Mr. and Mrs. Avenel sat within the parlour, Mr. Richard stood on the hearthrug, whistling "Yankee Doodle." "The parson writes word that the lad will come to-day," said Richard, suddenly; "let me see the letter,—ay, to-day. If he took the coach as far as ———-, he might walk the rest of the way in two or three hours. He should be pretty nearly here. I have a great mind to go and meet him: it will save his asking questions, and hearing about me. I can clear the town by the back way, and get out at the high road."
"You'll not know him from any one else," said Mrs. Avenel.
"Well, that is a good one! Not know an Avenel! We've all the same cut of the jib,—have we not, Father?"
Poor John laughed heartily, till the tears rolled down his cheeks.
"We were always a well-favoured fam'ly," said John, recomposing himself. "There was Luke, but he's gone; and Harry, but he's dead too; and Dick, but he's in Amerikay—no, he's here; and my darling Nora, but—"
"Hush!" interrupted Mrs. Avenel; "hush, John!"
The old man stared at her, and then put his tremulous hand to his brow. "And Nora's gone too!" said he, in a voice of profound woe. Both hands then fell on his knees, and his head drooped on his breast.
Mrs. Avenel rose, kissed her husband on the forehead, and walked away to the window. Richard took up his hat and brushed the nap carefully with his handkerchief; but his lips quivered.
"I 'm going," said he, abruptly. "Now mind, Mother, not a word about uncle Richard yet; we must first see how we like each other, and—[in a whisper] you'll try and get that into my poor father's head?"
"Ay, Richard," said Mrs. Avenel, quietly. Richard put on his hat and went out by the back way. He stole along the fields that skirted the town, and had only once to cross the street before he got into the high road.
He walked on till he came to the first milestone. There he seated himself, lighted his cigar, and awaited his nephew. It was now nearly the hour of sunset, and the road before him lay westward. Richard, from time to time, looked along the road, shading his eyes with his hand; and at length, just as the disk of the sun had half sunk down the horizon, a solitary figure came up the way. It emerged suddenly from the turn in the road; the reddening beams coloured all the atmosphere around it. Solitary and silent it came as from a Land of Light.
"You have been walking far, young man?" said Richard Avenel.
"No, sir, not very. That is Lansmere before me, is it not?"
"Yes, it is Lansmere; you stop there, I guess?"
Leonard made a sign in the affirmative, and walked on a few paces; then, seeing the stranger who had accosted him still by his side, he said,—
"If you know the town, sir, perhaps you will have the goodness to tell me whereabouts Mr. Avenel lives?"
"I can put you into a straight cut across the fields, that will bring you just behind the house."
"You are very kind, but it will take you out of your way."
"No, it is in my way. So you are going to Mr. Avenel's?—a good old gentleman."
"I've always heard so; and Mrs. Avenel—"
"A particular superior woman," said Richard. "Any one else to ask after?—I know the family well."
"No, thank you, sir."
"They have a son, I believe; but he's in America, is he not?"
"I believe he is, sir."
"I see the parson has kept faith with me muttered Richard."
"If you can tell me anything about HIM," said Leonard, "I should be very glad."
"Why so, young man? Perhaps he is hanged by this time."
"He was a sad dog, I am told."
"Then you have been told very falsely," said Leonard, colouring.
"A sad wild dog; his parents were so glad when he cut and run,—went off to the States. They say he made money; but, if so, he neglected his relations shamefully."
"Sir," said Leonard, "you are wholly misinformed. He has been most generous to a relation who had little claim on him: and I never heard his name mentioned but with love and praise."
Richard instantly fell to whistling "Yankee Doodle," and walked on several paces without saying a word. He then made a slight apology for his impertinence, hoped no offence, and, with his usual bold but astute style of talk, contrived to bring out something of his companion's mind. He was evidently struck with the clearness and propriety with which Leonard expressed himself, raised his eyebrows in surprise more than once, and looked him full in the face with an attentive and pleased survey. Leonard had put on the new clothes with which Riccabocca and his wife had provided him. They were those appropriate to a young country tradesman in good circumstances; but as Leonard did not think about the clothes, so he had unconsciously something of the ease of the gentleman.
They now came into the fields. Leonard paused before a slip of ground sown with rye.
"I should have thought grass-land would have answered better so near a town," said he.
"No doubt it would," answered Richard; "but they are sadly behind-hand in these parts. You see the great park yonder, on the other side of the road? That would answer better for rye than grass; but then, what would become of my Lord's deer? The aristocracy eat us up, young man."
"But the aristocracy did not sow this piece with rye, I suppose?" said Leonard, smiling.
"And what do you conclude from that?"
"Let every man look to his own ground," said Leonard, with a cleverness of repartee caught from Dr. Riccabocca.
"'Cute lad you are," said Richard; "and we'll talk more of these matters another time."
They now came within sight of Mr. Avenel's house.
"You can get through the gap in the hedge, by the old pollard-oak," said Richard; "and come round by the front of the house. Why, you're not afraid, are you?"
"I am a stranger."
"Shall I introduce you? I told you that I knew the old couple."
"Oh, no, sir! I would rather meet them alone."
"Go; and—wait a bit-hark ye, young man, Mrs. Avenel is a cold-mannered woman; but don't be abashed by that." Leonard thanked the good-natured stranger, crossed the field, passed the gap, and paused a moment under the stinted shade of the old hollow-hearted oak. The ravens were returning to their nests. At the sight of a human form under the tree they wheeled round and watched him afar. From the thick of the boughs, the young ravens sent their hoarse low cry.
The young man entered the neat, prim, formal parlour. "You are welcome!" said Mrs. Avenel, in a firm voice. "The gentleman is heartily welcome," cried poor John.
"It is your grandson, Leonard Fairfield," said Mrs. Avenel. But John, who had risen with knocking knees, gazed hard at Leonard, and then fell on his breast, sobbing aloud, "Nora's eyes!—he has a blink in his eye like Nora's."
Mrs. Avenel approached with a steady step, and drew away the old man tenderly.
"He is a poor creature," she whispered to Leonard; "you excite him. Come away, I will show you your room." Leonard followed her up the stairs, and came into a room neatly and even prettily furnished. The carpet and curtains were faded by the sun, and of old-fashioned pattern; there was a look about the room as if it had been long disused. Mrs. Avenel sank down on the first chair on entering. Leonard drew his arm round her waist affectionately: "I fear that I have put you out sadly, my dear grandmother." Mrs. Avenel glided hastily from his arm, and her countenance worked much, every nerve in it twitching, as it were; then, placing her hand on his locks, she said with passion, "God bless you, my grandson," and left the room.
Leonard dropped his knapsack on the floor, and looked around him wistfully. The room seemed as if it had once been occupied by a female. There was a work-box on the chest of drawers, and over it hanging shelves for books, suspended by ribbons that had once been blue, with silk and fringe appended to each shelf, and knots and tassels here and there,—the taste of a woman, or rather of a girl, who seeks to give a grace to the commonest things around her. With the mechanical habit of a student, Leonard took down one or two of the volumes still left on the shelves. He found Spenser's "Faerie Queene," Racine in French, Tasso in Italian; and on the fly-leaf of each volume, in the exquisite handwriting familiar to his memory, the name "Leonora." He kissed the books, and replaced them with a feeling akin both to tenderness and awe.
He had not been alone in his room more than a quarter of an hour before the maid-servant knocked at his door and summoned him to tea.
Poor John had recovered his spirits, and his wife sat by his side, holding his hand in hers. Poor John was even gay. He asked many questions about his daughter Jane, and did not wait for the answers. Then he spoke about the squire, whom he confounded with Audley Egerton, and talked of elections and the Blue party, and hoped Leonard would always be a good Blue; and then he fell to his tea and toast, and said no more.
Mrs. Avenel spoke little, but she eyed Leonard askant, as it were, from time to time; and, after each glance, the nerves of the poor severe face twitched again.
A little after nine o'clock, Mrs. Avenel lighted a candle, and placing it in Leonard's hand, said, "You must be tired,—you know your own room now. Good-night."
Leonard took the light, and, as was his wont with his mother, kissed Mrs. Avenel on the cheek. Then he took John's hand and kissed him too. The old man was half asleep, and murmured dreamily, "That's Nora."
Leonard had retired to his room about half an hour, when Richard Avenel entered the house softly, and joined his parents.
"Well, Mother?" said he.
"Well, Richard, you have seen him?"
"And like him. Do you know he has a great look of poor Nora?—more like her than Jane."
"Yes; he is handsomer than Jane ever was, but more like your father than any one. John was so comely. You take to the boy, then?"
"Ay, that I do. Just tell him in the morning that he is to go with a gentleman who will be his friend, and don't say more. The chaise shall be at the door after breakfast. Let him get into it: I shall wait for him out of the town. What's the room you gave him?"
"The room you would not take."
"The room in which Nora slept? Oh, no! I could not have slept a wink there. What a charm there was in that girl! how we all loved her! But she was too beautiful and good for us,—too good to live!"
"None of us are too good," said Mrs. Avenel, with great austerity, "and I beg you will not talk in that way. Goodnight,—I must get your poor father to bed."
When Leonard opened his eyes the next morning, they rested on the face of Mrs. Avenel, which was bending over his pillow. But it was long before he could recognize that countenance, so changed was its expression,—so tender, so mother-like. Nay, the face of his own mother had never seemed to him so soft with a mother's passion.
"Ah!" he murmured, half rising, and flinging his young arms round her neck. Mrs. Avenel, this time taken by surprise, warmly returned the embrace; she clasped him to her breast, she kissed him again and again. At length, with a quick start, she escaped, and walked up and down the room, pressing her hands tightly together. When she halted, her face had recovered its usual severity and cold precision.
"It is time for you to rise, Leonard," said she. "You will leave us to-day. A gentleman has promised to take charge of you, and do for you more than we can. A chaise will be at the door soon,—make haste."
John was absent from the breakfast-table. His wife said that he never rose till late, and must not be disturbed.
The meal was scarcely over before a chaise and pair came to the door.
"You must not keep the chaise waiting,—the gentleman is very punctual."
"But he is not come."
"No; he has walked on before, and will get in after you are out of the town."
"What is his name, and why should he care for me, Grandmother?"
"He will tell you himself. Be quick."
"But you will bless me again, Grandmother? I love you already."
"I do bless you," said Mrs. Avenel, firmly. "Be honest and good, and beware of the first false step." She pressed his hand with a convulsive grasp, and led him to the outer door.
The postboy clanked his whip, the chaise rattled off. Leonard put his head out of the window to catch a last glimpse of the old woman; but the boughs of the pollard-oak, and its gnarled decaying trunk, hid her from his eye, and look as he would, till the road turned, he saw but the melancholy tree.
CONTAINING MR. CAXTON's UNAVAILING CAUTION NOT TO BE DULL.
"I hope, Pisistratus," said my father, "that you do not intend to be dull?"
"Heaven forbid, sir! What could make you ask such a question? Intend! No! if I am dull it is from innocence."
"A very long discourse upon knowledge!" said my father; "very long! I should cut it out."
I looked upon my father as a Byzantian sage might have looked on a Vandal. "Cut it out!"
"Stops the action, sir!" said my father, dogmatically.
"Action! But a novel is not a drama."
"No; it is a great deal longer,—twenty times as long, I dare say," replied Mr. Caxton, with a sigh.
"Well, sir, well! I think my Discourse upon Knowledge has much to do with the subject, is vitally essential to the subject; does not stop the action,—only explains and elucidates the action. And I am astonished, sir, that you, a scholar, and a cultivator of knowledge—"
"There, there!" cried my father, deprecatingly. "I yield, I yield! What better could I expect when I set up for a critic? What author ever lived that did not fly into a passion, even with his own father, if his father presumed to say, 'Cut out'!"
MRS. CAXTON.—"My dear Austin, I am sure Pisistratus did not mean to offend you, and I have no doubt he will take your—"
PISISTRATUS (hastily).—"Advice for the future, certainly. I will quicken the action, and—"
"Go on with the Novel," whispered Roland, looking up from his eternal account-book. "We have lost L200 by our barley!"
Therewith I plunged my pen into the ink, and my thoughts into the "Fair Shadowland."
"HALT, cried a voice; and not a little surprised was Leonard when the stranger who had accosted him the preceding evening got into the chaise.
"Well," said Richard, "I am not the sort of man you expected, eh? Take time to recover yourself." And with these words Richard drew forth a book from his pocket, threw himself back, and began to read. Leonard stole many a glance at the acute, hardy, handsome face of his companion, and gradually recognized a family likeness to poor John, in whom, despite age and infirmity, the traces of no common share of physical beauty were still evident. And, with that quick link in ideas which mathematical aptitude bestows, the young student at once conjectured that he saw before him his uncle Richard. He had the discretion, however, to leave that gentleman free to choose his own time for introducing himself, and silently revolved the new thoughts produced by the novelty of his situation. Mr. Richard read with notable quickness,—sometimes cutting the leaves of the book with his penknife, sometimes tearing them open with his forefinger, sometimes skipping whole pages altogether. Thus he galloped to the end of the volume, flung it aside, lighted his cigar, and began to talk. He put many questions to Leonard relative to his rearing, and especially to the mode by which he had acquired his education; and Leonard, confirmed in the idea that he was replying to a kinsman, answered frankly.
Richard did not think it strange that Leonard should have acquired so much instruction with so little direct tuition. Richard Avenel himself had been tutor to himself. He had lived too long with our go-ahead brethren who stride the world on the other side the Atlantic with the seven-leagued boots of the Giant-killer, not to have caught their glorious fever for reading. But it was for a reading wholly different from that which was familiar to Leonard. The books he read must be new; to read old books would have seemed to him going back in the world. He fancied that new books necessarily contained new ideas,—a common mistake,—and our lucky adventurer was the man of his day.
Tired with talking, he at length chucked the book he had run through to Leonard, and taking out a pocket-book and pencil, amused himself with calculations on some detail of his business, after which he fell into an absorbed train of thought, part pecuniary, part ambitious.
Leonard found the book interesting: it was one of the numerous works, half-statistic, half-declamatory, relating to the condition of the working classes, which peculiarly distinguish our century, and ought to bind together rich and poor, by proving the grave attention which modern society bestows upon all that can affect the welfare of the last.
"Dull stuff! theory! claptrap!" said Richard, rousing himself from his revery at last; "it can't interest you."
"All books interest me, I think," said Leonard, "and this especially; for it relates to the working class, and I am one of them."
"You were yesterday, but you mayn't be to-morrow," answered Richard, good-humouredly, and patting him on the shoulder. "You see, my lad, that it is the middle class which ought to govern the country. What the book says about the ignorance of country magistrates is very good; but the man writes pretty considerable trash when he wants to regulate the number of hours a free-born boy should work at a factory,—only ten hours a day—pooh! and so lose two hours to the nation! Labour is wealth; and if we could get men to work twenty-four hours a day, we should be just twice as rich. If the march of civilization is to proceed," continued Richard, loftily, "men, and boys too, must not lie a bed doing nothing, all night, sir." Then, with a complacent tone, "We shall get to the twenty-four hours at last; and, by gad, we must, or we sha'n't flog the Europeans as we do now."
On arriving at the inn at which Richard had first made acquaintance with Mr. Dale, the coach by which he had intended to perform the rest of the journey was found to be full. Richard continued to perform the journey in postchaises, not without some grumbling at the expense, and incessant orders to the post-boys to make the best of the way. "Slow country this in spite of all its brag," said he,—"very slow. Time is money—they know that in the States; for why? they are all men of business there. Always slow in a country where a parcel of lazy, idle lords and dukes and baronets seem to think 'time is pleasure.'"
Towards evening the chaise approached the confines of a very large town, and Richard began to grow fidgety. His easy, cavalier air was abandoned. He withdrew his legs from the window, out of which they had been luxuriously dangling, pulled down his waistcoat, buckled more tightly his stock; it was clear that he was resuming the decorous dignity that belongs to state. He was like a monarch who, after travelling happy and incognito, returns to his capital. Leonard divined at once that they were nearing their journey's end.
Humble foot-passengers now looked at the chaise, and touched their hats. Richard returned the salutation with a nod,—a nod less gracious than condescending. The chaise turned rapidly to the left, and stopped before a small lodge, very new, very white, adorned with two Doric columns in stucco, and flanked by a large pair of gates. "Hollo!" cried the post-boy, and cracked his whip.
Two children were playing before the lodge, and some clothes were hanging out to dry on the shrubs and pales round the neat little building.
"Hang those brats! they are actually playing," growled Dick. "As I live, the jade has been washing again! Stop, boy!" During this soliloquy, a good-looking young woman had rushed from the door, slapped the children as, catching sight of the chaise, they ran towards the house, opened the gates, and dropping a courtesy to the ground, seemed to wish that she could drop into it altogether; so frightened and so trembling seemed she to shrink from the wrathful face which the master now put out of the window.
"Did I tell you, or did I not," said Dick, "that I would not have those horrid, disreputable cubs of yours playing just before my lodge gates?"
"Don't answer me. And did I tell you, or did I not, that the next time I saw you making a drying-ground of my lilacs, you should go out, neck and crop—"
"Oh, please, sir—"
"You leave my lodge next Saturday! drive on, boy. The ingratitude and insolence of those common people are disgraceful to human nature," muttered Richard, with an accent of the bitterest misanthropy.
The chaise wheeled along the smoothest and freshest of gravel roads, and through fields of the finest land, in the highest state of cultivation. Rapid as was Leonard's survey, his rural eye detected the signs of a master in the art agronomial. Hitherto he had considered the squire's model farm as the nearest approach to good husbandry he had seen; for Jackeymo's finer skill was developed rather on the minute scale of market-gardening than what can fairly be called husbandry. But the squire's farm was degraded by many old-fashioned notions, and concessions to the whim of the eye, which would not be found in model farms nowadays,—large tangled hedgerows, which, though they constitute one of the beauties most picturesque in old England, make sad deductions from produce; great trees, overshadowing the corn and harbouring the birds; little patches of rough sward left to waste; and angles of woodland running into fields, exposing them to rabbits and blocking out the sun. These and such like blots on a gentleman-farmer's agriculture, common-sense and Giacomo had made clear to the acute comprehension of Leonard. No such faults were perceptible in Richard Avenel's domain. The fields lay in broad divisions, the hedges were clipped and narrowed into their proper destination of mere boundaries. Not a blade of wheat withered under the cold shade of a tree; not a yard of land lay waste; not a weed was to be seen, not a thistle to waft its baleful seed through the air: some young plantations were placed, not where the artist would put them, but just where the farmer wanted a fence from the wind. Was there no beauty in this? Yes, there was beauty of its kind,—beauty at once recognizable to the initiated, beauty of use and profit, beauty that could bear a monstrous high rent. And Leonard uttered a cry of admiration which thrilled through the heart of Richard Avenel.
"This IS farming!" said the villager.
"Well, I guess it is," answered Richard, all his ill-humour vanishing. "You should have seen the land when I bought it. But we new men, as they call us (damn their impertinence!) are the new blood of this country."
Richard Avenel never said anything more true. Long may the new blood circulate through the veins of the mighty giantess; but let the grand heart be the same as it has beat for proud ages.
The chaise now passed through a pretty shrubbery, and the house came into gradual view,—a house with a portico, all the offices carefully thrust out of sight.
The postboy dismounted and rang the bell.
"I almost think they are going to keep me waiting," said Mr. Richard, well-nigh in the very words of Louis XIV. But the fear was not realized,—the door opened; a well-fed servant out of livery presented himself. There was no hearty welcoming smile on his face, but he opened the chaise-door with demure and taciturn respect.
"Where's George? Why does he not come to the door?" asked Richard; descending from the chaise slowly, and leaning on the servant's outstretched arm with as much precaution as if he had had the gout.
Fortunately, George here came into sight, settling himself hastily into his livery coat.
"See to the things, both of you," said Richard, as he paid the postboy.
Leonard stood on the gravel sweep, gazing at the square white house.
"Handsome elevation—classical, I take it, eh?" said Richard, joining him. "But you should see the offices." He then, with familiar kindness, took Leonard by the arm, and drew him within. He showed him the hall, with a carved mahogany stand for hats; he showed him the drawing-room, and pointed out all its beauties; though it was summer, the drawing-room looked cold, as will look rooms newly furnished, with walls newly papered, in houses newly built. The furniture was handsome, and suited to the rank of a rich trader. There was no pretence about it, and therefore no vulgarity, which is more than can be said for the houses of many an Honourable Mrs. Somebody in Mayfair, with rooms twelve feet square, ebokeful of buhl, that would have had its proper place in the Tuileries. Then Richard showed him the library, with mahogany book-cases, and plate glass, and the fashionable authors handsomely bound. Your new men are much better friends to living authors than your old families who live in the country, and at most subscribe to a book-club. Then Richard took him up-stairs, and led him through the bedrooms,—all very clean and comfortable, and with every modern convenience; and pausing in a very pretty single gentleman's chamber, said, "This is your den. And now, can you guess who I am?"
"No one but my uncle Richard could be so kind," answered Leonard.
But the compliment did not flatter Richard. He was extremely disconcerted and disappointed. He had hoped that he should be taken for a lord at least, forgetful of all that he had said in disparagement of lords.
"Fish!" said he at last, biting his lip, "so you don't think that I look like a gentleman? Come, now, speak honestly."
Leonard, wonderingly, saw he had given pain, and with the good breeding which comes instinctively from good nature, replied, "I judge you by your heart, sir, and your likeness to my grandfather,—otherwise I should never have presumed to fancy we could be relations."
"Hum!" answered Richard. "You can just wash your hands, and then come down to dinner; you will hear the gong in ten ininutes. There's the bell,—ring for what you want." With that, he turned on his heel; and descending the stairs, gave a look into the dining-room, and admired the plated salver on the sideboard, and the king's pattern spoons and silver on the table. Then he walked to the looking-glass over the mantelpiece; and, wishing to survey the whole effect of his form, mounted a chair. He was just getting into an attitude which he thought imposing, when the butler entered, and, being London bred, had the discretion to try to escape unseen; but Richard caught sight of him in the looking-glass, and coloured up to the temples.
"Jarvis," said he, mildly, "Jarvis, put me in mind to have these inexpressibles altered."
A propos of the inexpressibles, Mr. Richard did not forget to provide his nephew with a much larger wardrobe than could have been thrust into Dr. Riccabocca's knapsack. There was a very good tailor in the town, and the clothes were very well made. And, but for an air more ingenuous, and a cheek that, despite study and night vigils, retained much of the sunburned bloom of the rustic, Leonard Fairfield might now have almost passed, without disparaging comment, by the bow-window at White's. Richard burst into an immoderate fit of laughter when he first saw the watch which the poor Italian had bestowed upon Leonard; but to atone for the laughter, he made him a present of a very pretty substitute, and bade him "lock up his turnip." Leonard was more hurt by the jeer at his old patron's gift than pleased by his uncle's. But Richard Avenel had no conception of sentiment. It was not for many days that Leonard could reconcile himself to his uncle's manner. Not that the peasant could pretend to judge of its mere conventional defects; but there is an ill breeding to which, whatever our rank and nurture, we are almost equally sensitive,—the ill breeding that comes from want of consideration for others. Now, the squire was as homely in his way as Richard Avenel, but the squire's bluntness rarely hurt the feelings; and when it did so, the squire perceived and hastened to repair his blunder. But Mr. Richard, whether kind or cross, was always wounding you in some little delicate fibre,—not from malice, but from the absence of any little delicate fibres of his own. He was really, in many respects, a most excellent man, and certainly a very valuable citizen—; but his merits wanted the fine tints and fluent curves that constitute beauty of character. He was honest, but sharp in his practice, and with a keen eye to his interests. He was just, but as a matter of business. He made no allowances, and did not leave to his justice the large margin of tenderness and mercy. He was generous, but rather from an idea of what was due to himself than with much thought of the pleasure he gave to others; and he even regarded generosity as a capital put out to interest. He expected a great deal of gratitude in return, and, when he obliged a man, considered that he had bought a slave. Every needy voter knew where to come, if he wanted relief or a loan; but woe to him if he had ventured to express hesitation when Mr. Avenel told him how he must vote.
In this town Richard had settled after his return from America, in which country he had enriched himself,—first, by spirit and industry, lastly, by bold speculation and good luck. He invested his fortune in business,—became a partner in a large brewery, soon bought out his associates, and then took a principal share in a flourishing corn-mill. He prospered rapidly,—bought a property of some two or three hundred acres, built a house, and resolved to enjoy himself, and make a figure. He had now become the leading man of the town, and the boast to Audley Egerton that he could return one of the members, perhaps both, was by no means an exaggerated estimate of his power. Nor was his proposition, according to his own views, so unprincipled as it appeared to the statesman. He had taken a great dislike to both the sitting members,—a dislike natural to a sensible man of moderate politics, who had something to lose. For Mr. Slappe, the active member, who was head-over-ears in debt, was one of the furious democrats—rare before the Reform Bill,—and whose opinions were held dangerous even by the mass of a Liberal constituency; while Mr. Sleekie, the gentleman member who laid by L5000 every year from his dividends in the Funds, was one of those men whom Richard justly pronounced to be "humbugs,"—men who curry favour with the extreme party by voting for measures sure not to be carried; while if there was the least probability of coming to a decision that would lower the money market. Mr. Sleekie was seized with a well-timed influenza. Those politicians are common enough now. Propose to march to the Millennium, and they are your men. Ask them to march a quarter of a mile, and they fall to feeling their pockets, and trembling for fear of the footpads. They are never so joyful as when there is no chance of a victory. Did they beat the minister, they would be carried out of the House in a fit.
Richard Avenel—despising both these gentlemen, and not taking kindly to the Whigs since the great Whig leaders were lords—had looked with a friendly eye to the government as it then existed, and especially to Audley Egerton, the enlightened representative of commerce. But in giving Audley and his colleagues the benefit of his influence, through conscience, he thought it all fair and right to have a quid pro quo, and, as he had so frankly confessed, it was his whim to rise up "Sir Richard." For this worthy citizen abused the aristocracy much on the same principle as the fair Olivia depreciated Squire Thornhill,—he had a sneaking affection for what he abused. The society of Screwstown was, like most provincial capitals, composed of two classes,—the commercial and the exclusive. These last dwelt chiefly apart, around the ruins of an old abbey; they affected its antiquity in their pedigrees, and had much of its ruin in their finances. Widows of rural thanes in the neighbourhood, genteel spinsters, officers retired on half-pay, younger sons of rich squires, who had now become old bachelors,—in short, a very respectable, proud, aristocratic set, who thought more of themselves than do all the Gowers and Howards, Courtenays and Seymours, put together. It had early been the ambition of Richard Avenel to be admitted into this sublime coterie; and, strange to say, he had partially succeeded. He was never more happy than when he was asked to their card-parties, and never more unhappy than when he was actually there. Various circumstances combined to raise Mr. Avenel into this elevated society. First, he was unmarried, still very handsome, and in that society there was a large proportion of unwedded females. Secondly, he was the only rich trader in Screwstown who kept a good cook, and professed to give dinners, and the half-pay captains and colonels swallowed the host for the sake of the venison. Thirdly, and principally, all these exclusives abhorred the two sitting members, and "idem nolle idem velle de republica, ea firma amicitia est;" that is, congeniality in politics pieces porcelain and crockery together better than the best diamond cement. The sturdy Richard Avenel, who valued himself on American independence, held these ladies and gentlemen in an awe that was truly Brahminical. Whether it was that, in England, all notions, even of liberty, are mixed up historically, traditionally, socially, with that fine and subtle element of aristocracy which, like the press, is the air we breathe; or whether Richard imagined that he really became magnetically imbued with the virtues of these silver pennies and gold seven-shilling pieces, distinct from the vulgar coinage in popular use, it is hard to say. But the truth must be told,—Richard Avenel was a notable tuft-hunter. He had a great longing to marry out of this society; but he had not yet seen any one sufficiently high-born and high-bred to satisfy his aspirations. In the meanwhile, he had convinced himself that his way would be smooth could he offer to make his ultimate choice "My Lady;" and he felt that it would be a proud hour in his life when he could walk before stiff Colonel Pompley to the sound of "Sir Richard." Still, however disappointed at the ill-success of his bluff diplomacy with Mr. Egerton, and however yet cherishing the most vindictive resentment against that individual, he did not, as many would have done, throw up his political convictions out of personal spite. He reserved his private grudge for some special occasion, and continued still to support the Administration, and to hate one of the ministers.
But, duly to appreciate the value of Richard Avenel, and in just counterpoise to all his foibles, one ought to have seen what he had effected for the town. Well might he boast of "new blood;" he had done as much for the town as he had for his fields. His energy, his quick comprehension of public utility, backed by his wealth and bold, bullying, imperious character, had sped the work of civilization as if with the celerity and force of a steam-engine.
If the town were so well paved and so well lighted, if half-a-dozen squalid lanes had been transformed into a stately street, if half the town no longer depended on tanks for their water, if the poor-rates were reduced one-third, praise to the brisk new blood which Richard Avenel had infused into vestry and corporation. And his example itself was so contagious!
"There was not a plate-glass window in the town when I came into it," said Richard Avenel; "and now look down the High Street!" He took the credit to himself, and justly; for though his own business did not require windows of plate-glass, he had awakened the spirit of enterprise which adorns a whole city.
Mr. Avenel did not present Leonard to his friends for more than a fortnight. He allowed him to wear off his rust. He then gave a grand dinner, at which his nephew was formally introduced, and, to his great wrath and disappointment, never opened his lips. How could he, poor youth, when Miss Clarina Mowbray only talked upon high life, till proud Colonel Pompley went in state through the history of the Siege of Seringapatam?
While Leonard accustoms himself gradually to the splendours that surround him, and often turns with a sigh to the remembrance of his mother's cottage and the sparkling fount in the Italian's flowery garden, we will make with thee, O reader, a rapid flight to the metropolis, and drop ourselves amidst the gay groups that loiter along the dusty ground or loll over the roadside palings of Hyde Park. The season is still at its height; but the short day of fashionable London life, which commences two hours after noon, is in its decline.
The crowd in Rotten Row begins to thin. Near the statue of Achilles, and apart from all other loungers, a gentleman, with one hand thrust into his waistcoat, and the other resting on his cane, gazed listlessly on the horsemen and carriages in the brilliant ring. He was still in the prime of life, at the age when man is usually the most social,—when the acquaintances of youth have ripened into friendships, and a personage of some rank and fortune has become a well-known feature in the mobile face of society. But though, when his contemporaries were boys scarce at college, this gentleman had blazed foremost amongst the princes of fashion, and though he had all the qualities of nature and circumstance which either retain fashion to the last, or exchange its false celebrity for a graver repute, he stood as a stranger in that throng of his countrymen. Beauties whirled by to the toilet, statesmen passed on to the senate, dandies took flight to the clubs; and neither nods, nor becks, nor wreathed smiles said to the solitary spectator, "Follow us,—thou art one of our set." Now and then some middle-aged beau, nearing the post of the loiterer, turned round to look again; but the second glance seemed to dissipate the recognition of the first, and the beau silently continued his way.
"By the tomb of my fathers!" said the solitary to himself, "I know now what a dead man might feel if he came to life again, and took a peep at the living."
Time passed on,—the evening shades descended fast. Our stranger in London had well-nigh the Park to himself. He seemed to breathe more freely as he saw that the space was so clear.
"There's oxygen in the atmosphere now," said he, half aloud; "and I can walk without breathing in the gaseous fumes of the multitude. Oh, those chemists—what dolts they are! They tell us that crowds taint the air, but they never guess why! Pah, it is not the lungs that poison the element,—it is the reek of bad hearts. When a periwigpated fellow breathes on me, I swallow a mouthful of care. Allons! my friend Nero; now for a stroll." He touched with his cane a large Newfoundland dog, who lay stretched near his feet, and dog and man went slow through the growing twilight, and over the brown dry turf. At length our solitary paused, and threw himself on a bench under a tree. "Half-past eight!" said he, looking at his watch, "one may smoke one's cigar without shocking the world."
He took out his cigar-case, struck a light, and in another moment reclined at length on the bench, seemed absorbed in regarding the smoke, that scarce coloured ere it vanished into air.
"It is the most barefaced lie in the world, my Nero," said he, addressing his dog, "this boasted liberty of man! Now, here am I, a free-born Englishman, a citizen of the world, caring—I often say to myself—caring not a jot for Kaiser or Mob; and yet I no more dare smoke this cigar in the Park at half-past six, when all the world is abroad, than I dare pick my Lord Chancellor's pocket, or hit the Archbishop of Canterbury a thump on the nose. Yet no law in England forbids me my cigar, Nero! What is law at half-past eight was not crime at six and a half! Britannia says, 'Man, thou art free, and she lies like a commonplace woman. O Nero, Nero! you enviable dog! you serve but from liking. No thought of the world costs you one wag of the tail. Your big heart and true instinct suffice you for reason and law. You would want nothing to your felicity, if in these moments of ennui you would but smoke a cigar. Try it, Nero!—try it!" And, rising from his incumbent posture, he sought to force the end of the weed between the teeth of the dog.
While thus gravely engaged, two figures had approached the place. The one was a man who seemed weak and sickly. His threadbare coat was buttoned to the chin, but hung large on his shrunken breast. The other was a girl, who might be from twelve to fourteen, on whose arm he leaned heavily. Her cheek was wan, and there was a patient, sad look on her face, which seemed so settled that you would think she could never have known the mirthfulness of childhood.
"Pray rest here, Papa," said the child, softly; and she pointed to the bench, without taking heed of its pre-occupant, who now, indeed, confined to one corner of the seat, was almost hidden by the shadow of the tree.
The man sat down, with a feeble sigh, and then, observing the stranger, raised his hat, and said, in that tone of voice which betrays the usages of polished society, "Forgive me if I intrude on you, sir."
The stranger looked up from his dog, and seeing that the girl was standing, rose at once, as if to make room for her on the bench.
But still the girl did not heed him. She hung over her father, and wiped his brow tenderly with a little kerchief which she took from her own neck for the purpose.
Nero, delighted to escape the cigar, had taken to some unwieldy curvets and gambols, to vent the excitement into which he had been thrown; and now returning, approached the bench with a low growl of surprise, and sniffed at the intruders of his master's privacy.
"Come here, sir," said the master. "You need not fear him," he added, addressing himself to the girl.
But the girl, without turning round to him, cried in a voice rather of anguish than alarm, "He has fainted! Father! Father!"
The stranger kicked aside his dog, which was in the way, and loosened the poor man's stiff military stock. While thus charitably engaged, the moon broke out, and the light fell full on the pale, careworn face of the unconscious sufferer.
"This face seems not unfamiliar to me, though sadly changed," said the stranger to himself; and bending towards the girl, who had sunk on her knees, and was chafing her father's hand, he asked, "My child, what is your father's name?"
The child continued her task, too absorbed to answer.
The stranger put his hand on her shoulder, and repeated the question.
"Digby," answered the child, almost unconsciously; and as she spoke the man's senses began to return. In a few minutes more he had sufficiently recovered to falter forth his thanks to the stranger. But the last took his hand, and said, in a voice at once tremulous and soothing, "Is it possible that I see once more an old brother in arms? Algernon Digby, I do not forget you; but it seems England has forgotten."
A hectic flush spread over the soldier's face, and he looked away from the speaker as he answered,—
"My name is Digby, it is true, sir; but I do not think we have met before. Come, Helen, I am well now,—we will go home."
"Try and play with that great dog, my child," said the stranger,—"I want to talk with your father."
The child bowed her submissive head, and moved away; but she did not play with the dog.
"I must reintroduce myself formally, I see," quoth the stranger. "You were in the same regiment with myself, and my name is L'Estrange."
"My Lord," said the soldier, rising, "forgive me that—"
"I don't think that it was the fashion to call me 'my lord' at the mess-table. Come, what has happened to you?—on half-pay?"
Mr. Digby shook his head mournfully.
"Digby, old fellow, can you lend me L100?" said Lord L'Estrange, clapping his ci-devant brother-officer on the shoulder, and in a tone of voice that seemed like a boy's, so impudent was it, and devil-me-Garish. "No! Well, that's lucky, for I can lend it to you." Mr. Digby burst into tears.
Lord L'Estrange did not seem to observe the emotion, but went on carelessly,—
"Perhaps you don't know that, besides being heir to a father who is not only very rich, but very liberal, I inherited, on coming of age, from a maternal relation, a fortune so large that it would bore me to death if I were obliged to live up to it. But in the days of our old acquaintance, I fear we were both sad extravagant fellows, and I dare say I borrowed of you pretty freely."
"Me! Oh, Lord L'Estrange!"
"You have married since then, and reformed, I suppose. Tell me, old friend, all about it."
Mr. Digby, who by this time had succeeded in restoring some calm to his shattered nerves, now rose, and said in brief sentences, but clear, firm tones,—
"My Lord, it is idle to talk of me,—useless to help me. I am fast dying. But my child there, my only child" (he paused for an instant, and went on rapidly). "I have relations in a distant county, if I could but get to them; I think they would, at least, provide for her. This has been for weeks my hope, my dream, my prayer. I cannot afford the journey except by your help. I have begged without shame for myself; shall I be ashamed, then, to beg for her?"
"Digby," said L'Estrange, with some grave alteration of manner, "talk neither of dying nor begging. You were nearer death when the balls whistled round you at Waterloo. If soldier meets soldier and says 'Friend, thy purse,' it is not begging, but brotherhood. Ashamed! By the soul of Belisarius! if I needed money, I would stand at a crossing with my Waterloo medal over my breast, and say to each sleek citizen I had helped to save from the sword of the Frenchman, 'It is your shame if I starve.' Now, lean upon me; I see you should be at home: which way?"
The poor soldier pointed his hand towards Oxford Street, and reluctantly accepted the proffered arm.
"And when you return from your relations, you will call on me? What—hesitate? Come, promise."
"On your honour."
"If I live, on my honour."
"I am staying at present at Knightsbridge, with my father; but you will always hear of my address at No.—, Grosvenor Square, Mr. Egerton's. So you have a long journey before you?"
"Do not fatigue yourself,—travel slowly. Ho, you foolish child! I see you are jealous of me. Your father has another arm to spare you."
Thus talking, and getting but short answers, Lord L'Estrange continued to exhibit those whimsical peculiarities of character, which had obtained for him the repute of heartlessness in the world. Perhaps the reader may think the world was not in the right; but if ever the world does judge rightly of the character of a man who does not live for the world nor talk of the world nor feel with the world, it will be centuries after the soul of Harley L'Estrange has done with this planet.
Lord L'Estrange parted company with Mr. Digby at the entrance of Oxford Street. The father and child there took a cabriolet. Mr. Digby directed the driver to go down the Edgware Road. He refused to tell L'Estrange his address, and this with such evident pain, from the sores of pride, that L'Estrange could not press the point. Reminding the soldier of his promise to call, Harley thrust a pocket-book into his hand, and walked off hastily towards Grosvenor Square.
He reached Audley Egerton's door just as that gentleman was getting out of his carriage; and the two friends entered the house together.
"Does the nation take a nap to-night?" asked L'Estrange. "Poor old lady! She hears so much of her affairs, that she may well boast of her constitution: it must be of iron."
"The House is still sitting," answered Audley, seriously, and with small heed of his friend's witticism. "But it is not a Government motion, and the division will be late, so I came home; and if I had not found you here, I should have gone into the Park to look for you."
"Yes; one always knows where to find me at this hour, nine o'clock P.M., cigar, Hyde Park. There is not a man in England so regular in his habits."
Here the friends reached a drawing-room in which the member of parliament seldom sat, for his private apartments were all on the ground-floor.
"But it is the strangest whim of yours, Harley," said he.
"To affect detestation of ground-floors."
"Affect! O sophisticated man, of the earth, earthy! Affect!—nothing less natural to the human soul than a ground-floor. We are quite far enough from Heaven, mount as many stairs as we will, without grovelling by preference."
"According to that symbolical view of the case," said Audley, "you should lodge in an attic."
"So I would, but that I abhor new slippers. As for hairbrushes, I am indifferent."
"What have slippers and hair-brushes to do with attics?"
"Try! Make your bed in an attic, and the next morning you will have neither slippers nor hair-brushes!"
"What shall I have done with them?"
"Shied them at the cats!"
"What odd things you say, Harley!"
"Odd! By Apollo and his nine spinsters! there is no human being who has so little imagination as a distinguished member of parliament. Answer me this, thou solemn Right Honourable,—Hast thou climbed to the heights of august contemplation? Hast thou gazed on the stars with the rapt eye of song? Hast thou dreamed of a love known to the angels, or sought to seize in the Infinite the mystery of life?"
"Not I indeed, my poor Harley."
"Then no wonder, poor Audley, that you cannot conjecture why he who makes his bed in an attic, disturbed by base catterwauls, shies his slippers at cats. Bring a chair into the balcony. Nero spoiled my cigar to-night. I am going to smoke now. You never smoke. You can look on the shrubs in the square."
Audley slightly shrugged his shoulders, but he followed his friend's counsel and example, and brought his chair into the balcony. Nero came too, but at sight and smell of the cigar prudently retreated, and took refuge under the table.
"Audley Egerton, I want something from Government."
"I am delighted to hear it."
"There was a cornet in my regiment, who would have done better not to have come into it. We were, for the most part of us, puppies and fops."
"You all fought well, however."
"Puppies and fops do fight well. Vanity and valour generally go together. CAesar, who scratched his head with due care of his scanty curls, and even in dying thought of the folds in his toga; Walter Raleigh, who could not walk twenty yards because of the gems in his shoes; Alcibiades, who lounged into the Agora with doves in his bosom, and an apple in his hand; Murat, bedizened in gold lace and furs; and Demetrius, the City-Taker, who made himself up like a French marquise, were all pretty good fellows at fighting. A slovenly hero like Cromwell is a paradox in nature, and a marvel in history. But to return to my cornet. We were rich; he was poor. When the pot of clay swims down the stream with the brass-pots, it is sure of a smash. Men said Digby was stingy; I saw he was extravagant. But every one, I fear, would be rather thought stingy than poor. Bref—I left the army, and saw him no more till to-night. There was never shabby poor gentleman on the stage more awfully shabby, more pathetically gentleman. But, look ye, this man has fought for England. It was no child's play at Waterloo, let me tell you, Mr. Egerton; and, but for such men, you would be at best a sous prefet, and your parliament a Provincial Assembly. You must do something for Digby. What shall it be?"
"Why, really, my dear Harley, this man was no great friend of yours, eh?"
"If he were, he would not want the Government to help him,—he would not be ashamed of taking money from me."
"That is all very fine, Harley; but there are so many poor officers, and so little to give. It is the most difficult thing in the world that which you ask me. Indeed, I know nothing can be done: he has his half-pay?"
"I think not; or, if he has it, no doubt it all goes on his debts. That's nothing to us: the man and his child are starving."
"But if it is his own fault,—if he has been imprudent?"
"Ah, well, well; where the devil is Nero?"
"I am so sorry I can't oblige you. If it were anything else—"
"There is something else. My valet—I can't turn him adrift-excellent fellow, but gets drunk now and then. Will you find him a place in the Stamp Office?"
"No, now I think of it, the man knows my ways: I must keep him. But my old wine-merchant—civil man, never dunned—is a bankrupt. I am under great obligations to him, and he has a very pretty daughter. Do you think you could thrust him into some small place in the Colonies, or make him a King's Messenger, or something of the sort?"
"If you very much wish it, no doubt I can."
"My dear Audley, I am but feeling my way: the fact is, I want something for myself."
"Ah, that indeed gives me pleasure!" cried Egerton, with animation.
"The mission to Florence will soon be vacant,—I know it privately. The place would quite suit me. Pleasant city; the best figs in Italy; very little to do. You could sound Lord on the subject."
"I will answer beforehand. Lord—would be enchanted to secure to the public service a man so accomplished as yourself, and the son of a peer like Lord Lansmere."
Harley L'Estrange sprang to his feet, and flung his cigar in the face of a stately policeman who was looking up at the balcony.
"Infamous and bloodless official!" cried Harley L'Estrange; "so you could provide for a pimple-nosed lackey, for a wine-merchant who has been poisoning the king's subjects with white lead,—or sloe-juice,—for an idle sybarite, who would complain of a crumpled rose-leaf; and nothing, in all the vast patronage of England, for a broken-down soldier, whose dauntless breast was her rampart?"
"Harley," said the member of parliament, with his calm, sensible smile, "this would be a very good claptrap at a small theatre; but there is nothing in which parliament demands such rigid economy as the military branch of the public service; and no man for whom it is so hard to effect what we must plainly call a job as a subaltern officer who has done nothing more than his duty,—and all military men do that. Still, as you take it so earnestly, I will use what interest I can at the War Office, and get him, perhaps, the mastership of a barrack."
"You had better; for, if you do not, I swear I will turn Radical, and come down to your own city to oppose you, with Hunt and Cobbett to canvass for me."
"I should be very glad to see you come into parliament, even as a Radical, and at my expense," said Audley, with great kindness; "but the air is growing cold, and you are not accustomed to our climate. Nay, if you are too poetic for catarrhs and rheums, I'm not,—come in."
Lord L'Estrange threw himself on a sofa, and leaned his cheek on his hand thoughtfully. Audley Egerton sat near him, with his arms folded, and gazed on his friend's face with a soft expression of aspect, which was very unusual to the firm outline of his handsome features. The two men were as dissimilar in person as the reader will have divined that they were in character. All about Egerton was so rigid, all about L'Estrange so easy. In every posture of Harley's there was the unconscious grace of a child. The very fashion of his garments showed his abhorrence of restraint. His clothes were wide and loose; his neckcloth, tied carelessly, left his throat half bare. You could see that he had lived much in warm and southern lands, and contracted a contempt for conventionalities; there was as little in his dress as in his talk of the formal precision of the North. He was three or four years younger than Audley, but he looked at least twelve years younger. In fact, he was one of those men to whom old age seems impossible; voice, look, figure, had all the charm of youth: and perhaps it was from this gracious youthfulness—at all events, it was characteristic of the kind of love he inspired—that neither his parents, nor the few friends admitted into his intimacy, ever called him, in their habitual intercourse, by the name of his title. He was not L'Estrange with them, he was Harley; and by that familiar baptismal I will usually designate him. He was not one of those men whom author or reader wish to view at a distance, and remember as "my Lord"—it was so rarely that he remembered it himself. For the rest, it had been said of him by a shrewd wit, "He is so natural that every one calls him affected." Harley L'Estrange was not so critically handsome as Audley Egerton; to a commonplace observer, he was only rather good-looking than otherwise. But women said that he had "a beautiful countenance," and they were not wrong. He wore his hair, which was of a fair chestnut, long, and in loose curls; and instead of the Englishman's whiskers, indulged in the foreigner's mustache. His complexion was delicate, though not effeminate: it was rather the delicacy of a student than of a woman. But in his clear gray eye there was a wonderful vigour of life. A skilful physiologist, looking only into that eye, would have recognized rare stamina of constitution,—a nature so rich that, while easily disturbed, it would require all the effects of time, or all the fell combinations of passion and grief, to exhaust it. Even now, though so thoughtful, and even so sad, the rays of that eye were as concentrated and steadfast as the light of the diamond.
"You were only, then, in jest," said Audley, after a long silence, "when you spoke of this mission to Florence. You have still no idea of entering into public life?"
"I had hoped better things when I got your promise to pass one season in London; but, indeed, you have kept your promise to the ear to break it to the spirit. I could not presuppose that you would shun all society, and be as much of a hermit here as under the vines of Como."
"I have sat in the Strangers' Gallery, and heard your great speakers; I have been in the pit of the opera, and seen your fine ladies; I have walked your streets; I have lounged in your parks, and I say that I can't fall in love with a faded dowager, because she fills up her wrinkles with rouge."
"Of what dowager do you speak?" asked the matter-of-fact Audley.
"She has a great many titles. Some people call her Fashion, you busy men, Politics: it is all one,—tricked out and artificial. I mean London Life. No, I can't fall in love with her, fawning old harridan!"
"I wish you could fall in love with something."
"I wish I could, with all my heart."
"But you are so blaze."
"On the contrary, I am so fresh. Look out of the window—what do you see?"
"Nothing but houses and dusty lilacs, my coachman dozing on his box, and two women in pattens crossing the kennel."
"I see not those where I lie on the sofa. I see but the stars. And I feel for them as I did when I was a schoolboy at Eton. It is you who are blaze, not I. Enough of this. You do not forget my commission with respect to the exile who has married into your brother's family?"
"No; but here you set me a task more difficult than that of saddling your cornet on the War Office."
"I know it is difficult, for the counter influence is vigilant and strong; but, on the other hand, the enemy is so damnable a traitor that one must have the Fates and the household gods on one's side."
"Nevertheless," said the practical Audley, bending over a book on the table; "I think that the best plan would be to attempt a compromise with the traitor."
"To judge of others by myself," answered Harley, with spirit, "it were less bitter to put up with wrong than to palter with it for compensation. And such wrong! Compromise with the open foe—that maybe done with honour; but with the perjured friend—that were to forgive the perjury!"
"You are too vindictive," said Egerton; "there may be excuses for the friend, which palliate even—"
"Hush! Audley, hush! or I shall think the world has indeed corrupted you. Excuse for the friend who deceives, who betrays! No, such is the true outlaw of Humanity; and the Furies surround him even while he sleeps in the temple."
The man of the world lifted his eyes slowly on the animated face of one still natural enough for the passions. He then once more returned to his book, and said, after a pause, "It is time you should marry, Harley."
"No," answered L'Estrange, with a smile at this sudden turn in the conversation, "not time yet; for my chief objection to that change in life is, that the women nowadays are too old for me, or I am too young for them. A few, indeed, are so infantine that one is ashamed to be their toy; but most are so knowing that one is afraid to be their dupe. The first, if they condescend to love you, love you as the biggest doll they have yet dandled, and for a doll's good qualities,—your pretty blue eyes and your exquisite millinery. The last, if they prudently accept you, do so on algebraical principles; you are but the X or the Y that represents a certain aggregate of goods matrimonial,—pedigree, title, rent-roll, diamonds, pin-money, opera-box. They cast you up with the help of mamma, and you wake some morning to find that plus wife minus affection equals—the Devil!"
"Nonsense," said Audley, with his quiet, grave laugh. "I grant that it is often the misfortune of a man in your station to be married rather for what he has than for what he is; but you are tolerably penetrating, and not likely to be deceived in the character of the woman you court."
"Of the woman I court?—No! But of the woman I marry, very likely indeed! Woman is a changeable thing, as our Virgil informed us at school; but her change par excellence is from the fairy you woo to the brownie you wed. It is not that she has been a hypocrite,—it is that she is a transmigration. You marry a girl for her accomplishments. She paints charmingly, or plays like Saint Cecilia. Clap a ring on her finger, and she never draws again,—except perhaps your caricature on the back of a letter,—and never opens a piano after the honeymoon. You marry her for her sweet temper; and next year, her nerves are so shattered that you can't contradict her but you are whirled into a storm of hysterics. You marry her because she declares she hates balls and likes quiet; and ten to one but what she becomes a patroness at Almack's, or a lady-in-waiting."
"Yet most men marry, and most men survive the operation."
"If it were only necessary to live, that would be a consolatory and encouraging reflection. But to live with peace, to live with dignity, to live with freedom, to live in harmony with your thoughts, your habits, your aspirations—and this in the perpetual companionship of a person to whom you have given the power to wound your peace, to assail your dignity, to cripple your freedom, to jar on each thought and each habit, and bring you down to the meanest details of earth, when you invite her, poor soul, to soar to the spheres—that makes the To Be or Not To Be, which is the question."
"If I were you, Harley, I would do as I have heard the author of 'Sandford and Merton' did,—choose out a child and educate her yourself, after your own heart."
"You have hit it," answered Harley, seriously. "That has long been my idea,—a very vague one, I confess. But I fear I shall be an old man before I find even the child."
"Ah!" he continued, yet more earnestly, while the whole character of his varying countenance changed again,—"ah, if indeed I could discover what I seek,—one who, with the heart of a child, has the mind of a woman; one who beholds in nature the variety, the charm, the never feverish, ever healthful excitement that others vainly seek in the bastard sentimentalities of a life false with artificial forms; one who can comprehend, as by intuition, the rich poetry with which creation is clothed,—poetry so clear to the child when enraptured with the flower, or when wondering at the star! If on me such exquisite companionship were bestowed—why, then—" He paused, sighed deeply, and, covering his face with his hand, resumed, in faltering accents,—
"But once—but once only, did such vision of the Beautiful made Human rise before me,—rise amidst 'golden exhalations of the dawn.' It beggared my life in vanishing. You know only—you only—how—how—"
He bowed his head, and the tears forced themselves through his clenched fingers.
"So long ago!" said Audley, sharing his friend's emotion. "Years so long and so weary, yet still thus tenacious of a mere boyish memory!"
"Away with it, then!" cried Harley, springing to his feet, and with a laugh of strange merriment. "Your carriage still waits: set me home before you go to the House."
Then laying his hand lightly on his friend's shoulder, he said, "Is it for you, Audley Egerton, to speak sneeringly of boyish memories? What else is it that binds us together? What else warms my heart when I meet you? What else draws your thoughts from blue-books and beer-bills to waste them on a vagrant like me? Shake hands. Oh, friend of my boyhood! recollect the oars that we plied and the bats that we wielded in the old time, or the murmured talk on the moss-grown bank, as we sat together, building in the summer air castles mightier than Windsor. Ah, they are strong ties, those boyish memories believe me! I remember, as if it were yesterday, my translation of that lovely passage in Persius, beginning—let me see—ah!
"'Quum primum pavido custos mihi purpura cernet,'—
that passage on friendship which gushes out so livingly from the stern heart of the satirist. And when old—complimented me on my verses, my eye sought yours. Verily, I now say as then,—
"'Nescio quod, certe est quod me tibi temperet astrum.'"
["What was the star I know not, but certainly some star it was that attuned me unto thee."]
Audley turned away his head as he returned the grasp of his friend's hand; and while Harley, with his light elastic footstep, descended the stairs, Egerton lingered behind, and there was no trace of the worldly man upon his countenance when he took his place in the carriage by his companion's side.
Two hours afterwards, weary cries of "Question, question!" "Divide, divide!" sank into reluctant silence as Audley Egerton rose to conclude the debate,—the man of men to speak late at night, and to impatient benches: a man who would be heard; whom a Bedlam broke loose would not have roared down; with a voice clear and sound as a bell, and a form as firmly set on the ground as a church-tower. And while, on the dullest of dull questions, Audley Egerton thus, not too lively himself, enforced attention, where was Harley L'Estrange? Standing alone by the river at Richmond, and murmuring low fantastic thoughts as he gazed on the moonlit tide.
When Audley left him at home he had joined his parents, made them gay with his careless gayety, seen the old-fashioned folks retire to rest, and then—while they, perhaps, deemed him once more the hero of ball-rooms and the cynosure of clubs—he drove slowly through the soft summer night, amidst the perfumes of many a garden and many a gleaming chestnut grove, with no other aim before him than to reach the loveliest margin of England's loveliest river, at the hour when the moon was fullest and the song of the nightingale most sweet. And so eccentric a humourist was this man, that I believe, as he there loitered,—no one near to cry "How affected!" or "How romantic!"—he enjoyed himself more than if he had been exchanging the politest "how-d'ye-dos" in the hottest of London drawing-rooms, or betting his hundreds on the odd trick, with Lord de R——— for his partner.
Leonard had been about six weeks with his uncle, and those weeks were well spent. Mr. Richard had taken him to his counting-house, and initiated him into business and the mysteries of double entry; and in return for the young man's readiness and zeal in matters which the acute trader instinctively felt were not exactly to his tastes, Richard engaged the best master the town afforded to read with his nephew in the evening. This gentleman was the head usher of a large school, who had his hours to himself after eight o'clock, and was pleased to vary the dull routine of enforced lessons by instructions to a pupil who took delightedly even to the Latin grammar. Leonard made rapid strides, and learned more in those six weeks than many a cleverish boy does in twice as many months. These hours which Leonard devoted to study Richard usually spent from home,—sometimes at the houses of his grand acquaintances in the Abbey Gardens, sometimes in the Reading-Room appropriated to those aristocrats. If he stayed at home, it was in company with his head clerk, and for the purpose of checking his account-books, or looking over the names of doubtful electors.
Leonard had naturally wished to communicate his altered prospects to his old friends, that they, in turn, might rejoice his mother with such good tidings. But he had not been two days in the house before Richard had strictly forbidden all such correspondence.
"Look you," said he, "at present we are on an experiment,—we must see if we like each other. Suppose we don't, you will only have raised expectations in your mother which must end in bitter disappointment; and suppose we do, it will be time enough to write when something definite is settled."
"But my mother will be so anxious—"
"Make your mind easy on that score. I will write regularly to Mr. Dale, and he can tell her that you are well and thriving. No more words, my man,—when I say a thing, I say it." Then, observing that Leonard looked blank and dissatisfied, Richard added, with a good-humoured smile, "I have my reasons for all this—you shall know them later. And I tell you what: if you do as I bid you, it is my intention to settle something handsome on your mother; but if you don't, devil a penny she'll get from me."
With that Richard turned on his heel, and in a few moments his voice was heard loud in objurgation with some of his people.
About the fourth week of Leonard's residence at Mr. Avenel's, his host began to evince a certain change of manner. He was no longer quite so cordial with Leonard, nor did he take the same interest in his progress. About the same period he was frequently caught by the London butler before the looking-glass. He had always been a smart man in his dress, but he was now more particular. He would spoil three white cravats when he went out of an evening, before he could satisfy himself as to the tie. He also bought a 'Peerage,' and it became his favourite study at odd quarters of an hour. All these symptoms proceeded from a cause, and that cause was—woman.
The first people at Screwstown were indisputably the Pompleys. Colonel Pompley was grand, but Mrs. Pompley was grander. The colonel was stately in right of his military rank and his services in India; Mrs. Pompley was majestic in right of her connections. Indeed, Colonel Pompley himself would have been crushed under the weight of the dignities which his lady heaped upon him, if he had not been enabled to prop his position with a "connection" of his own. He would never have held his own, nor been permitted to have an independent opinion on matters aristocratic, but for the well-sounding name of his relations, "the Digbies." Perhaps on the principle that obscurity increases the natural size of objects and is an element of the sublime, the colonel did not too accurately define his relations "the Digbies:" he let it be casually understood that they were the Digbies to be found in Debrett. But if some indiscreet Vulgarian (a favourite word with both the Pompleys) asked point-blank if he meant "my Lord Digby," the colonel, with a lofty air, answered, "The elder branch, sir." No one at Screwstown had ever seen these Digbies: they lay amidst the Far, the Recondite,—even to the wife of Colonel Pompley's bosom. Now and then, when the colonel referred to the lapse of years, and the uncertainty of human affections, he would say, "When young Digby and I were boys together," and then add with a sigh, "but we shall never meet again in this world. His family interests secured him a valuable appointment in a distant part of the British dominions." Mrs. Pompley was always rather cowed by the Digbies. She could not be sceptical as to this connection, for the colonel's mother was certainly a Digby, and the colonel impaled the Digby arms. En revanche, as the French say, for these marital connections, Mrs. Pompley had her own favourite affinity, which she specially selected from all others when she most desired to produce effect; nay, even upon ordinary occasions the name rose spontaneously to her lips,—the name of the Honourable Mrs. M'Catchley. Was the fashion of a gown or cap admired, her cousin, Mrs. M'Catchley, had just sent to her the pattern from Paris. Was it a question whether the Ministry would stand, Mrs. M'Catchley was in the secret, but Mrs. Pompley had been requested not to say. Did it freeze, "My cousin, Mrs. M'Catchley, had written word that the icebergs at the Pole were supposed to be coming this way." Did the sun glow with more than usual fervour, Mrs. M'Catchley had informed her "that it was Sir Henry Halford's decided opinion that it was on account of the cholera." The good people knew all that was doing at London, at court, in this world—nay, almost in the other—through the medium of the Honourable Mrs. M'Catchley. Mrs. M'Catchley was, moreover, the most elegant of women, the wittiest creature, the dearest. King George the Fourth had presumed to admire Mrs. M'Catehley; but Mrs. M'Catchley, though no prude, let him see that she was proof against the corruptions of a throne. So long had the ears of Mrs. Pompley's friends been filled with the renown of Mrs. M'Catchley, that at last Mrs. M'Catchley was secretly supposed to be a myth, a creature of the elements, a poetic fiction of Mrs. Pompley's. Richard Avenel, however, though by no means a credulous man, was an implicit believer in Mrs. M'Catchley. He had learned that she was a widow, and honourable by birth, and honourable by marriage, living on her handsome jointure, and refusing offers every day that she so lived. Somehow or other, whenever Richard Avenel thought of a wife, he thought of the Honourable Mrs. M'Catchley. Perhaps that romantic attachment to the fair invisible preserved him heart-whole amongst the temptations of Screwstown. Suddenly, to the astonishment of the Abbey Gardens, Mrs. M'Catchley proved her identity, and arrived at Colonel Pompley's in a handsome travelling-carriage, attended by her maid and footman. She had come to stay some weeks; a tea-party was given in her honour. Mr. Avenel and his nephew were invited. Colonel Pompley, who kept his head clear in the midst of the greatest excitement, had a desire to get from the Corporation a lease of a piece of ground adjoining his garden, and he no sooner saw Richard Avenel enter than he caught him by the button, and drew him into a quiet corner, in order to secure his interest. Leonard, meanwhile, was borne on by the stream, till his progress was arrested by a sofa-table at which sat Mrs. M'Catchley herself, with Mrs. Pompley by her side. For on this great occasion the hostess had abandoned her proper post at the entrance, and, whether to show her respect to Mrs. M'Catchley, or to show Mrs. M'Catchley her well-bred contempt for the people of Screwstown, remained in state by her friend, honouring only the elite of the town with introductions to the illustrious visitor.
Mrs. M'Catchley was a very fine woman,—a woman who justified Mrs. Pompley's pride in her. Her cheek-bones were rather high, it is true but that proved the purity of her Caledonian descent; for the rest, she had a brilliant complexion, heightened by a soupcon of rouge, good eyes and teeth, a showy figure, and all the ladies of Screwstown pronounced her dress to be perfect. She might have arrived at that age at which one intends to stop for the next ten years, but even a Frenchman would not have called her passee,—that is, for a widow. For a spinster it would have been different.
Looking round her with a glass, which Mrs. Pompley was in the habit of declaring that "Mrs. M'Catchley used like an angel," this lady suddenly perceived Leonard Fairfield; and his quiet, simple, thoughtful air and look so contrasted with the stiff beaux to whom she had been presented, that, experienced in fashion as so fine a personage must be supposed to be, she was nevertheless deceived into whispering to Mrs. Pompley,
"That young man has really an air distingue; who is he?"
"Oh," said Mrs. Pompley, in unaffected surprise, "that is the nephew of the rich Vulgarian I was telling you of this morning."
"Ah! and you say that he is Mr. Arundel's heir?"
"Avenel—not Arundel—my sweet friend."
"Avenel is not a bad name," said Mrs. M'Catchley. "But is the uncle really so rich?"
"The colonel was trying this very day to guess what he is worth; but he says it is impossible to guess it."
"And the young man is his heir?"
"It is thought so; and reading for College, I hear. They say he is clever."
"Present him, my love; I like clever people," said Mrs. M'Catchley, falling back languidly.
About ten minutes afterwards, Richard Avenel having effected his escape from the colonel, and his gaze being attracted towards the sofa-table by the buzz of the admiring crowd, beheld his nephew in animated conversation with the long cherished idol of his dreams. A fierce pang of jealousy shot through his breast. His nephew had never looked so handsome and so intelligent; in fact, poor Leonard had never before been drawn out by a woman of the world, who had learned how to make the most of what little she knew. And as jealousy operates like a pair of bellows on incipient flames, so, at first sight of the smile which the fair widow bestowed upon Leonard, the heart of Mr. Avenel felt in a blaze.
He approached with a step less assured than usual, and, overhearing Leonard's talk, marvelled much at the boy's audacity. Mrs. M'Catchley had been speaking of Scotland and the Waverley Novels, about which Leonard knew nothing. But he knew Burns, and on Burns he grew artlessly eloquent. Burns the poet and peasant—Leonard might well be eloquent on him. Mrs. M'Catchley was amused and pleased with his freshness and naivete, so unlike anything she had ever heard or seen, and she drew him on and on till Leonard fell to quoting. And Richard heard, with less respect for the sentiment than might be supposed, that
"Rank is but the guinea's stamp, The man's the gowd for a' that."
"Well!" exclaimed Mr. Avenel. "Pretty piece of politeness to tell that to a lady like the Honourable Mrs. M'Catch ley! You'll excuse him, ma'am."
"Sir!" said Mrs. M'Catchley, startled, and lifting her glass. Leonard, rather confused, rose and offered his chair to Richard, who dropped into it. The lady, without waiting for formal introduction, guessed that she saw the rich uncle. "Such a sweet poet-Burns!" said she, dropping her glass. "And it is so refreshing to find so much youthful enthusiasm," she added, pointing her fan towards Leonard, who was receding fast among the crowd.
"Well, he is youthful, my nephew,—rather green!"
"Don't say green!" said Mrs. M'Catchley. Richard blushed scarlet. He was afraid he had committed himself to some expression low and shocking. The lady resumed, "Say unsophisticated."
"A tarnation long word," thought Richard; but he prudently bowed and held his tongue.
"Young men nowadays," continued Mrs. M'Catchley, resettling herself on the sofa, "affect to be so old. They don't dance, and they don't read, and they don't talk much! and a great many of them wear toupets before they are two-and-twenty!"
Richard mechanically passed his hand through his thick curls. But he was still mute; he was still ruefully chewing the cud of the epithet "green." What occult horrid meaning did the word convey to ears polite? Why should he not say "green"?
"A very fine young man your nephew, sir," resumed Mrs. M' Catchley.
"And seems full of talent. Not yet at the University? Will he go to Oxford or Cambridge?"
"I have not made up my mind yet if I shall send him to the University at all."
"A young man of his expectations!" exclaimed Mrs. M'Catchley, artfully.
"Expectations!" repeated Richard, firing up. "Has he been talking to you of his expectations?"
"No, indeed, sir. But the nephew of the rich Mr. Avenel! Ah, one hears a great deal, you know, of rich people; it is the penalty of wealth, Mr. Avenel!"
Richard was very much flattered. His crest rose.
"And they say," continued Mrs. M'Catchley, dropping out her words very slowly, as she adjusted her blonde scarf, "that Mr. Avenel has resolved not to marry."
"The devil they do, ma'am!" bolted out Richard, gruffly; and then, ashamed of his lapsus linguae, screwed up his lips firmly, and glared on the company with an eye of indignant fire.
Mrs. M'Catchley observed him over her fan. Richard turned abruptly, and she withdrew her eyes modestly, and raised the fan.
"She's a real beauty," said Richard, between his teeth. The fan fluttered.
Five minutes afterwards, the widow and the bachelor seemed so much at their ease that Mrs. Pompley, who had been forced to leave her friend, in order to receive the dean's lady, could scarcely believe her eyes when she returned to the sofa.
Now, it was from that evening that Mr. Richard Avenel exhibited the change of mood which I have described; and from that evening he abstained from taking Leonard with him to any of the parties in the Abbey Gardens.
Some days after this memorable soiree, Colonel Pompley sat alone in his study (which opened pleasantly on an old-fashioned garden), absorbed in the house bills. For Colonel Pompley did not leave that domestic care to his lady,—perhaps she was too grand for it. Colonel Pompley with his own sonorous voice ordered the joints, and with his own heroic hands dispensed the stores. In justice to the colonel, I must add—at whatever risk of offence to the fair sex—that there was not a house at Screwstown so well managed as the Pompleys'; none which so successfully achieved the difficult art of uniting economy with show. I should despair of conveying to you an idea of the extent to which Colonel Pompley made his income go. It was but seven hundred a year; and many a family contrived to do less upon three thousand. To be sure, the Pompleys had no children to sponge upon them. What they had they spent all on themselves. Neither, if the Pompleys never exceeded their income, did they pretend to live much within it. The two ends of the year met at Christmas,—just met, and no more.
Colonel Pompley sat at his desk. He was in his well-brushed blue coat, buttoned across his breast, his gray trousers fitted tight to his limbs, and fastened under his boots with a link chain. He saved a great deal of money in straps. No one ever saw Colonel Pompley in dressing-gown and slippers. He and his house were alike in order—always fit to be seen
"From morn to noon, from noon to dewy eve."
The colonel was a short compact man, inclined to be stout,—with a very red face, that seemed not only shaved, but rasped. He wore his hair cropped close, except just in front, where it formed what the hairdresser called a feather, but it seemed a feather of iron, so stiff and so strong was it. Firmness and precision were emphatically marked on the colonel's countenance. There was a resolute strain on his features, as if he was always employed in making the two ends meet!
So he sat before his house-book, with his steel-pen in his hand, and making crosses here and notes of interrogation there.
"Mrs. M'Catchley's maid," said the colonel to himself, "must be put upon rations. The tea that she drinks! Good heavens!—tea again!"
There was a modest ring at the outer door. "Too early for a visitor!" thought the colonel. "Perhaps it is the water-rates."
The neat man-servant—never seen beyond the offices, save in grande tenue, plushed and powdered-entered and bowed. "A gentleman, sir, wishes to see you."
"A gentleman," repeated the colonel, glancing towards the clock. "Are you sure it is a gentleman?"
The man hesitated. "Why, sir, I ben't exactly sure; but he speaks like a gentleman. He do say he comes from London to see you, sir."
A long and interesting correspondence was then being held between the colonel and one of his wife's trustees touching the investment of Mrs. Pompley's fortune. It might be the trustee,—nay, it must be. The trustee had talked of running down to see him.
"Let him come in," said the colonel, "and when I ring—sandwiches and sherry."
The colonel put aside his house-book, and wiped his pen. In another minute the door opened and the servant announced—
The colonel's face fell, and he staggered back.
The door closed, and Mr. Digby stood in the middle of the room, leaning on the great writing-table for support. The poor soldier looked sicklier and shabbier, and nearer the end of all things in life and fortune, than when Lord L'Estrange had thrust the pocket-book into his hands. But still the servant showed knowledge of the world in calling him gentleman; there was no other word to apply to him.
"Sir," began Colonel Pompley, recovering himself, and with great solemnity, "I did not expect this pleasure."
The poor visitor stared round him dizzily, and sank into a chair, breathing hard. The colonel looked as a man only looks upon a poor relation, and buttoned up first one trouser pocket and then the other.
"I thought you were in Canada," said the colonel, at last. Mr. Digby had now got breath to speak, and he said meekly, "The climate would have killed my child, and it is two years since I returned."
"You ought to have found a very good place in England to make it worth your while to leave Canada."
"She could not have lived through another winter in Canada,—the doctor said so."
"Pooh," quoth the colonel.
Mr. Digby drew a long breath. "I would not come to you, Colonel Pompley, while you could think that I came as a beggar for myself."
The colonel's brow relaxed. "A very honourable sentiment, Mr. Digby."
"No: I have gone through a great deal; but you see, Colonel," added the poor relation, with a faint smile, "the campaign is well-nigh over, and peace is at hand."
The colonel seemed touched.
"Don't talk so, Digby,—I don't like it. You are younger than I am—nothing more disagreeable than these gloomy views of things. You have got enough to live upon, you say,—at least so I understand you. I am very glad to hear it; and, indeed, I could not assist you—so many claims on me. So it is all very well, Digby."
"Oh, Colonel Pompley," cried the soldier, clasping his hands, and with feverish energy, "I am a suppliant, not for myself, but my child! I have but one,—only one, a girl. She has been so good to me! She will cost you little. Take her when I die; promise her a shelter, a home. I ask no more. You are my nearest relative. I have no other to look to. You have no children of your own. She will be a blessing to you, as she has been all upon earth to me!"
If Colonel Pompley's face was red in ordinary hours, no epithet sufficiently rubicund or sanguineous can express its colour at this appeal. "The man's mad," he said, at last, with a tone of astonishment that almost concealed his wrath,—"stark mad! I take his child!—lodge and board a great, positive, hungry child! Why, sir, many and many a time have I said to Mrs. Pompley, ''T is a mercy we have no children. We could never live in this style if we had children,—never make both ends meet.' Child—the most expensive, ravenous, ruinous thing in the world—a child."