double harness."
I don't know what he meant; but that it was something intensely ludicrous I gather from his nearly choking with laughter at his own concluding observation, though John blushed and looked rather like a fool.
"Who's that girl on the chestnut?" I again heard asked by a slang-looking man with red whiskers meeting under his chin; "looks like a larker—I must get introduced to her," added the conceited brute. How I hated him! If he had ventured to speak to me, I really think I could have struck him over the face with my riding-whip.
"I told you it would not be long before we met, Miss Coventry," said a well-known voice beside me; and turning round, I shook hands with Captain Lovell; and I am ashamed to confess, shook all over into the bargain. I am always a little nervous the first day of the season. How well he looked in his red coat and neat appointments, with his graceful seat upon a horse, and so high-bred, amongst all the country squires and jolly yeomen that surrounded us! He had more colour too than when in London, and altogether I thought I had never seen him looking so handsome. The chestnut with the wicked eye, showing off his fine shape, now divested of clothing, curvetted and bent to his rider's hand as if he thoroughly enjoyed that light restraining touch: the pair looked what the gentlemen call "all over like going," and I am sure one of them thought so too.
"I saw your horses on their way to Muddlebury yesterday," I at length found courage to say. "Are you going to hunt all the season with the Heavy-top?"
"How long do you stay at Dangerfield?" was the counter question from Frank; "you see I know the name of the place already; I believe I could find my way now about the Park; very picturesque it is too by night, Miss Coventry. Do you like music by moonlight?"
"Not if it's played out of tune," I answered with a laugh and a blush; but just then Squire Haycock, whom I scarcely knew in his hunting costume, rode up to us, and begged as a personal favour to himself that we would accompany him to a particular point, from which he could ensure us a good start if the fox went away—his face becoming scarlet as he expressed a hope "Miss Coventry would not allow her fondness for the chase to lead her into unnecessary danger;" whilst Frank looked at him with a half-amused, half-puzzled expression that seemed to say, "What a queer creature you are; and what the deuce can that matter to you?"
I wonder why people always want to oblige you when you don't want to be obliged; "too civil by half" is much more in the way than "not half civil enough." So we rode on with Squire Haycock, and took up a position at the end of the wood that commanded a view of the whole proceedings, and, as Frank whispered to me, was "the likeliest place in the world if we wanted to head the fox."
The Heavy-top hounds are an establishment such as, I am given to understand, is not usually kept in Leicestershire, Northamptonshire, and other so-called "flying counties." I like to gain all the information I can—Cousin John calls this thirst for knowledge, "female curiosity"—and gather from him that the Heavy-top consists of twenty-two couples of hunting hounds, and that the whole twenty-two come out three times a week during the season. I don't see why they shouldn't, I'm sure; they look very fat, and remind me of the otter hounds poor Uncle Horace used to keep when I was a child. He (that's my oracle, Cousin John) further adds that they are remarkably "steady"—which is more than can be said of their huntsman, who is constantly drunk—and that they consume a vast quantity of "flesh," which, far from being a meritorious, appears to me a disgusting tendency. They are capital "line-hunters," so says John; a "line-hunter," I imagine, is a hound that keeps snuffing about under the horses' feet, and must be a most useful auxiliary, when, as is often the case, the sportsmen are standing on the identical spot where the fox has crossed. He considers them a very "killing" pack, not in manners or appearance certainly, but in perseverance and undying determination. Their huntsman is what is called "one of the old sort." If this is a correct description, I can only say that "the old sort" must have worn the brownest and shabbiest of boots, the oldest of coats, and the greasiest of caps; must have smelt of brandy on all occasions, and lived in a besotted state of general confusion, vibrating between "delirium audacious" and "delirium tremens." They have, however, a certain whip called "Will," who appears to me to do all the work, and to keep everything right. When old Tippler drinks himself to death (a casualty which must shortly happen), Will is pretty sure to succeed him—an event which I fancy will greatly add to the efficiency of the Heavy-top hounds. To crown all, Frank Lovell dubs the whole thing "slow;" but I have remarked gentlemen make use of this epithet to convey their disapproval of that which they cannot find any positive fault with—just as we ladies call a woman "bad style" when we have nothing else to say in her disparagement.
"Gone away!" exclaims Squire Haycock, lifting his cap high above his red head; "yonder he goes! Don't you see him, Miss Coventry, now whisking under the gate?"
"Forward, forward!" holloas Frank, giving vent to his excitement in one of those prolonged screams that proclaim how the astonished sportsman has actually seen the fox with his own eyes. The next instant he is through the hand-gate at the end of the ride, and rising in his stirrups, with the wicked chestnut held hard by the head, is speeding away over the adjoining pasture, alongside of the two or three couples of leading hounds that have just emerged from the covert. Ah! we are all forgotten now; women, children, everything is lost in that first delirious five minutes when the hounds are really away. Frank was gazing at me a minute ago as if his very life was at my disposal, and now he is speeding away a field ahead of me, and don't care whether I break my neck following him or not. But this is no time for such thoughts as these; the drunken huntsman is sounding his horn in our rear. Will, the whip, cap in hand, is bringing up the body of the pack. Squire Haycock holds the gate open for me to pass, Cousin John goes by me like a flash of lightning; White Stockings with a loose rein, submits to be kicked along at any pace I like to ask him. The fence at the end of the field is nothing; I shall go exactly where Frank did. My blood thrills with ecstasy in my veins: moment of moments! I have got a capital start, and we are in for a run.
As I sit here in my armchair and dressing-gown, I see the whole panorama of to-day passing once more before my eyes. I see that dark, wet, ploughed field, with the white hounds slipping noiselessly over its furrowed surface. I can almost perceive the fresh, wholesome smell of the newly-turned earth. I see the ragged, overgrown, straggling fence at the far end, glistening with morning dew, and green with formidable briers. I see Frank Lovell's chestnut rising at the weakest place, the rider sitting well back, his spurs and stirrup-irons shining in the sun; I see Squire Haycock's square scarlet back, as he diverges to a well-known corner for some friendly egress; I hear Cousin John's voice shouting, "Give him his head, Kate!" As White Stockings and I rapidly approach the leap, my horse relapses of his own accord into a trot, points his small ears, crashes into the very middle of the fence, and just as I give myself up for lost, makes a second bound that settles me once more in the saddle, and lands gallantly in the adjoining field, Frank looking back over his shoulder in evident anxiety and admiration, whilst John's cheery voice, with its "Bravo, Kate!" rings in my delighted ears. We three are now nearest the hounds, a long strip of rushy meadow-land before us, the pack streaming along the side of a high, thick hedge that bounds it on our left; the south wind fans my face and lifts my hair as I slacken my horse's rein and urge him to his speed. I am alongside of Frank. I could ride anywhere now, or do anything. I pass him with a smile and a jest. I am the foremost with the chase. What is ten years of common life, one's feet upon the fender, compared to five such golden minutes as these? The hounds stop suddenly, and after scattering and spreading themselves into the form of an open fan, look up in my face with an air of mute bewilderment. The huntsman and the field come up, the gentlemen in a high state of delight and confusion; but Mr. Tippler in the worst of humours, and muttering as he trots off to a corner of the meadow with the pack about his horse's heels,—
"Rode 'em slap off the scent—drove 'em to a check—wish she was at home and abed and asleep, and be d——d to her!"
A grim old lady who has but one eye, and answers to the name of "Jezebel," has threaded the fence, and proclaims in anything but a sweet voice to her comrades, that she has discovered the line of our fox. They join her in an instant, down go their heads in concert, and away we all speed again, through an open gate, across a wide common, into a strip of plantation, over a stile and foot-board that leads out of it, and I find myself once more following Captain Lovell with Cousin John alongside of me, and all the rest far, far behind. This is indeed glorious. I should like it to go on till dinnertime. How I hope we shan't kill the fox!
"Take hold of his head, Kate," says my cousin, whose horse has just blundered on to his nose through a gap. "Even White Stockings won't last for ever, and this is going to be something out of the common."
"Forward!" is my reply as I point with my whip towards the lessening pack, now a whole field ahead of us. "Forward!" If we hadn't been going such a pace I could have sung for joy.
There is a line of pollarded willow trees down in that hollow, and the hounds have already left these behind them; they are rising the opposite ground. Again Frank Lovell looks anxiously back at me, but makes no sign.
"We must have it, Kate!" says John; "there's your best place, under the tree; send him at it as hard as he can lay legs to the ground."
I ply my whip and loosen my reins in vain. White Stockings stops dead short, and lowers his nose to the water, as if he wanted to drink; all of a sudden the stream is behind me, and with a flounder and a struggle we are safe over the brook. Not so Cousin John; I see him on his legs on the bank, with his horse's head lying helplessly between his feet, the rest of that valuable animal being completely submerged.
"Go along, Kate!" he shouts encouragingly, and again I speed after Frank Lovell, who is by this time nearly a quarter of a mile ahead of me, and at least that distance behind the hounds. White Stockings is going very pleasantly, but the ground is now entirely on the rise, and he indulges occasionally in a trot without any hint on my part; the fences fortunately get weaker and weaker; the fields are covered with stones, and are light, good galloping enough, but the rise gets steeper every yard; round hills are closing in about us; we are now on the Downs, and the pack is still fleeting ahead, like a body of hounds in a dream, every moment increasing their distance from us, and making them more and more indistinct. Frank Lovell disappears over the brow of that hill, and I urge White Stockings to overtake my only companion. He don't seem to go much faster for all that. I strike him once or twice with my light riding-whip; I shake my reins, and he comes back into a trot; I rise in my stirrup and rouse his energies in every way I can think of. I am afraid he must be ill, the trot degenerates to a jog, a walk; he carries his head further out from him than is his wont, and treats curb and snaffle with a like disregard and callousness of mouth. Now he stops altogether, and catching a side view of his head his eye appears to me more prominent than usual, and the whole animal seems changed, till I can hardly fancy it is my own horse. I get a little frightened now, and look round for assistance. I am quite alone. Hounds, horsemen, all have disappeared; the wide, dreary, solitary Downs stretch around me, and I begin to have misgivings as to how I am to get back to Dangerfield Hall. Cousin John has explained it all to me since.
"Nothing could be simpler, Kate," said he this evening when I handed him his tea; "you stopped your horse. If ladies will go in front with a loose rein for five-and-forty minutes, 'riding jealous' of such a first-rate performer as Frank Lovell, it is not an unlikely thing to happen. If you could have lasted ten minutes longer, you would have seen them kill their fox. Frank was the only one there, but he assures me he could not have gone another hundred yards. Never mind, Kate, better luck next time!"
Well, to return to my day. After a while White Stockings began to recover himself. I'm sure I didn't know what to do with him. I got off, and loosened his girths as well as I could, and turned his head to the wind, and wiped his poor nose with my pocket-handkerchief. I hadn't any eau-de-Cologne, and if I had it might not have done him much good. At last he got better, and I got on again (all my life I've been used to mounting and dismounting without assistance). Thinking downhill must be the way home, downhill I turned him, and proceeded slowly on, now running over in my own mind the glorious hour I had just spent, now wondering whether I should be lost and have to sleep amongst the Downs; and anon coming back to the old subject, and resolving that hunting was the only thing to live for, and that for the future I would devote my whole time and energies to that pursuit. At last I got into a steep chalky lane, and at a turn a little farther on espied to my great relief a red-coated back jogging leisurely home. White Stockings pricked his ears and mended his pace, so I soon overtook the returning sportsman, who proved to be no other than Squire Haycock, thrown out like the rest of the Heavy-top gentlemen, and only too happy to take care of me, and show me the shortest way (eleven miles as the crow flies) back to Dangerfield Hall.
We jogged on amicably enough, the Squire complimenting me much on my prowess, and not half so shy as usual—very often the case with a diffident man when on horseback. We were forced to go very slow, both our horses being pretty well tired; and to make matters better, we were caught in a tremendous hailstorm about two miles from home, just as it was getting dark, and close to the spot where our respective roads diverged. I could not possibly miss mine, as it was perfectly straight. Ah! that hailstorm has a deal to answer for. We were forced to turn through a hand-gate, and take shelter in a friendly wood. What a ridiculous position, pitch dark, pelting with rain, an elderly gentleman and a young lady on horseback under a fir tree. The Squire had been getting more incoherent for some time; I couldn't think what he was driving at.
"You like our country, Miss Coventry; fine climate, excellent soil, nice and dry for ladies?"
I willingly subscribed to all these advantages.
"Good neighbourhood," added the Squire; "capital hunting, charming rides, wonderful scenery for sketching. Do you think you could live in this part of the world?"
I thought I could if I was to try.
"You expressed your approbation of my house, Miss Coventry," the Squire proceeded, with his hand on my horse's neck; "do you think—I mean—should you consider—or rather I should say, is there any alteration you would suggest—anything in my power—if you would condescend to ride over any afternoon; may I consider you will so far favour me?"
I said "I should be delighted, but that it had left off raining, and it was time for us to get home."
"One word, Miss Coventry," pleaded the Squire with a shaking voice. "Have I your permission to call upon Lady Horsingham to-morrow?"
I said I thought my aunt would be at home, and expressed my conviction that she would be delighted to see him, and I wished him good-bye.
"Good-bye, Miss Coventry, good-bye," said the Squire, shaking hands with a squeeze that crushed my favourite ring into my prettiest finger; "you have made me the happiest of men—good-bye!"
I saw it all in an instant, just as I see it now. The Squire means to propose for me to-morrow, and he thinks I have accepted him. What shall I do? Mrs. Haycock—Kate Haycock—Catherine Haycock. No, I can't make it look well, write it how I will; and then, to vow never to think of any one else; I suppose I mightn't even speak to Frank. Never, no, never; but what a scrape I have got into, and how I wish to-morrow was over!
My diary continued,—
Saturday.—Well, it is over at last; and upon my word I begin to think I am capable of anything after all I have got through to-day since breakfast. Scarcely had I finished the slice of toast and single cup of tea that constitute my morning meal, before I heard the tramp of a horse on the gravel in front of the house, followed by the ominous sound of the door-bell. I have remarked that in all country families a ring at the door-bell brings everybody's heart into everybody's mouth. Aunt Horsingham, brooding over the teapot as usual, had been in her worst of humours ever since she came down, and tried to look as if no bell that ever was cast had power to move her grim resolve.
"A message by electric telegraph," exclaimed Cousin Amelia, who is always anticipating some catastrophe; "no visitor would ever call at such a time."
"Unless he came to propose for one of us," suggested John, who was carving a ham at the side-table.
"Some one on business for me, probably," remarked Aunt Horsingham, drawing herself up and looking more stately than usual.
"Mr. Haycock!" announced the butler, throwing open the door with a flourish; and while all our untimely visitor's preparations, such as wiping his shoes, arranging his dress, etc., were distinctly audible outside, we looked at each other in mute astonishment, and I own I did feel the guilty one amongst the party.
The Squire made his entrance in a state of intense trepidation. Having been forcibly deprived of his white hat in the hall, he had nothing but natural means to resort to for concealment of his confusion. Had it not been for an enormous silk handkerchief (white spots on a yellow ground) with which he blew his nose and wiped his brow at short and startling intervals his condition would have been pitiable in the extreme. The "Squire's" dress too was of a more florid style than is usual in these days of sad-coloured attire. A bright blue neckcloth, well starched, and of great depth and volume; a buff waistcoat, with massive gilt buttons; a grass-green riding-coat of peculiar shape and somewhat scanty material; white cord trousers, York tan gaiters, and enormous double-soled shooting-shoes, pierced and strapped, and clamped and hobnailed, completing a tout ensemble that almost upset my aunt's gravity, and made me, nervous as I felt, stuff my pocket-handkerchief into my mouth that I might not laugh outright.
"Fine morning, Lady Horsingham," observed the Squire, as if he had come all that distance at this early hour on purpose to impart so valuable a piece of information—"fine morning, but cold," he repeated, rubbing his hands together though the perspiration stood on his brow. "I don't recollect a much finer morning at this time of year," he resumed, addressing Cousin John after a pause, during which he had ceremoniously shaken hands with each of us in succession.
"Will you have some breakfast?" asked Lady Horsingham, whose cold and formal demeanour contrasted strangely with the nervous excitement of her visitor.
"No, thank you—if you please," answered the Squire in a breath. "I breakfasted before I left home. Early hours, Lady Horsingham—I think your ladyship approves of early hours—but I'll ask for a cup of tea, if you please." So he sat down to a weak cup of lukewarm tea with much assumed gusto and satisfaction.
It was now time for Cousin Amelia to turn her battery on the Squire; so she presently attacked him about his poultry and his garden and his farm, the honest gentleman's absent and inconsequent replies causing my aunt and John to regard him with silent astonishment, as one who was rapidly taking leave of his senses; whilst I who knew, or at least guessed, the cause of his extraordinary behaviour began heartily to wish myself back in Lowndes Street, and to wonder how this absurd scene was going to end.
"Your dahlias must have suffered dreadfully from these early frosts," said Cousin Amelia, shaking her ringlets at the poor man in what she fancies her most bewitching style.
"Beautifully," was the bewildered reply, "particularly the shorthorns."
"You never sent us over the Alderney calf you promised, Mr. Haycock," pursued the lady, now adroitly changing her ground. "I begin to think you are not to be depended on."
"You do me injustice, Miss Horsingham; indeed you do," broke out the Squire in a white heat and with a deprecating glance at me. "I assure you I sent over a very fine cutting, with a pot and everything, directions for matting it in winter and transplanting after a year. If you never got it I'll discharge my gardener; I will, upon my word."
"I have got such a Cochin China to show you," persisted his tormentor, determined to renew the charge. "When you've finished breakfast I'll take you to the poultry-yard if you like."
"Delighted," replied the Squire, looking ruefully around him as if he meditated instant flight—"delighted, I'm sure; but they haven't flowered well this year. I'll teach you how to bud them if you like; but you're aware, Miss Horsingham, that they've no smell."
John could stand it no longer, and was forced to bolt out of the room. My aunt too rose from the table with something approaching a smile; and the Squire, screwing his courage to the sticking-place, was following her into the drawing-room, evidently for a private interview, when Cousin Amelia, who seemed to have made up her mind to take bodily possession of him, hurried the visitor off to the billiard-room, there to engage in a match which would probably last till luncheon-time. I never saw anything so hopeless as the expression of the victim's countenance whilst suffering himself to be thus led into captivity. He did summon courage to entreat "Miss Coventry to come and mark"—a favour which, notwithstanding my cousin's black looks, I really had not the heart to refuse him.
Game after game they played, the gentleman apparently abandoning himself to his fate. Sprawling over the table, making the most ridiculous blunders in counting, missing the most palpable of cannons, and failing to effect the easiest of hazards; the lady brandishing her mace in the most becoming attitudes, drooping her long hair over the cushions, and displaying the whiteness of her hand and slender symmetry of her fingers, as she requested her astonished adversary to teach her "how to make a bridge," or "pocket the red," or "screw it off the white," and lisped out "how hard it was to be disappointed by that provoking kiss!" The Squire made one or two futile attempts to engage me in a game, but Cousin Amelia was determined to have him all to herself; and as it was getting near the time at which I take Aunt Deborah her broth—for poor Aunt Deborah, I am sorry to say, is very ill in bed—I made my escape, and as I ran upstairs heard the billiard-room bell ring, and Squire Haycock summon up courage to "know if Lady Horsingham was at leisure, as he wished to see her for five minutes alone in the drawing-room."
People may say what they like about superstition and credulity and old women's tales, but I have faith in presentiments. Didn't I get up from my work and walk to the window at least a dozen times to watch for Cousin John coming home that wet day two years ago when he broke his leg with the harriers, and yet he had only gone out for a morning's canter on the best horse he ever had in his life? Didn't I feel for eight-and-forty hours as if something too delightful was going to happen to me the week that Brilliant was bought and sent home, looking like an angel in a horse's skin? That reminds me I never go to see him now; I hope I am not inconstant to my old friends. And what was it but a presentiment that made my heart beat and my knees knock together when I entered my own room to-day before luncheon and saw a brown paper parcel on the table, addressed, evidently by the shop people, to "Miss Coventry, Dangerfield Hall"? How my fingers trembled as I untied the thread and unfolded the paper; after all, it was nothing but a packet of worsteds! To be sure, I hadn't ordered any worsteds, but there might possibly be a note to explain; so I shook every skein carefully, and turned the covering inside out, that the document, if there should be one, might not escape my vigilance. How could my presentiments deceive me? Of course there was a note—after all, where was the harm? Captain Lovell had most politely sent me all these worsteds for a cushion I had once talked about working, and very naturally had enclosed a note to say so; and nothing to my mind could be kinder or more welcome than the contents. I am not going to say what they are, of course; though for that matter I easily could, since I have got the note by me at this moment, and have read it over to-day besides more than once. After all, there is nothing like a letter. Who does not remember the first letter received in one's childish days, written in a fair round text for childish eyes, or perhaps even printed by the kind and painstaking correspondent for the little dunce of a recipient. Who has not slept with such a letter carefully hoarded away under the pillow, that morning's first light might give positive assurance of the actual existence of our treasure. Nor is the little urchin the only glad supporter of our admirable postal institutions. Manly eyes moisten with tears of joy over those faint delicate lines traced by her hand whose gentle influence has found the one soft place. Woman hides away in her bosom, close to her loving heart, the precious scrap which assures her, visibly, tangibly, unerringly, that he is hers and hers alone. Words may deceive, scenes of bliss pass away like a dream. Though ever present to the mind it requires an effort to disentangle the realities of memory from the illusions of imagination; but a letter is proof positive; there it is in black and white. You may read it again and again; you may kiss it as often as you please; you may prize it and study it and pore over it, and find a new meaning in every fresh perusal, a hidden interpretation for every magic word. Nothing can unsay it, nothing can deprive you of it; only don't forget to lock it up carefully, and mind you don't go leaving about your keys.
I had hardly read my note over a second time before Cousin Amelia bounced into the room without knocking. I should have locked the door had I known she was coming; as it was, I had only time to pop the note into my dress (the seal made a great scratch just below my neck) before she was upon me, and throwing herself into my arms with a most unusual excess of affections exclaimed,—
"Give me joy, Kate—give me joy—he's gone to mamma—he's in the drawing-room with her now—O Kate, what shall I do?"
"My dear Amelia," I exclaimed, as the delightful thought flashed across me that, after all, the Squire's visit might have been for my cousin, though I must say I wondered at his taste, "am I to congratulate you on being Mrs. Haycock? I do indeed from my heart. I am sure he is an excellent, amiable man, and will make you a capital husband."
"That he will!" exclaimed Cousin Amelia; "and such a nice place and gardens, and a very good fortune too. Upon my word, Kate, I begin to think I'm a lucky girl, though to be sure with my advantages I might expect to make a good match. He's not so old, Kate, after all; at least not so old as he looks; and he's very good-tempered, I know, because his servants say so. I shall alter that tumble-down house of his, and new-furnish the drawing-room. Of course he'll take me to London for two or three months every year in the season. I wonder if he knows about Mr. Johnson—not that I ever cared for him—and, of course, a poor curate like that one couldn't think of it. Do you know, Kate, I thought his manner was very odd the other day when he dined here; though he sat next you he kept looking at me, and I remarked once that he coloured up, oh! so red. Poor fellow, I see it all now. Kate, you shall be one of my bridesmaids—perhaps it will be your turn to be a bride some of these days; who knows!"
Just then Gertrude tapped at the door.
"Miss Coventry, if you please, her ladyship wishes to see you in the drawing-room."
My cousin's face fell several inches.
"Some mistake, Gertrude," she exclaimed. "It's me isn't it, that mamma wants?"
"Her ladyship bid me tell Miss Kate she wished to see her immediately," was my maid's reply; so I tripped downstairs with a beating heart, and crossed the hall just in time to see Squire Haycock riding leisurely away from the house (though it was bitter cold and a hard frost, the first of the season), and looking up at the window, doubtless in hopes of an encouraging wave from the white handkerchief of his fiancee presumptive.
Short as was the interval between my own door and that of the drawing-room I had time to run over in my mind the whole advantages and disadvantages of the flattering proposal which I was now convinced had been made on my behalf. If I became Mrs. Haycock (and I saw clearly that I had not mistaken the Squire's meaning on our return from hunting), I should be at the head of a handsome establishment, should have a good-tempered, easy-going, pleasant husband, who would let me do just what I liked and hunt to my heart's content; should live in the country, and look after the poor, and feed hens and chickens, and sink down comfortably into a contented old age. I need not separate from Aunt Deborah, who would never be able to do without me; and I might, I am sure, turn the Squire with the greatest ease round my little finger. But then there certainly were great objections. I could have got over the colour of his hair, though a red head opposite me every morning would undoubtedly be a trial; but the freckles! No, I do not think I could do my duty as a wife by a man so dreadfully freckled. I'm certain I couldn't love him; and if I didn't love him I oughtn't to marry him, and I thought of the sad, sad tale of Lucy, Lady Horsingham, whose ghost was now in the nightly habit of haunting Dangerfield Hall. The struggles that poor thing must have gone through, the leaden hours of dull, torpid misery, the agonizing moments of acute remorse, the perpetual spirit-wearing conflict between duty and inclination, much to the discomfiture of the former; and the haunting face of Cousin Edward continually rising on that heated imagination, pleading, reproaching, suing till she loved him, if possibly more madly in his absence than when he was by her side. I too was beginning to have a "Cousin Edward" of my own; Frank Lovell's image was far too often present in my mind. I did not choose to confess to myself how much I liked him; but the more I reflected on Mr. Haycock's proposal the more I felt how impossible it would be never to think of Frank any more.
"No!" I said inwardly, with my hand on the drawing-room door, "I will not give him up. I have his note even now in my bosom; he cares for me, at any rate. I am happier to-day than I have been for months, and I will not go and destroy it all with my own hand." I opened the door, and found myself in the formidable presence of Aunt Horsingham.
Her ladyship looked colder and more reserved, if possible, than ever. She motioned me stiffly to take a chair, and plunged at once into the subject in her dry, measured tones.
"Before I congratulate you, Kate," she began, "on such an unlooked-for piece of good fortune as has just come to my knowledge, I am bound to confess, much to my astonishment——"
"Thank you, aunt," I put in; "that's complimentary, at any rate."
"I should wish to say a few words," proceeded my aunt, without heeding the interruption, "on the duties which will now devolve upon you, and the line of conduct which I should advise you to pursue in your new sphere. These hoydenish manners, these ridiculous expeditions, these scampers all over the country, must be renounced forthwith. Unbecoming as they are in a young unmarried female, a much stricter sense of decorum, a vastly different repose and reserve of manner, are absolutely essential in a wife; and it is as a wife, Kate, that I am now addressing you."
"A wife, aunt!" I exclaimed; "whose, I should like to know?"
"This is an ill-chosen time for jesting, Kate," said my aunt with a frown. "I cannot congratulate you on your good taste in turning so important a subject into ridicule. Mr. Haycock has proposed to you; you have accepted him. Whilst poor Deborah is so ill I am your natural guardian, and he has with great propriety requested my consent; although, in the agitation very natural to a man so circumstanced," added my aunt, smothering a smile, "it was with some difficulty that I made out exactly what he meant."
"He never proposed to me; I never accepted him," I broke in, breathless with agitation. "I never will be his wife, aunt; you had no right to tell him so. Write to him immediately—send a man off on horseback to overtake him. I'll put my bonnet on this instant, and walk every mile of the way myself. He's a true-hearted gentleman, and I won't have him made a fool of." I walked up and down the room—I looked Aunt Horsingham full in the face; she was quite cowed by my vehemence. I felt I was mistress now, while the excitement lasted, and she gave in; she even wrote a note to the Squire at my dictation—she dispatched it by a special messenger—she did everything I told her, and never so much as ventured on remonstrance or reproach; but she will never forgive me to her dying hour. There is no victory so complete as that which one obtains over a person who is always accustomed to meet with fear and obedience. Aunt Horsingham rules her household with a rod of iron; nobody ever ventures to disagree with her, or so much as to hint an opinion contrary to those which she is known to hold. Such a person is so astonished at resistance as to be incapable of quelling it; the very hardihood of the rebellion ensures its success. When I walked out of the drawing-room to-day I felt that for once I had obtained the victory in a contest with my aunt; that in future I should no longer be the "wild, troublesome Kate," the "black sheep" of the family, the scapegoat on whom were laid the faults and misdemeanours of all, but the master-spirit, the bold, resolute woman, whose value others were able to appreciate, and who was ready and willing to assert her own independence. In the meantime poor Aunt Deborah had to be informed of what had taken place, and Cousin Amelia to be undeceived in her groundless expectations. That the latter would never forgive me I was well enough acquainted with my own sex to be assured; but the task required to be done, notwithstanding. Flushed with my triumph, with heightened colour and flashing eyes, I stalked off towards my chamber and met Cousin John in the hall.
"Good heavens, Kate, what is the matter? What has happened?" exclaimed John in obvious perturbation.
"A piece of news!" was my reply; "a conquest, John! What do you think? Mr. Haycock has just been here, and proposed for me!"
He flushed up all over his face and temples, and then turned deadly pale; even his lips were quite white and wide apart. How they quivered as he tried to speak unconcernedly! And after all he got out nothing but, "Well, Kate?"
"And I have refused him, John," I said quietly, but in a tone that showed him there was no mistake about it.
"God bless you, Kate!" was all he replied, and turned away muttering something about "wet things" and his "dressing-room;" but he was going to the wrong door, and had to turn back, though he took care not to let me see his face again.
I can't make John out. At dinner he was just as if nothing had happened; but at all events I'm glad I've refused Mr. Haycock; so I shall read Frank's note over once more and then go to bed.
I need quote no more from my diary, as the next few days offered no incident worthy of recording to break the monotony of our life at Dangerfield Hall. Drearier than ever it was, and more especially to me; for I felt that, although undeclared, there was "war to the knife" between myself, my aunt, and cousin. The latter scarcely spoke to me at all; and my aunt, whose defeat was rankling bitterly in her heart, merely took such sullen notice of me as was absolutely necessitated by the laws of hospitality and the usages of society. Poor Aunt Deborah required to be kept very quiet and free from all worries and annoyances. "The more she slept," the doctor said, "the sooner she would get well enough to move to London for further advice;" so I had not even her to talk to—there was no hunting—the frost got harder and harder—that obstinate weather-cock over the stables kept veering from north to north-east—the grooms went to exercise wrapped up in greatcoats and shawl handkerchiefs, and stayed out as short a time as was compatible with the mildest stable discipline; there would be no change of the moon for a week, and it was obvious that I should have but little use for Brilliant and White Stockings before our return to town.
Oh! the hopelessness of a real bitter black frost coming on early in the season, especially when you are not at your own home and your time is limited; to get up morning after morning with the faint hope that the change may have come at last; to see the dry slates and the clear horizon and the iron-bound earth, and to ascertain in your own proper person that the water gets colder and colder every day. You puzzle over the almanac till your eyes ache, and study the thermometer till you get a crick in your neck. You watch the smoke from every farmhouse and cottage within your ken, and still, after curling high up into the pure, rarefied atmosphere, it floats hopelessly away to the southward and corroborates the odious dog-vane that you fondly imagined might have got stuck in its northerly direction. You walk out and ask every labourer you meet whether he "does not think we are going to have a change?" The man looks up from his work, wonders at your solicitude, opines "the gentry folk have queer ways," but answers honestly enough, according to his convictions, in the negative—perhaps giving some local reasons for his opinion, which, if an old man, he will tell you he has never known to fail. Lastly, you quarrel with every one of your non-hunting friends, whose unfeeling observations on "fine seasonable weather" and "healthy, bracing frosts" you feel to be brutal in the extreme.
How I hated the frost at Dangerfield! My only chance of meeting with Frank Lovell was out hunting. I had written him an answer to his note (I have often heard Aunt Horsingham say that nothing is so inexcusable as not to answer a letter), and I had no possible means of delivering it. I could not put it in the bag, for my aunt keeps the key. I did not like to entrust it to any of the servants, and my own maid is the last person in whose power I should choose to place myself. I did once think of asking Cousin John to give it to Frank, and throwing myself on kind, good John's generosity, and confessing everything to him, and asking for his advice; but somehow I could not bring myself to it. If he had been my brother, nothing would have been easier; but John is only a cousin, and one or two little things of late had made me suspect that he liked me even better than cousins generally do; so altogether I thought I would leave it alone—besides, John was going off to shoot pheasants in Wales. The third morning of the frost he came down to breakfast in a suit of wondrous apparel that I knew meant a move in some direction, and I attacked him accordingly.
"Is that killing 'get-up' entirely for our benefit, John?" I asked; "or are you bound on some expedition that requires more fascinations than common?"
John coloured—he has taken to blushing lately. "I'm going down to Wales for a few days' shooting, Kate," was his reply. "I shall come back again when the frost breaks up if Lady Horsingham will be good enough to receive me." Aunt Horsingham is always very civil to John, and so is Cousin Amelia. People generally are to young bachelors. I wonder why men ever marry; they are so much more in request without wives and children.
"Always happy to see you," said Aunt Horsingham, with an emphasis on the pronoun. "By-the-way, what is your address in Wales, that I may forward your letters?"
John looked rather guilty as he handed an envelope to my aunt and begged her to copy it exactly.
"I can't pronounce the name of my friend Lloyd's place," he said, "but you'll find it written there in seven consonants and one vowel."
"Lloyd!" said I—"Lloyd! Wasn't there a pretty Miss Lloyd you used to dance with last season in London? John! John! I've found you out at last. Now I can account for the splendour of your attire. Now I can see why you post off to Wales in such a hurry, leaving your horses and your hunting and your cousin, sir, for the beaux yeux of Miss Fanny—isn't that her name? Well, John, I give you joy; she is a pretty girl, even in London, and Aunt Deborah says she's a fortune."
John looked so distressed I didn't like to pursue the subject. I couldn't think what had come over him—he never spoke another word to me till he jumped into his dog-cart to be off, and then he only muttered "Goodbye, Kate" in a hoarse whisper, but he wrung my hand very hard, and I even thought there were tears in his eyes! He is a good fellow, John; I was sorry to think I might have said anything to hurt his feelings.
After he went away it was drearier than ever. What could I do but think of Frank Lovell, and wonder when I should see him again? Where could he be? Perhaps at the inn at Muddlebury. I could see the smoke of the town from the breakfast-room windows, and used to watch it with a painful interest. Every time a servant came into the room I thought something impossible was going to happen. If a carriage drove up to the house—if a horse's tramp was heard in the approach—if the door-bell rung, I fancied it must be Captain Lovell coming to call—perhaps to explain everything—possibly to request an interview with my aunt, such as Squire Haycock had undergone, "but," as I said to myself with a beating heart, "to have a very different result." If the dwelling solely on one idea be a species of madness, then was I undoubtedly mad—nothing was so wild and extravagant as to appear impossible to my heated fancy. I was always expecting and always disappointed.
The fourth morning I got a letter from Mrs. Lumley, which did not add much to my composure or comfort. Why is it ladies have such a knack of making each other miserable equally by letter as by word of mouth? I give the epistle of Mrs. Lumley verbatim, omitting only the dashes and notes of admiration with which it was studded:—
"MY DEAREST DEAR KATE,—Here we are settled at Brighton, much to the benefit of my poor, dear husband, whom you have never seen, but who knows you well by name, and have everything, even the weather, all we can wish. The only drawback to me is the loss of your charming society and the absence of your dear, merry face.
"I am leading a highly virtuous and praiseworthy life, and have not done the least bit of mischief since I came here, except making the Dean's wife jealous, which I can hardly call a crime, as she is a vulgar little woman with a red nose and a yellow bonnet—the Dean is a fat, good-natured man, and calls here nearly every day. His wife abuses me in all societies, and tries to pass me without speaking. You know how I always return good for evil, so I go up and shake hands with her, and ask after her dear children, and patronize her till I make her so angry she don't know which way to look—it's rather good fun in such a slow place as this. My time is fully occupied nursing 'my old man,' who was very ill before we came here, and can only go out in a pony-carriage for an hour or two at a time; so I have brought the ponies down and drive him myself.
"The only chance the brown mare has of a gallop is in the mornings, though next week I mean to have a day with the harriers; indeed, they have appointed them at a good place on purpose for me. I inspected the regiment of Dragoons quartered here yesterday morning; they were at exercise on the Downs, and as the Gitana (my brown mare) always behaves well with troops, which my enemies would affirm is more than can be said of her mistress, I am able to report upon their general appearance and efficiency. Such a set of 'gigs,' my dear, I never saw in my life; large underbred horses, and not a good-looking man amongst them. The officers are, if possible, more hideous than the privates; and they never give balls or theatricals or anything, so we need waste no more words upon them.
"I am improving my mind, though, vastly, picking up shells for my little cousins, and perfecting my education besides by learning to swim. I wish you were here—what fun we would have enacting the part of mermaids! though I fear the cold will now put a stop to my aquatic exploits. The other morning I swam nearly two hundred yards on a stretch; and the tide having taken me out of my reckoning, I brought up, as the sailors say, opposite the gentlemen's bathing-machines. What could I do? It was as impossible to walk along the beach as to fight back against the current. Presence of mind, Kate, is the salient point of the heroic character; the door of a machine was open, and I popped in. My dear, there were all his clothes, his hair-brush, his button-hook, his wig, and, would you believe it? an instrument for curling his whiskers! I put everything on except the wig, crowned myself with his broad-brimmed white hat, felt in his pockets, which were full of gold and silver, and, to my credit be it said, only selected one shilling, with which I paid the bathing-man, and walked off undiscovered to my own machine. The fat old she-triton laughed till she cried. I dressed in my proper costume leisurely enough, and was amused to hear afterwards of the luckless plight in which a stout gentleman had found himself by the temporary loss of all his apparel whilst he was disporting in 'the briny.'
"Other adventures I have had none; and the contrast is, as you may believe, somewhat striking after the last two or three weeks of the London season—always, to my mind, the pleasantest part of the year. I was sorry you left town when you did; we had such a number of charming little dinners and expeditions in our own set. Dear Frank Lovell was the life and soul of us all. I never knew him in such spirits—quite like a boy out of school; and there were few days that we did not meet either at Greenwich or Richmond, or Windsor or Vauxhall; and of course wherever he went there was Lady Scapegrace. I must say that, although nobody can accuse me of being a prude, the way she goes on with Frank is rather too brazen-faced even for her—taking him everywhere in her carriage, setting him down at his club after the opera, walking with him in Kensington Gardens, his cab always at the door, and her ladyship 'not at home' even to me. To be sure, he is almost as bad, if it is true, as everybody says it is, that he is to marry Miss Molasses.
"Poor Frank! he must get hold of somebody with money, or he will soon be in the Bench. He is rather a friend of yours, my dear, so I ought not to abuse him; but he is very wild, and though extremely agreeable, I am afraid utterly unprincipled. I do not believe, however, that he cares one snap of the fingers for Lady Scapegrace, or Miss Molasses either, for the matter of that. I meant to have written you a long letter; but my stupid servants have let the Dean in, and I hear his cough at this moment on the stairs—he is sadly out of wind before he reaches the first landing. I think even my poor 'old man' would beat him at even weights a hundred yards along the beach. As I shall not get rid of him under an hour, and the post will by that time be gone out, I must wish you good-bye.—Ever my dearest Kate's most affectionate
I threw the letter on the floor, and stamped upon it with my feet. And was this the end of all? To have brooded and pined, and made myself miserable and well-nigh broken my heart day by day for a man that was to prove so utterly unworthy as this! To have been thrown over for a Lady Scapegrace! or, worse still, to have allowed even to myself that I cared for one who was ready and willing to be sold to a Miss Molasses.
"Too degrading!" I thought. "No, I'll never care for him again; the dream is over. What a fool I've been! And yet—why did he send his horses down to Muddlebury? Why did he serenade me that night from the Park? Why is he not now with his dear Lady Scapegrace at Scamperly, where I see by the Morning Post Sir Guy is 'entertaining a party of fashionables during the frost'? No! I will not give him up quite yet."
On reading her letter over again, which I did many times during the day, I found a ray of comfort in my voluble correspondent's own opinion that Frank did not himself care a pin for either of the ladies, to both of whom the world gave him so unhesitatingly. Well, that was something, at any rate. As for his wildness and his debts, and his recklessness and many escapades, I liked him none the worse for these—what woman ever did? I thought it all over during the whole day, and by the time that I opened my window for my usual lookout into the night before going to bed, I am afraid I felt more inclined than ever to forgive him all that had gone before, and more determined to find some means of forwarding him the answer I had written to his note, and which I had been so many times on the point of burning during the day.
What a bitter cold night it was!—yet the keen north wind felt pleasant and refreshing on my fevered forehead. There had been a sprinkling of snow too since sunset, and the open surface of the Park was completely whitened over—how cheerless and desolate it looked! I hadn't the heart to stay very long at the window; it reminded me too much of the pleasant evenings one short week ago. I felt weary and desponding, and drowsy with uncertainty and unhappiness, so I was in the act of shutting down the window, when I saw a dark figure moving rapidly across the snow in the direction of the house. Not for an instant did I mistake it for a deer, or a gamekeeper, or a poacher, or a housebreaker. From the moment I set eyes on it, something told me it must be Frank Lovell; and though I shrunk back that he might not see me, I watched him with painful anxiety and a beating heart. He seemed to know his way quite well. He came straight to the moat, felt his way cautiously for a step or two, and finding the ice would bear him, crossed at once, and took up a position under my window, not twenty feet from where I was standing.
He must have seen my shadow across the candle-light, for he whispered my name.
"Miss Coventry—Kate! Only one word." What could I do? Poor fellow! he had walked all that distance in the cold and the snow only for one word—and this was the man I had been doubting and misjudging all day! Why, of course, though I know it was very wrong and very improper and all that, of course I spoke to him, and listened to what he had to say, and carried on a long conversation, the effect of which was somewhat ludicrous, in consequence of the distance between the parties, question and answer requiring to be shouted, as it were, in a whisper. The night too was clouding over, more snow was falling, and it was getting so dark I could not see Frank, even at the distance of twelve or fourteen feet, and it could not have been much more between my bedroom window and the ground.
"Did you get my note?" said he with sundry complimentary expressions.
"Here's the answer," was my practical reply, as I dropped my own missive into the darkness.
I know he caught it, because—because—I heard him kiss it. At that moment I was aware of a step in the passage, a hand on my door. Down went my window in a twinkling, out went my candles—the wick of the second one would keep glimmering like a light far off at sea—and in came Aunt Horsingham, clad in flannel attire, with a wondrous head-dress, the like of which I have never beheld before or since, just as I popped into bed, and buried myself beneath the clothes as if I had been asleep for hours.
"Where can it be, Kate?" said my aunt. "I have been in every room along the passage to find out where the light comes from. I saw it distinctly from my own room, streaming across the moat; there might be thieves in the house," added my aunt, looking valiant even in flannel, "or some of the men-servants carousing, but I have been in every room on the ground floor myself; and then I thought perhaps you might be sitting up reading."
"Reading, aunt? Oh dear, no! I assure you I wasn't reading," I answered, every nerve racked with suspense, lest Frank should get impatient and wonder what had become of me—perhaps throw a snowball up at the window to attract my attention.
"What o'clock is it?" I added with a feigned yawn. "I think I must have been asleep for hours."
As if to punish me for this gratuitous perversion of the truth, the words were hardly out of my mouth when I heard a loud crack on the ice, and a splash as of the sudden immersion of some daring adventurer; then all was still—the snow-flakes fell softly against the window panes. My aunt, shading her candle with her long hand, talked drowsily on; and finally persisted in my coming to sleep with her in her own room, as she said I was "the only person in the house that had the nerves of a hen." I would have given all I was worth in the world to have one more look out of the open window, though even then it might be too late. I would willingly have walked barefoot in the snow all the way to Muddlebury, only to know he was safe back at the inn. For a moment I thought of confessing everything and alarming the house, but I had not courage; so I followed my aunt to her room, and lay awake that livelong night in such a state of agony and suspense as I hope I may never have to endure again.
It may easily be believed that I took an early walk next morning before breakfast. No sooner had I made my escape from Aunt Horsingham's room, than, in utter defiance of the cold thaw just commencing, I put my bonnet on and made the best of my way to the moat. Sure enough, large fragments of ice were floating about where the surface had been broken, close to the side farthest from the Hall. There were footprints on the snow though, leading away through the Park in the direction of Muddlebury, and I came back to breakfast with a heart lightened of at least half its load. We were to return to London immediately. Aunt Deborah, pale and reduced, but undoubtedly better, was able to appear at breakfast, and Lady Horsingham, now that we were really about to take leave of her, seemed to value our society, and to be sorry to part with us.
"My dear Deborah, I trust you are well wrapped up for this cold raw day," said our hostess, pressing on her departing guest all kinds of provision for the journey. "I have ordered them to put up a paper of sandwiches and some sherry, and a few biscuits and a bottle of peppermint-water."
"And, Aunt Deborah," put in Cousin Amelia, "here's a comforter I've made you myself, and a box of cayenne lozenges for your throat; and don't forget the stone jug of hot water for your poor feet; and mind you write directly you arrive—you or Kate," she added, turning to address me almost for the first time since the memorable mistake about Squire Haycock.
Aunt Deborah was completely overpowered by so much kindness.
"You'd better have the carriage all to yourself—you and your maid," persisted Lady Horsingham. "I'll drive Kate as far as the station in the pony-carriage.—Kate, you're not afraid to trust yourself with me in the pony-carriage?"
"Not I, indeed, aunt," was my reply, "nor with anybody else, for that matter. I've pretty good nerves—there are few things that I am afraid of."
"Indeed, Kate, I fear it is so," was my aunt's reply. "I own I should like to see you a little more of a coward."
So it was settled that Aunt Deborah and Gertrude being safely packed up in the close carriage, I should accompany Lady Horsingham, who was rather proud of her charioteering skill, and drove stiff and upright, as if she had swallowed the poker—never looking to the right or left, or allowing her attention to wander for an instant from the ponies she had undertaken to control.
Now, these said ponies had been doing nothing during the frost except consuming their three feeds a day with vigorous appetite and a considerable accession of high spirits. Consequently they were, what is termed in stable language, very much "above themselves"—a state of self-exaltation which they demonstrated by sundry unbecoming squeaks and gambols as soon as they found themselves fairly started on their journey. Tiny, the youngest and handsomest, would persist in shying, plunging, and swerving against the pole, much to the demoralization of his comrade, Mouse, a stiff-built little fellow with a thick neck, who was ordinarily extremely well-behaved, but apt on occasions like the present to lower his rebellious little head and defy all control.
Lady Horsingham was tolerably courageous, but totally destitute of what is termed "hand," a quality as necessary in driving as in riding, particularly with fractious or high-spirited horses. The seat of a pony-carriage, besides, is not a position from which a Jehu has much command over the animals in front of him; and although, as I have repeatedly said, I am not nervous, I had earned sufficient experience in the ways of the equine race to know that we might easily be placed in a position of some peril should anything occur to excite the mischievous propensities of either of the specimens now gambolling before us. More accidents have happened out of pony-carriages than all other descriptions of vehicle put together.
It is said that in the olden and golden days of the road the usual death of a "long coachman" was to be pitched out of a gig; and doubtless that two-wheeled conveniency, particularly when going at any pace, is capable of arriving at a large proportion of grief. But even a gig, if properly constructed, admits of the driver having a certain amount of control over his horse; he is well above the animal, and can get a good purchase to pull him up from, when the acceleration is becoming dangerous, or there is a tendency to the grosser insubordination of a "kicking match." Not so in a pony-carriage: low down upon the ground, even under their very heels, you are completely at the mercy of your team; and the facility of egress in the event of a runaway only tempts you to the fatal expedient of jumping out—another form of expression for "certain death."
To be sure, if people will but sit still, there is no reason why they should be much alarmed, as an "upset" from so low an elevation need not necessarily produce any very serious results. But they never will sit still—at least they won't in nine cases out of ten, and the consequence is that whilst newspaper columns are filled with "horrid accidents" and "frightful occurrences," based on the fact of the "unfortunate sufferer taking an airing in his or her pony-carriage," many an elderly lady and cautious gentleman is not to be persuaded into entering one of these little conveyances, but prefers the slow and sure travelling of his or her own respectable feet.
Well, Lady Horsingham seemed rather uncomfortable on her driving-seat, although far too proud to acknowledge so derogatory a feeling. We had no servant with us; and when I suggested that we might as well take one of the stablemen to open the gates, my proposal was met with derision and contempt.
"I should have thought such a masculine lady as yourself, Kate, would have been above requiring any assistance. I am always in the habit of driving these ponies quite by myself; but of course, if you're afraid, I'll have a groom to go with us immediately."
Afraid, indeed! I scouted the idea: my blood was up, and I almost hoped something would happen, that I might fling the word in my aunt's teeth, and ask her, "Who's afraid now?" It came sooner than I bargained for.
The ponies were pulling hard, and had got their mouths so thoroughly set against my aunt's iron hand, that she might as well have been driving with a pair of halters for any power she had over them, when a rush of colts in an adjoining paddock on one side of the lane, and a covey of partridges "whirring up" out of a turnip-field on the other, started them both at the same moment. My aunt gave a slight scream, clutched at her reins with a jerk; down went the ponies' heads, and we were off, as hard as ever they could lay legs to the ground, along a deep-rutted narrow lane, with innumerable twistings and turnings in front of us, for a certainty, and the off-chance of a wagon and bell team blocking up the whole passage before we could emerge upon the high road.
"Lay hold, Kate!" vociferated my aunt, pulling for her very life, with the veins on her bare wrists swelling up like whipcord. "Gracious goodness! can't you stop 'em? There's a gravel-pit not half a mile farther on! I'll jump out! I'll jump out!"
My aunt began kicking her feet clear of the sundry wraps and shawls, and the leather apron that kept our knees warm, though I must do her the justice to say that she still tugged hard at the reins. I saw such an expedient would be certain death, and I wound one arm round her waist, and held her forcibly down in her seat, while with the other I endeavoured to assist her in the hopeless task of stopping the runaway ponies. Everything was against us: the ground was slightly on the decline; the thaw had not yet reached the sheltered road we were travelling, and the wheels rung against its frozen surface as they spun round with a velocity that seemed to add to the excitement of our flying steeds. Ever and anon we bounded and bumped over some rut or inequality that was deeper than usual. Twice we were within an inch of the ditch; once, for an awful hundred yards, we were balancing on two wheels; and still we went faster and faster than ever. The trees and hedges wheeled by us; the gravel road streamed away behind us. I began to get giddy and to lose my strength. I could hardly hope to hold my aunt in much longer, and now she began to struggle frightfully, for we were nearing the gravel-pit turn! Ahead of us was a comfortable fat farmer, jogging drowsily to market in his gig. I can see his broad, well-to-do back now. What would I have given to be seated, I had almost said enthroned, by his side? What a smash if we had touched him! I pulled frantically at the off-rein, and we just cleared his wheel. He said something; I could not make out what. I was nearly exhausted, and shut my eyes, resigning myself to my fate, but still clinging to my aunt. I think that if ever that austere woman was near fainting it was on this occasion. I just caught a glimpse of her white, stony face and fixed eyes; her terror even gave me a certain confidence. A figure in front of us commenced gesticulating and shouting and waving its hat. The ponies slackened their pace, and my courage began to revive.
"Sit still," I exclaimed to my aunt as I indulged them with a good strong "give-and-take" pull.
The gravel-pit corner was close at hand, but the figure had seized the refractory little steeds by their heads, and though I shook all over, and felt really frightened now the danger was past, I knew that we were safe, and that we owed our safety to a tall, ragged cripple with a crutch and a bandage over one eye.
My aunt jumped out in a twinkling, and the instant she touched terra firma put her hand to her side, and began to sob and gasp and pant, as ladies will previous to an attack of what the doctors call "hysteria." She leant upon the cripple's shoulder, and I observed a strange, roguish sparkle in his unbandaged eye. Moreover, I remarked that his hands were white and clean, and his figure, if he hadn't been such a cripple, would have been tall and active.
"What shall I do?" gasped my aunt. "I won't get in; nothing shall induce me to get in again. Kate, give this good man half a crown. What a providential escape! He ought to have a sovereign. Perhaps ten shillings will be enough. How am I to get back? I'll walk all the way rather than get in."
"But, aunt," I suggested, "at any rate I must get to the station. Aunt Deborah is sure to think something has happened, and she ought not to be frightened till she gets stronger. How far is it to the station? I think I should not mind driving the ponies on."
In the meantime the fat farmer whom we had passed so rapidly had arrived at the scene of action, his anxiety not having induced him in the slightest degree to increase the jog-trot pace at which all his ideas seemed to travel. He knew Lady Horsingham quite well, and now sat in his gig with his hat off, wiping his fat face, and expatiating on the narrow escape her ladyship had made, but without offering the slightest suggestion or assistance whatever.
At this juncture the cripple showed himself a man of energy.
"Your ladyship had best go home with this gentleman," said he, indicating the fat farmer, "if the young lady is not afraid to go on. I can take care of her as far as the railway, if it's not too great a liberty, and bring the ponies back to the Hall afterwards, my lady?" with an interrogative snatch at his ragged hat.
It seemed the best thing to be done under the circumstances. My aunt, after much demurring and another incipient attack of the hysterics, consented to entrust herself to the fat farmer's guidance, not, however, until she was assured that his horse was both blind and broken-winded. I put Mouse's bridle down on the lower bar instead of the cheek, on which he had previously been driven. My aunt climbed into the gig; I mounted the pony-carriage, the cripple took his seat deferentially by my side, and away we went on our respective journeys; certainly in a mode which we had little anticipated when we left the front door at Dangerfield Hall.
My preserver sat half in and half out of the carriage, leaning his white, well-shaped hand upon the splashboard. The bandaged side of his face was towards me. The ponies went quietly enough; they had enjoyed their gallop, and were, I think, a little blown. I had leisure to take a good survey of my companion. When we had thus travelled for a quarter of a mile in silence he turned his face towards me. We looked at each other for about half a minute, and then both burst out laughing.
"You didn't know me, Miss Coventry! not the least in the world," exclaimed the cripple, pulling the bandage off his face, and showing another eye quite as handsome as the one that had previously been uncovered.
"How could you do so, Captain Lovell?" was all I could reply. "Conceive if my aunt had found you out, or even if any one should recognize you now. What would people think of me? But how did you know we were going to London to-day, and how could you tell the ponies would run away?"
"Never mind how I knew your movements, Miss Coventry," was the reply. "Kate! may I call you Kate? it's such a soft, sweet name," he added, now sitting altogether inside the carriage, which certainly was a small one for two people. "You don't know how I've watched for you, and waited and prowled about, during the last few days. You don't know how anxious I've been only for one word—even one look. I've spent hours out on the Down just to see the flutter of your white dress as you went through the shrubbery—even at that distance it was something to gaze at you and know you were there. Last night I crossed the ice under your window."
"You did indeed!" I replied with a laugh; "and what a ducking you must have got!"
Frank laughed too, and resumed. "I was sadly afraid that your aunt might have found out you were holding a parley with the enemy outside the walls. I knew you were to go to London to-day. I thought very likely you might be annoyed, and put under surveillance on my account, and I was resolved to see you, if only for one moment; so I borrowed these ragged garments of a professional beggar, who I believe is a great deal better off in reality than myself, and I determined to watch for your carriage and trust to chance for a word, or even a glance of recognition. She has befriended me more than I could expect. At first, when I saw 'Aunt Deborah' alone in the chariot, it flashed across me that perhaps you were to stay en penitence at Dangerfield. But I knew Lady Horsingham had a pony-carriage. I also knew—or what would be the use of servants?—that it was ordered this morning; so I stumped gaily along the road, thinking that at all events I might have an opportunity of saying three words to you at the station whilst the servants were putting the luggage on, and the dear aunts, who I presume cherish a mutual hatred, were wishing each other a tender farewell. But that such a chance as this runaway should befriend me was more than I ever dared to hope for, and that I should be sitting next you, Kate (and so close, I'm sure he might have added), in Lady Horsingham's pony-phaeton is a piece of good luck that in my wildest moments I never so much as dreamt of. We scarcely ever meet now. There—you needn't drive so fast; the up-train don't go by till the half-hour, and every minute is precious, at least to me. We are kept sadly apart, Kate. If you can bear it, I can't. I should like to be near you always—always to watch over you and worship you. Confound that pony! he's off again."
Sure enough, Tiny was indulging in more vagaries, as if he meditated a second fit of rebellion; and what with holding him and humouring Mouse, and keeping my head down so as to hide my face from Frank, for I didn't want him to see how I was blushing, I am sure I had enough to do.
"Kate, you must really have pity on me," pursued Frank. "You don't know how miserable I am sometimes (I wonder what he wanted me to say?), or how happy you have it in your power to make me. Here we are at that cursed station, and my dream is over. I must be the cripple and the beggar once more—a beggar I am indeed, Kate, without your affection. When shall we meet again, and where?"
"In London," was all I could answer.
"And you won't forget me, Kate?" pleaded poor Frank, looking so handsome, poor fellow.
"Never," I replied, and before I knew how it was, I found myself standing on the platform with Aunt Deborah and the servants and the luggage. The great green engine was panting and gasping in front of me, but ponies and pony-carriage and cripple had all vanished like a dream.
As we steamed on to London I sometimes thought it was a dream, not altogether a pleasant one, nor yet exactly the reverse. I should have liked my admirer to have been a little more explicit. It is all very well to talk of being miserable and desperate, and to ring the changes of meeting and parting, and looks and sighs, and all that; but after all the real question is, "Will you?" or "Won't you?" and I don't think a man is acting very fairly towards a girl who don't put the case in that way at once before he allows himself to run into rhapsodies about his feelings and his sufferings and such matters, which, after all, lead to nothing, or at least to nothing satisfactory. To be sure, men are strange creatures, and upon my word I sometimes think they are more troubled with shyness than our own sex. Perhaps it's their diffidence that makes them hesitate so, and, as it were, "beat about the bush," when they have only got to "flush the bird" and shoot it at once and put it in the game-bag. Perhaps it's their pride for fear of being refused. Now, I think it's far more creditable to a man to wear the willow, and take to men dinners and brandy-and-water for a month or six weeks, than to break a girl's heart for a whole year; and I know it takes nearly that time for a well-brought-up young lady to get over a real matrimonial disappointment. However, shy or not shy, they certainly ought to be explicit. It's too bad to miss a chance because we cannot interpret the metaphor in which some bashful swain thinks it decorous to couch his proposals; and I once knew a young lady who, happening to dislike needlework, and replying in the negative to the insidious question, "Can you sew a button?" never knew for months that she had actually declined a man she was really fond of, with large black whiskers, and two-and-twenty hundred a year. Women can't be too cautious.