THE MORE EXCELLENT WAY.
At the very top of the winding footpath cut deeply into the sandstone side of the East Cliff Hill at Hastings, a wooden seat, set a little back from the road, invites the panting climber to rest for five minutes after his steep ascent from the primitive fisher village of Old Hastings, which nestles warmly in the narrow sun-smitten gulley at his feet. On this seat, one bright July morning, Herbert Le Breton lay at half length, basking in the brilliant open sunshine and evidently waiting for somebody whom he expected to arrive by the side path from the All Saints' Valley. Even the old coastguardsman, plodding his daily round over to Ecclesbourne, noticed the obvious expectation implied in his attentive attitude, and ventured to remark, in his cheery familiar fashion, 'She won't be long a-comin' now, sir, you may depend upon it: the gals is sure to be out early of a fine mornin' like this 'ere.' Herbert stuck his double eye-glass gingerly upon the tip of his nose, and surveyed the bluff old sailor through it with a stony British stare of mingled surprise and indignation, which drove the poor man hastily off, with a few muttered observations about some people being so confounded stuck up that they didn't even understand the point of a little good-natured seafarin' banter.
As the coastguardsman disappeared round the corner of the flagstaff, a young girl came suddenly into sight by the jutting edge of sandstone bluff near the High Wickham; and Herbert, jumping up at once from his reclining posture, raised his bat to her with stately politeness, and moved forward in his courtly graceful manner to meet her as she approached. 'Well, Selah,' he said, taking her hand a little warmly (judged at least by Herbert Le Breton's usual standard), 'so you've come at last! I've been waiting here for you for fully half an hour. You see, I've come down to Hastings again as I promised, the very first moment I could possibly get away from my pressing duties at Oxford.'
The girl withdrew her hand from his, blushing deeply, but looking into his face with evident pleasure and admiration. She was tall and handsome, with a certain dashing air of queenliness about her, too; and she was dressed in a brave, outspoken sort of finery, which, though cheap enough in its way, was neither common nor wholly wanting in a touch of native good taste and even bold refinement of contrast and harmony. 'It's very kind of you to come, Mr. Walters,' she answered in a firm but delicate voice. 'I'm so sorry I've kept you waiting. I got your letter, and tried to come in time; but father he's been more aggravating than usual, almost, this morning, and kept saying he'd like to know what on earth a young woman could want to go out walking for, instead of stopping at home at her work and minding her Bible like a proper Christian. In HIS time young women usen't to be allowed to go walking except on Sundays, and then only to chapel or Bible class. So I've not been able to get away till this very minute, with all this bundle of tracts, too, to give to the excursionists on the way. Father feels a most incomprehensible interest, somehow, in the future happiness of the Sunday excursionists.'
'I wish he'd feel a little more interest in the present happiness of his own daughter,' Herbert said smiling. 'But it hasn't mattered your keeping me waiting here, Selah. Of course I'd have enjoyed it all far better in your society—I don't think I need tell you that now, dear—but the sunshine, and the sea breeze, and the song of the larks, and the plash of the waves below, and the shouts of the fishermen down there on the beach mending their nets and putting out their smacks, have all been so delightful after our humdrum round of daily life at Oxford, that I only wanted your presence here to make it all into a perfect paradise.—Why, Selah, how pretty you look in that sweet print! It suits your complexion admirably. I never saw you wear anything before so perfectly becoming.'
Selah drew herself up with the conscious pride of an unaffected pretty girl. 'I'm so glad you think so, Mr. Walters,' she said, playing nervously with the handle of her dark-blue parasol. 'You always say such very flattering things.'
'No, not flattering,' Herbert answered, smiling; 'not flattering, Selah, simply truthful. You always extort the truth from me with your sweet face, Selah. Nobody can look at it and not forget the stupid conventions of ordinary society. But please, dear, don't call me Mr. Walters. Call me Herbert. You always do, you know, when you write to me.'
'But it's so much harder to do it to your face, Mr. Walters,' Selah said, again blushing. 'Every time you go away I say to myself, "I shall call him Herbert as soon as ever he comes back again;" and every time you come back, I feel too much afraid of you, the moment I see you, ever to do it. And yet of course I ought to, you know, for when we're married, why, naturally, then I shall have to learn to call you Herbert, shan't I?'
'You will, I suppose,' Herbert answered, rather chillily: 'but that subject is one upon which we shall be able to form a better opinion when the time comes for actually deciding it. Meanwhile, I want you to call me Herbert, if you please, as a personal favour and a mark of confidence. Suppose I were to go on calling you Miss Briggs all the time! a pretty sort of thing that would be! what inference would you draw as to the depth of my affection? Well, now, Selah, how have these dreadful home authorities of yours been treating you, my dear girl, all the time since I last saw you?'
'Much the same as usual, Mr. Walters—Herbert, I mean,' Selah answered, hastily correcting herself. 'The regular round. Prayers; clean the shop; breakfast, with a chapter; serve in the shop all morning; dinner, with a chapter; serve in the shop all afternoon; tea, with a chapter; prayer meeting in the evening; supper, with a chapter; exhortation; and go to bed, sick of it all, to get up next morning and repeat the entire performance da capo, as they always say in the music to the hymn-books. Occasional relaxations,—Sunday at chapel three times, and Wednesday evening Bible class; mothers' assembly, Dorcas society, missionary meeting, lecture on the Holy Land, dissolving views of Jerusalem, and Primitive Methodist district conference in the Mahanaim Jubilee meeting hall. Salvation privileges every day and all the year round, till I'm ready to drop with it, and begin to wish I'd only been lucky enough to have been born one of those happy benighted little pagans in a heathen land where they don't know the value of the precious Sabbath, and haven't yet been taught to build Primitive Methodist district chapels for crushing the lives out of their sons and daughters!'
Herbert smiled a gentle smile of calm superiority at this vehement outburst of natural irreligion. 'You must certainly be bored to death with it all, Selah,' he said, laughingly. 'What a funny sort of creed it really is, after all, for rational beings! Who on earth could believe that the religion these people use to render your life so absolutely miserable is meant for the same thing as the one that makes my poor dear brother Ronald so perfectly and inexpressibly serene and happy? The formalism of lower natures, like your father's, has turned it into a machine for crushing all the spontaneity out of your existence. What a regime for a high-spirited girl like you to be compelled to live under, Selah!'
'It is, it is!' Selah answered, vehemently. 'I wish you could only see the way father goes on at me all the time about chapel, and so on, Mr. Wal—Herbert, I mean. You wouldn't wonder, if you were to hear him, at my being anxious for the time to come when you can leave Oxford and we can get comfortably married. What between the drudgery of the shop and the drudgery of the chapel my life's positively getting almost worn out of me.'
Herbert took her hand in his, quietly. It was not a very small hand, but it was prettily, though cheaply, gloved, and the plain silver bracelet that encircled the wrist, though simple and inexpensive, was not wanting in rough tastefulness. 'You're a bad philosopher, Selah,' he said, turning with her along the path towards Ecclesbourne; 'you're always anxious to hurry on too fast the lagging wheels of an unknown future. After all, how do you know whether we should be any the happier if we were really and truly married? Don't you know what Swinburne says, in "Dolores"—you've read it in the Poems and Ballads I gave you—
Time turns the old days to derision, Our loves into corpses or wives, And marriage and death and division Make barren our lives?'
'I've read it,' Selah answered, carelessly, 'and I thought it all very pretty. Of course Swinburne always is very pretty: but I'm sure I never try to discover what on earth he means by it. I suppose father would say I don't read him tearfully and prayerfully—at any rate, I'm quite sure I never understand what he's driving at.'
'And yet he's worth understanding,' Herbert answered in his clear musical voice—'well worth understanding, Selah, especially for you, dearest. If, in imitation of obsolete fashions, you wished to read a few verses of some improving volume every night and morning, as a sort of becoming religious exercise in the elements of self-culture, I don't know that I could recommend you a better book to begin upon than the Poems and Ballads. Don't you see the moral of those four lines I've just quoted to you? Why should we wish to change from anything so free and delightful and poetical as lovers into anything so fettered, and commonplace, and prosaic, and BANAL, as wives and husbands? Why should we wish to give up the fanciful paradise of fluttering hope and expectation for the dreary reality of housekeeping and cold mutton on Mondays? Why should we not be satisfied with the real pleasure of the passing moment, without for ever torturing our souls about the imaginary but delusive pleasure of the unrealisable, impossible future?'
'But we MUST get married some time or other, Herbert,' Selah said, turning her big eyes full upon him with a doubtful look of interrogation. 'We can't go on courting in this way for ever and ever, without coming to any definite conclusion. We MUST get married by-and-by, now mustn't we?'
'Je n'en vois pas la necessite, moi,' Herbert answered with just a trace of cynicism in his curling lip. 'I don't see any MUST about it, that is to say, in English, Selah. The fact is, you see, I'm above all things a philosopher; you're a philosopher, too, but only an instinctive one, and I want to make your instinctive philosophy assume a rather more rational and extrinsic shape. Why should we really be in any hurry to go and get married? Do the actual married people of our acquaintance, as a matter of fact, seem so very much more ethereally happy—with their eight children to be washed and dressed and schooled daily, for example—than the lovers, like you and me, who walk arm-in-arm out here in the sunshine, and haven't yet got over their delicious first illusions? Depend upon it, the longer you can keep your illusions the better. You haven't read Aristotle in all probability; but as Aristotle would put it, it isn't the end that is anything in love-making, it's the energy, the active pursuit, the momentary enjoyment of it. I suppose we shall have to get married some day, Selah, though I don't know when; but I confess to you I don't look forward to the day quite so rapturously as you do. Shall we feel more the thrill of possession, do you think, than I feel it now when I hold your hand in mine, so, and catch the beating of your pulse in your veins, even through the fingers of your pretty little glove? Shall we look deeper into one another's eyes and hearts than I look now into the very inmost depths of yours? Shall we drink in more fully the essence of love than when I touch your lips here—one moment, Selah, the gorse is very deep here—now don't be foolish—ah, there, what's the use of philosophising, tell me, by the side of that? Come over here to the bench, Selah, by the edge of the cliff; look down yonder into Ecclesbourne glen; hear the waves dashing on the shore below, and your own heart beating against your bosom within—and then ask yourself what's the good of living in any moment, in any moment but the present.'
Selah turned her great eyes admiringly upon him once more. 'Oh, Herbert,' she said, looking at him with a clever uneducated girl's unfeigned and undisguised admiration for any cultivated gentleman who takes the trouble to draw out her higher self. 'Oh, Herbert, how can you talk so beautifully to me, and then ask me why it is I'm longing for the day to come when I can be really and truly married to you? Do you think I don't feel the difference between spending my life with such a man as you, and spending it for years and years together with a ranting, canting Primitive Methodist?'
Herbert smiled to himself a quiet, unobtrusive, self-satisfied smile. 'She appreciates me,' he thought silently in his own heart, 'she appreciates me at my true worth; and, after all, that's a great thing. Well, Selah,' he went on aloud, toying unreproved with her pretty little silver bracelet, 'let us be practical. You belong to a business family and you know the necessity for being practical. There's a great deal to be said in favour of my hanging on at Oxford a little longer. I must get a situation somewhere else as soon as possible, in which I can get married; but I can't give up my fellowship without having found something else to do which would enable me to put my wife in the position I should like her to occupy.'
'A very small income would do for me, with you, Herbert,' Selah put in eagerly. 'You see, I've been brought up economically enough, heaven knows, and I could live extremely well on very little.'
'But I could not, Selah,' Herbert answered, in his colder tone. 'Pardon me, but I could not. I've been accustomed to a certain amount of comfort, not to say luxury, which I couldn't readily do without. And then, you know, dear,' he added, seeing a certain cloud gathering dimly on Selah's forehead, 'I want to make my wife a real lady.'
Selah looked at him tenderly, and gave the hand she hold in hers a faint pressure. And then Herbert began to talk about the waves, and the cliffs, and the sun, and the great red sails, and to quote Shelley and Swinburne; and the conversation glided off into more ordinary everyday topics.
They sat for a couple of hours together on the edge of the cliff, talking to one another about such and other subjects, till, at last, Selah asked the time, hurriedly, and declared she must go off at once, or father'd be in a tearing passion. Herbert walked back with her through the green lanes in the golden mass of gorse, till he reached the brow of the hill by the fisher village. Then Selah said lightly, 'Not any nearer, Herbert—you see I can say Herbert quite naturally now—the neighbours will go talking about it if they see me standing here with a strange gentleman. Good-bye, good-bye, till Friday.' Herbert held her face up to his in his hands, and kissed her twice over in spite of a faint resistance. Then they each went their own way, Selah to the little green-grocer's shop in a back street of the red-brick fisher village, and Herbert to his big fashionable hotel on the Marine Parade in the noisy stuccoed modern watering place.
'It's an awkward sort of muddle to have got oneself into.' he thought to himself as he walked along the asphalte pavement in front of the sea-wall: 'a most confoundedly awkward fix to have got oneself into with a pretty girl of the lower classes. She's beautiful certainly; that there's no denying; the handsomest woman on the whole I ever remember to have seen at any time anywhere; and when I'm actually by her side—though it's a weakness to confess it—I'm really not quite sure that I'm not positively quite in love with her! She'd make a grand sort of Messalina, without a doubt, a model for a painter, with her frank imperious face, and her splendid voluptuous figure; a Faustina, a Catherine of Russia, an Ann Boleyn—to be fitly painted only by a Rubens or a Gustave Courbet. Yet how I can ever have been such a particular fool as to go and get myself entangled with her I can't imagine. Heredity, heredity; it must run in the family, for certain. There's Ernest has gone and handed himself over bodily to this grocer person somewhere down in Devonshire; and I myself, who perfectly see the folly of his absurd proceeding, have independently put myself into this very similar awkward fix with Selah Briggs here. Selah Briggs, indeed! The very name reeks with commingled dissent, vulgarity, and greengrocery. Her father's deacon of his chapel, and goes out at night when there's no missionary meeting on, to wait at serious dinner parties! Or rather, I suppose he'd desert the most enticing missionary to earn a casual half-crown at even an ungodly champagne-drinking dinner! Then that's the difference between me and Ernest. Ernest's selfish, incurably and radically selfish. Because this Oswald girl happens to take his passing fancy, and to fit in with his impossible Schurzian notions, he'll actually go and marry her. Not only will he have no consideration for mother—who really is a very decent sort of body in her own fashion, if you don't rub her up the wrong way or expect too much from her—but he'll also interfere, without a thought, with MY prospects and my advancement. Now, THAT I call really selfish; and selfishness is a vulgar piggish vice that I thoroughly abominate. I don't deny that I'm a trifle selfish myself, of course, in a refined and cultivated manner—I flatter myself, in fact, that introspective analysis is one of my strong points; and I don't conceal my own failings from my own consciousness with any weak girlish prevarications. But after all, as Hobbes very well showed (though our shallow modern philosophers pretend to laugh at him), selfishness in one form or another is at the very base of all human motives; the difference really is between sympathetic and unsympathetic selfishness—between piggishness and cultivated feelings. Now I will NOT give way to the foolish and selfish impulses which would lead me to marry Selah Briggs. I will put a curb upon my inclinations, and do what is really best in the end for all the persons concerned—and for myself especially.'
He strolled down on to the beach, and began throwing pebbles carelessly into the plashing water. 'Yes,' he went on in his internal colloquy, 'I can only account for my incredible stupidity in this matter by supposing that it depends somehow upon some incomprehensible hereditary leaning in the Le Breton family idiosyncrasy. It's awfully unlike me, I will do myself the justice to say, to have got myself into such a silly dilemma all for nothing. It was all very well a few years ago, when I first met Selah. I was an undergraduate in those days, and even if somebody had caught me walking with a young lady of unknown antecedents and doubtful aspirates on the East Cliff at Hastings, it really wouldn't have much mattered. She was beautiful even then—though not so beautiful as now, for she grows handsomer every day; and it was natural enough I should have taken to going harmless walks about the place with her. She attracted me by her social rebelliousness—another family trait, in me passive not active, contemplative not personal; but she certainly attracted me. She attracts me still. A man must have some outlet for the natural and instinctive emotions of our common humanity; and if a monastic Oxford community imposes celibacy upon one with mediaeval absurdity—why, Selah Briggs is, for the time being, the only possible sort of outlet. One needn't marry her in the end; but for the moment it is certainly very excellent fooling. Not unsentimental either—for my part I could never care for mere coarse, commonplace, venal wretches. Indeed, when I spoke to her just now about my wishing to make my wife a lady, upon my word, at the time, I almost think I was just then quite in earnest. The idea flitted across my mind vaguely—"Why not send her for a year or two to be polished up at Paris or somewhere, and really marry her afterwards for good and always?" But on second thoughts, it won't hold water. She's magnificent, she's undeniable, she's admirable, but she isn't possible. The name alone's enough to condemn her. Fancy marrying somebody with a Christian name out of the hundred and somethingth psalm! It's too atrocious! I really couldn't inflict her for a moment on poor suffering innocent society.'
He paused awhile, watching the great russet sails of the fishing vessels flapping idly in the breeze as the men raised them to catch the faint breath of wind, and then he thought once more, 'But how to get rid of her, that's the question. Every time I come here now she goes on more and more about the necessity of our getting soon married—and I don't wonder at it either, for she has a perfect purgatory of a life with that snivelling Methodistical father of hers, one may be sure of it. It would be awfully awkward if any Oxford people were to catch me here walking with her on the cliff over yonder—some sniggering fellow of Jesus or Worcester, for example, or, worse than all, some prying young Pecksniff of a third-year undergraduate! Somehow, she seems to fascinate me, and I can't get away from her; but I must really do it and be done with it. It's no use going on this way much longer. I must stop here for a few days more only, and then tell her that I'm called away on important college business, say to Yorkshire or Worcestershire, or somewhere. I needn't tell her in person, face to face: I can write hastily at the last moment to the usual name at the Post Office—to be left till called for. And as a matter of fact I won't go to Yorkshire either—very awkward and undignified, though, these petty prevarications; when a man once begins lowering himself by making love to a girl in an inferior position, he lets himself in for all kinds of disagreeable necessities afterwards;—I shall go to Switzerland. Yes, no place better after the bother of running away like a coward from Selah: in the Alps, one would forget all petty human degradations; I shall go to Switzerland. Of course I won't break off with her altogether—that would be cruel; and I really like her; upon my word, even when she isn't by, up to her own level, I really like her; but I'll let the thing die a natural death of inanition. As they always put it in the newspapers, with their stereotyped phraseology, a gradual coldness shall intervene between us. That'll be the best and only way out of it.
'And if I go to Switzerland, why not ask Oswald of Oriel to go with me? That, I fancy, wouldn't be a bad stroke of social policy. Ernest WILL marry this Oswald girl; unfortunately he's as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile; and as he's going to drag her inevitably into the family, I may as well put the best possible face upon the disagreeable matter. Let's make a virtue of necessity. The father and mother are old: they'll die soon, and be gathered to their fathers (if they had any), and the world will straightway forget all about them. But Oswald will always be there en evidence, and the safest thing to do will be to take him as much as possible into the world, and let the sister rest upon HIS reputation for her place in society. It's quite one thing to say that Ernest has married the daughter of a country grocer down in Devonshire, and quite another thing to say that he has married the sister of Oswald of Oriel, the distinguished mathematician and fellow of the Royal Society. How beautifully that warm brown sail stands out in a curve against the cold grey line of the horizon—a bulging curve just like the swell of Selah's neck, when she throws her head back, so, and lets you see the contour of her throat, her beautiful rounded throat—ah, that's not giving her up now, is it?—What a confounded fool I am, to be sure! Anybody would say, if they could only have read my thoughts that moment, that I was really in love with this girl Selah!'
YE MOUNTAINS OF GILBOA!
The old Englischer Hof at Pontresina looked decidedly sleepy and misty at five o'clock on an August morning, when two sturdy British holiday-seekers, in knickerbockers and regular Alpine climbing rig, sat drinking their parting cup of coffee in the salle-a-manger, before starting to make the ascent of the Piz Margatsch, one of the tallest and by far the most difficult among the peaks of the Bernina range. There are few prettier villages in the Engadine than Pontresina, and few better hotels in all Switzerland than the old ivy-covered Englischer Hof. Yet on this particular morning, and at that particular hour, it certainly did look just a trifle cold and cheerless. 'He never makes very warm in the Engadine,' Carlo the waiter observed with a shudder, in his best English, to one of the two early risers: 'and he makes colder on an August morning here than he makes at Nice in full December.' For poor Carlo was one of those cosmopolitan waiters who follow the cosmopolitan tourist clientele round all the spas, health resorts, kurs and winter quarters of fashionable Europe. In January he and his brother, as Charles and Henri, handed round absinthes and cigarettes at the Cercle Nautique at Nice; in April, as Carlo and Enrico, they turned up again with water ices and wafer cakes in the Caffe Manzoni at Milan; and in August, the observant traveller might recognise them once more under the disguise of Karl and Heinrich, laying the table d'hote in the long and narrow old-fashioned dining-room of the Englischer Hof at Pontresina. Though their native tongue was the patois of the Canton Ticino, they spoke all the civilised languages of the world, 'and also German,' with perfect fluency, and without the slightest attempt at either grammar or idiomatic accuracy. And they both profoundly believed in their hearts that the rank, wealth, youth, beauty and fashion of all other nations were wisely ordained by the inscrutable designs of Providence for a single purpose, to enrich and reward the active, intelligent, and industrious natives of the Canton Ticino.
'Are the guides come yet?' asked Harry Oswald of the waiter in somewhat feeble and hesitating German. He made it a point to speak German to the waiters, because he regarded it as the only proper and national language of the universal Teutonic Swiss people.
'They await the gentlemans in the corridor,' answered Carlo, in his own peculiar and racy English; for he on his side resented the imputation that any traveller need ever converse with him in any but that traveller's own tongue, provided only it was one of the recognised and civilised languages of the world, or even German. They are a barbarous and disgusting race, those Tedeschi, look you well, Signor; they address you as though you were the dust in the piazza; yet even from them a polite and attentive person may confidently look for a modest, a very modest, but still a welcome trink-geld.
'Then we'd better hurry up, Oswald,' said Herbert Le Breton, 'for guides are the most tyrannical set of people on the entire face of this planet. I shall have another cup of coffee before I go, though, if the guides swear at me roundly in the best Roumansch for it, anyhow.'
'Your acquaintance with the Roumansch dialect being probably limited,' Harry Oswald answered, 'the difference between their swearing and their blessing would doubtless be reduced to a vanishing point. Though I've noticed that swearing is really a form of human speech everywhere readily understanded of the people in spite of all differences of race or language. One touch of nature, you see; and swearing, after all, is extremely natural.'
'Are you ready?' asked Herbert, having tossed off his coffee. 'Yes? Then come along at once. I can feel the guides frowning at us through the partition.'
They turned out into the street, with its green-shuttered windows all still closed in the pale grey of early morning, and walked along with the three guides by the high road which leads through rocks and fir-trees up to the beginning of the steep path to the Piz Margatsch. Passing the clear emerald-green waterfall that rushes from under the lower melting end of the Morteratsch glacier, they took at once to the narrow track by the moraine along the edge of the ice, and then to the glacier itself, which is easy enough climbing, as glaciers go, for a good pedestrian. Herbert Le Breton, the older mountaineer of the two, got over the big blocks readily enough; but Harry, less accustomed to Swiss expeditions, lagged and loitered behind a little, and required more assistance from the guides every now and again than his sturdy companion.
'I'm getting rather blown at starting,' Harry called out at last to Herbert, some yards in front of him. 'Do you think the despotic guide would let us sit down and rest a bit if we asked him very prettily?'
'Offer him a cigar first,' Herbert shouted back, 'and then after a short and decent interval, prefer your request humbly in your politest French. The savage potentate always expects to be propitiated by gifts, as a preliminary to answering the petitions of his humble subjects.'
'I see,' Harry said, laughing. 'Supply before grievances, not grievances before supply.' And he halted a moment to light a cigar, and to offer one to each of the two guides who were helping him along on either side.
Thus mollified, the senior guide grudgingly allowed ten minutes' halt and a drink of water at the bend by the corner of the glacier. They sat down upon the great translucent sea-green blocks and began talking with the taciturn chief guide.
'Is this glacier dangerous?' Harry asked.
'Dangerous, monsieur? Oh no, not as one counts glaciers. It is very safe. There are seldom accidents.'
'But there have been some?'
'Some, naturally. You don't climb mountains always without accidents. There was one the first time anyone ever made the ascent of the Piz Margatsch. That was fifty years ago. My uncle was killed in it.'
'Killed in it?' Harry echoed. 'How did it all happen, and where?'
'Yonder, monsieur, in a crevasse that was then situated near the bend at the corner, just where the great crevasse you see before you now stands. That was fifty years ago; since then the glacier has moved much. Its substance, in effect, has changed entirely.'
'Tell us all about it,' Herbert put in carelessly. He knew the guide wouldn't go on again till he had finished his whole story.
'It's a strange tale,' the guide answered, taking a puff or two at his cigar pensively and then removing it altogether for his set narrative—he had told the tale before a hundred times, and he had the very words of it now regularly by heart. 'It was the first time anyone ever tried to climb the Piz Margatsch. At that time, nobody in the valley knew the best path; it is my father who afterwards discovered it. Two English gentlemen came to Pontresina one morning; one might say you two gentlemen; but in those days there were not many tourists in the Engadine; the exploitation of the tourist had not yet begun to be developed. My father and my uncle were then the only two guides at Pontresina. The English gentlemen asked them to try with them the scaling of the Piz Margatsch. My uncle was afraid of it, but my father laughed down his fears. So they started. My uncle was dressed in a blue coat with brass buttons, and a pair of brown velvet breeches. Ah, heaven, I can see him yet, his white corpse in the blue coat and the brown velvet breeches!'
'But you can't be fifty yourself,' Harry said, looking at the tall long-limbed man attentively; 'no, nor forty, nor thirty either.'
'No, monsieur, I am twenty-seven,' the chief guide answered, taking another puff at his cigar very deliberately; 'and this was fifty years ago: yet I have seen his corpse just as the accident happened. You shall hear all about it. It is a tale from the dead; it is worth hearing.'
'This begins to grow mysterious,' said Herbert in English, hammering impatiently at the ice with the shod end of his alpenstock. 'Sounds for all the world just like the introduction to a Christmas number.'
'A young girl in the village loved my uncle,' the guide went on imperturhably; 'and she begged him not to go on this expedition. She was betrothed to him. But he wouldn't listen: and they all started together for the top of the Piz Margatsch. After many trials, my father and my uncle and the two tourists reached the summit. "So you see, Andreas," said my father, "your fears were all folly." "Half-way through the forest," said my uncle, "one is not yet safe from the wolf." Then they began to descend again. They got down past all the dangerous places, and on to this glacier, so well known, so familiar. And then my uncle began indeed to get careless. He laughed at his own fears; "Cathrein was all wrong," he said to my father, "we shall get down again safely, with Our Lady's assistance." So they reached at last the great crevasse. My father and one of the Englishmen got over without difficulty; but the other Englishman slipped; his footing failed him; and he was sinking, sinking, down, down, down, slipping quickly into the deep dark green abyss below. My uncle stretched out his hand over the edge: the Englishman caught it; and then my uncle missed his foothold, they both fell together and were lost to sight at once completely, in the invisible depths of the great glacier!'
'Well,' Herbert Le Breton said, as the man paused a moment. 'Is that all?'
'No,' the guide answered, with a tone of deep solemnity. 'That is not all. The glacier went on moving, moving, slowly, slowly, but always downward, for years and years. Yet no one ever heard anything more of the two lost bodies. At last one day, when I was seven years old, I went out playing with my brother, among the pine-woods, near the waterfall that rushes below there, from under the glacier. We saw something lying in the ice-cold water, just beneath the bottom of the ice-sheet. We climbed over the moraine; and there, oh heaven! we could see two dead bodies. They were drowned, just drowned, we thought: it might have been yesterday. One of them was short and thick-set, with the face of an Englishman: he was close-shaven, and, what seemed odd to us, he had on clothes which, though we were but children, we knew at once for the clothes of a long past fashion—in fact, a suit of the Louis dix-huit style. Tha other was a tall and handsome man, dressed in the unchangeable blue coat and brown velvet breeches of our own canton, of the Graubunden. We were very frightened about it, and so we ran away trembling and told an old woman who lived close by; her name was Cathrein, and her grandchildren used to play with us, though she herself was about the age of my father, for my father married very late. Old Cathrein came out with us to look; and the moment she saw the bodies, she cried out with a great cry, "It is he! It is Andreas! It is my betrothed, who was lost on the very day week when I was to be married. I should know him at once among ten thousand. It is many, many years now, but I have not forgotten his face—ah, my God, that face; I know it well!" And she took his hand in hers, that fair white young hand in her own old brown withered one, and kissed it gently. "And yet," she said, "he is five years older than me, this fair young man here; five years older than me!" We were frightened to hear her talk so, for we said to ourselves, "She must be mad;" so we ran home and brought our father. He looked at the dead bodies and at old Cathrein, and he said, "It is indeed true. He is my brother." Ah, monsieur, you would not have forgotten it if you had seen those two old people standing there beside the fresh corpses they had not seen for all those winters! They themselves had meanwhile grown old and grey and wrinkled; but the ice of the glacier had kept those others young, and fresh, and fair, and beautiful as on the day they were first engulfed in it. It was terrible to look at!'
'A most ghastly story, indeed,' Herbert Le Breton said, yawning; 'and now I think we'd better be getting under way again, hadn't we, Oswald?'
Harry Oswald rose from his seat on the block of ice unwillingly, and proceeded on his road up the mountain with a distinct and decided feeling of nervousness. Was it the guide's story that made his knees tremble slightly? was it his own inexperience in climbing? or was it the cold and the fatigue of the first ascent of the season to a man not yet in full pedestrian Alpine training? He did not feel at all sure about it in his own mind: but this much he knew with perfect certainty, that his footing was not nearly so secure under him as it had been during the earlier part of the climb over the lower end of the glacier.
By-and-by they reached the long sheer snowy slope near the Three Brothers. This slope is liable to slip, and requires careful walking, so the guides began roping them together. 'The stout monsieur in front, next after me,' said the chief guide, knotting the rope soundly round Herbert Le Breton: 'then Kaspar; then you, monsieur,' to Harry Oswald, 'and finally Paolo, to bring up the rear. The thin monsieur is nervous, I think; it's best to place him most in the middle.'
'If you really ARE nervous, Oswald,' Herbert said, not unkindly, 'you'd better stop behind, I think, and let me go on with two of the guides. The really hard work, you know, has scarcely begun yet.'
'Oh dear, no,' Harry answered lightly (he didn't care to confess his timidity before Herbert Le Breton of all men in the world): 'I do feel just a little groggy about the knees, I admit; but it's not nervousness, it's only want of training. I haven't got accustomed to glacier-work yet, and the best way to overcome it is by constant practice. "Solvitur ambulando," you know, as Aldrich says about Achilles and the tortoise.'
'Very good,' Herbert answered drily; 'only mind, whatever you do, for Heaven's sake don't go and stumble and pull ME down on the top of you. It's the clear duty of a good citizen to respect the lives of the other men who are roped together with him on the side of a mountain.'
They set to work again, in single file, with cautious steps planted firmly on the treacherous snow, to scale the great white slope that stretched so temptingly before them. Harry felt his knees becoming at every step more and more ungovernable, while Herbert didn't improve matters by calling out to him from time to time, 'Now, then, look out for a hard bit here,' or 'Mind that loose piece of ice there,' or 'Be very careful how you put your foot down by the yielding edge yonder,' and so forth. At last, they had almost reached the top of the slope, and were just above the bare gulley on the side, when Harry's insecure footing on a stray scrap of ice gave way suddenly, and he begain to slip rapidly down the sheer slope of the mountain. In a second he had knocked against Paolo, and Paolo had begun to slip too, so that both were pulling with all their weight against Kaspar and the others in front. 'For Heaven's sake, man,' Herbert cried hastily, 'dig your alpenstock deep into the snow.' At the same instant, the chief guide shouted in Roumansch to the same effect to Kaspar. But even as they spoke, Kaspar, pushing his feet hard against the snow, began to give way too; and the whole party seemed about to slip together down over the sheer rocky precipice of the great gulley on the right. It was a moment of supreme anxiety; but Herbert Le Breton, looking back with blood almost unstirred and calmly observant eye, saw at once the full scope of the threatening danger. 'There's only one chance,' he said to himself quietly. 'Oswald is lost already! Unless the rope breaks, we are all lost together!' At that very second, Harry Oswald, throwing his arms up wildly, had reached the edge of the terrible precipice; he went over with a piercing cry into the abyss, with the last guide beside him, and Kaspar following him close in mute terror. Then Herbert Le Breton felt the rope straining, straining, straining, upon the sharp frozen edge of the rock; for an inappreciable point of time it strained and crackled: one loud snap, and it was gone for ever. Herbert and the chief guide, almost upset by the sudden release from the heavy pull that was steadily dragging them over, threw themselves flat on their faces in the drifted snow, and checked their fall by a powerful muscular effort. The rope was broken and their lives were saved, but what had become of the three others?
They crept cautiously on hands and knees to the most practicable spot at the edge of the precipice, and the guide peered over into the great white blank below with eager eyes of horrid premonition. As he did so, he recoiled with awe, and made a rapid gesture with his hands, half prayer, half speechless terror. 'What do you see?' asked Herbert, not daring himself to look down upon the blank beneath him, lest he should be tempted to throw himself over in a giddy moment.
'Jesu, Maria,' cried the guide, crossing himself instinctively over and over again, 'they have all fallen to the very foot of the second precipice! They are lying, all three, huddled together on the ledge there just above the great glacier. They are dead, quite dead, dead before they reached the ground even. Great God, it is too terrible!'
Herbert Le Breton looked at the white-faced guide with just the faintest suspicion of a sneering curl upon his handsome features. The excitement of the danger was over now, and he had at once recovered his usual philosophic equanimity. 'Quite dead,' he said, in French, 'quite dead, are they? Then we can't be of any further use to them. But I suppose we must go down again at once to help recover the dead bodies!'
The guide gazed at him blankly with simple open-mouthed undisguised amazement. 'Naturally,' he said, in a very quiet voice of utter disgust and loathing. 'You wouldn't leave them lying there alone on the cold snow, would you?'
'This is really most annoying,' thought Herbert Le Breton to himself, in his rational philosophic fashion: 'here we are, almost at the summit, and now we shall have to turn back again from the very threshold of our goal, without having seen the view for which we've climbed up, and risked our lives too—all for a purely sentimental reason, because we won't leave those three dead men alone on the snow for an hour or two longer! it's a very short climb to the top now, and I could manage it by myself in twenty minutes. If only the chief guide had slid over with the others, I should have gone on alone, and had the view at least for my trouble. I could have pretended the accident happened on the way down again. As it is, I shall have to turn back ingloriously, re infecta. The guide will tell everybody at Pontresina that I went on, in spite of the accident; and then it would get into the English papers, and all the world would say that I was so dreadfully cruel and heartless. People are always so irrational in their ethical judgments. Oswald's quite dead, that's certain; nobody could fall over such a precipice as that without being killed a dozen times over before he even reached the bottom. A very painless and easy death too; I couldn't myself wish for a better one. We can't do them the slightest good by picking up their lifeless bodies, and yet a foolishly sentimental public opinion positively compels one to do it. Poor Oswald! Upon my soul I'm sorry for him, and for that pretty little sister of his too; but what's the use of bothering about it? The thing's done, and nothing that I can do or say will ever make it any better.'
So they turned once more in single file down by the great glacier, and retraced their way to Pontresina without exchanging another word. To say the truth, the chief guide felt appalled and frightened by the presence of this impassive, unemotional British traveller, and did not even care to conceal his feelings. But then he wasn't an educated philosopher and man of culture like Herbert Le Breton.
Late that evening a party of twelve villagers brought back three stiff and mangled corpses on loose cattle hurdles into the village of Pontresina. Two of them were the bodies of two local Swiss guides, and the third, with its delicate face unscathed by the fall, and turned calmly upwards to the clear moonlight, was the body of Harry Oswald. Alas, alas, Gilboa! The beauty of Israel is slain upon thy high places.
'WHAT DO THESE HEBREWS HERE?'
From Calcombe Pomeroy Ernest had returned, not to Dunbude, but to meet the Exmoor party in London. There he had managed somehow—he hardly knew how himself—to live through a whole season without an explosion in his employer's family. That an explosion must come, sooner or later, he felt pretty sure in his own mind for several reasons: his whole existence there was a mistake and an anomaly, and he could no more mix in the end with the Exmoor family than oil can mix with vinegar, or vice versa. The round of dances and dinners to which he had to accompany his pupil was utterly distasteful to him. Lynmouth never learnt anything; so Ernest felt his own function in the household a perfectly useless one; and he was always on the eve of a declaration that he couldn't any longer put up with this, that, or the other 'gross immorality' in which Lynmouth was actively or passively encouraged by his father and mother. Still, there were two things which indefinitely postponed the smouldering outbreak. In the first place, Ernest wrote to, and heard from, Edie every day; and he believed he ought for Edie's sake to give the situation a fair trial, as long as he was able, or at least till he saw some other opening, which might make it possible within some reasonable period to marry her. In the second place, Lady Hilda had perceived with her intuitive quickness the probability that a cause of dispute might arise between her father and Ernest, and had made up her mind as far as in her lay to prevent its ever coming to a head. She didn't wish Ernest to leave his post in the household—so much originality was hardly again to be secured in a hurry—and therefore she laid herself out with all her ingenuity to smooth over all the possible openings for a difference of opinion whenever they occurred. If Ernest's scruples were getting the upper hand of his calmer judgment, Lady Hilda read the change in his face at once, and managed dexterously to draw off Lynmouth, or to talk over her mother quietly to acquiesce in Ernest's view of the question. If Lord Exmoor was beginning to think that this young man's confounded fads were really getting quite unbearable, Lady Hilda interposed some casual remark about how much better Lynmouth was kept out of the way now than he used to be in Mr. Walsh's time. Ernest himself never even suspected this unobtrusive diplomatist and peacemaker; but as a matter of fact it was mainly owing to Lady Hilda's constant interposition that he contrived to stop in Wilton Place through all that dreary and penitential London season.
At last, to Ernest's intense joy, the season began to show premonitory symptoms of collapsing from inanition. The twelfth of August was drawing nigh, and the coming-of-age of grouse, that most important of annual events in the orthodox British social calendar, would soon set free Lord Exmoor and his brother hereditary legislators from their arduous duty of acting as constitutional drag on the general advance of a great, tolerant, and easy-going nation. Soon the family would be off again to Dunbude, or away to its other moors in Scotland; and among the rocks and the heather Ernest felt he could endure Lord Exmoor and Lord Lynmouth a little more resignedly than among the reiterated polite platitudes and monotonous gaieties of the vacuous London drawing-rooms.
Lady Hilda, too, was longing in her own way for the season to be over. She had gone through another of them, thank goodness, she said to herself at times with a rare tinge of pensiveness, only to discover that the Hughs, and the Guys, and the Algies, and the Montys were just as fatuously inane as ever; and were just as anxious as before to make her share their fatuous inanity for a whole lifetime. Only fancy living with an unadulterated Monty from the time you were twenty to the time you were seventy-five—at which latter date he, being doubtless some five years older than one-self to begin with, would probably drop off quietly with suppressed gout, and leave you a mourning widow to deplore his untimely and lamented extinction for the rest of your existence! Why, long before that time you would have got to know his very thoughts by heart (if he had any, poor fellow!) and would be able to finish all his sentences and eke out all his stories for him, the moment he began them. Much better marry a respectable pork-butcher outright, and have at least the healthful exercise of chopping sausage-meat to fill up the stray gaps in the conversation. In that condition of life, they say, people are at any rate perfectly safe from the terrors of ennui. However, the season was over at last, thank Heaven; and in a week or so more they would be at dear old ugly Dunbude again for the whole winter. There Hilda would go sketching once more on the moorland, and if this time she didn't make that stupid fellow Ernest see what she was driving at, why, then her name certainly wasn't Hilda Tregellis.
A day or two before the legal period fixed for the beginning of the general grouse-slaughter, Ernest was sitting reading in the breakfast room at Wilton Place, when Lynmouth burst unexpectedly into the room in his usual boisterous fashion.
'Oh, I say, Mr. Le Breton,' he began, holding the door in his hand like one in a hurry, 'I want leave to miss work this morning. Gerald Talfourd has called for me in his dog-cart, and wants me to go out with him now immediately.'
'Not to-day, Lynmouth,' Ernest answered quietly. 'You were out twice last week, you know, and you hardly ever get your full hours for work at all since we came to London.'
'Oh, but look here, you know, Mr. Le Breton; I really MUST go to-day, because Talfourd has made an appointment for me. It's awful fun—he's going to have some pigeon-shooting.'
Ernest's countenance fell a little, and he answered in a graver voice than before, 'If that's what you want to go for, Lynmouth, I certainly can't let you go. You shall never have leave from me to go pigeon-shooting.'
'Why not?' Lynmouth asked, still holding the door-handle at the most significant angle.
'Because it's a cruel and brutal sport,' Ernest replied, looking him in the face steadily; 'and as long as you're under my charge I can't allow you to take part in it.'
'Oh, you can't,' said Lynmouth mischievously, with a gentle touch of satire in his tone. 'You can't, can't you! Very well, then, never mind about it.' And he shut the door after him with a bang, and ran off upstairs without further remonstrance.
'It's time for study, Lynmouth,' Ernest called out, opening the door and speaking to him as he retreated. 'Come down again at once, please, will you?'
But Lynmouth made no answer, and went straight off upstairs to the drawing-room. In a few minutes more he came back, and said in a tone of suppressed triumph, 'Well, Mr. Le Breton, I'm going with Talfourd. I've been up to papa, and he says I may "if I like to."'
Ernest bit his lip in a moment's hesitation. If it had been any ordinary question, he would have pocketed the contradiction of his authority—after all, if it didn't matter to them, it didn't matter to him—and let Lynmouth go wherever they allowed him. But the pigeon-shooting was a question of principle. As long as the boy was still nominally his pupil, he couldn't allow him to take any part in any such wicked and brutal amusement, as he thought it. So he answered back quietly, 'No, Lynmouth, you are not to go. I don't think your father can have understood that I had forbidden you.'
'Oh!' Lynmouth said again, without a word of remonstrance, and went up a second time to the drawing-room.
In a few minutes a servant came down and spoke to Ernest. 'My lord would like to see you upstairs for a few minutes, if you please, sir.'
Ernest followed the man up with a vague foreboding that the deferred explosion was at last about to take place. Lord Exmoor was sitting on the sofa. 'Oh, I say, Le Breton,' he began in his good-humoured way, 'what's this that Lynmouth's been telling me about the pigeon-shooting? He says you won't let him go out with Gerald Talfourd.'
'Yes,' Ernest answered; 'he wanted to miss his morning's work, and I told him I couldn't allow him to do so.'
'But I said he might if he liked, Le Breton. Young Talfourd has called for him to go pigeon-shooting. And now Lynmouth tells me you refuse to let him go, after I've given him leave. Is that so?'
'Certainly,' said Ernest. 'I said he couldn't go, because before he asked you I had refused him permission, and I supposed you didn't know he was asking you to reverse my decision.'
'Oh, of course,' Lord Exmoor answered, for he was not an unreasonable man after his lights. 'You're quite right, Le Breton, quite right, certainly. Discipline's discipline, we all know, and must be kept up under any circumstances. You should have told me, Lynmouth, that Mr. Le Breton had forbidden you to go. However, as young Talfourd has made the engagement, I suppose you don't mind letting him have a holiday now, at my request, Le Breton, do you?'
Here was a dilemma indeed for Ernest. He hardly knew what to answer. He looked by chance at Lady Hilda, seated on the ottoman in the corner; and Lady Hilda, catching his eye, pursed up her lips visibly into the one word, 'Do.' But Ernest was inexorable. If he could possibly prevent it, he would not let those innocent pigeons be mangled and slaughtered for a lazy boy's cruel gratification. That was the one clear duty before him; and whether he offended Lord Exmoor or not, he had no choice save to pursue it.
'No, Lord Exmoor,' he said resolutely, after a long pause. 'I should have no objection to giving him a holiday, but I can't allow him to go pigeon-shooting.'
'Why not?' asked Lord Exmoor warmly.
Ernest did not answer.
'He says it's a cruel, brutal sport, papa,' Lynmouth put in parenthetically, in spite of an angry glance from Hilda; 'and he won't let me go while I'm his pupil.'
Lord Exmoor's face grew very red indeed, and he rose from the sofa angrily. 'So that's it, Mr. Le Breton!' he said, in a short sharp fashion. 'You think pigeon-shooting cruel and brutal, do you? Will you have the goodness to tell me, sir, do you know that I myself am in the habit of shooting pigeons at matches?'
'Yes,' Ernest answered, without flinching a muscle.
'Yes!' cried Lord Exmoor, growing redder and redder. 'You knew that, Mr. Le Breton, and yet you told my son you considered the practice brutal and cruel! Is that the way you teach him to honour his parents? Who are you, sir, that you dare set yourself up as a judge of me and my conduct? How dare you speak to him of his father in that manner? How dare you stir him up to disobedience and insubordination against his elders? How dare you, sir; how dare you?'
Ernest's face began to get red in return, and he answered with unwonted heat, 'How dare you address me so, yourself, Lord Exmoor? How dare you speak to me in that imperious manner? You're forgetting yourself, I think, and I had better leave you for the present, till you remember how to be more careful in your language. But Lynmouth is not to go pigeon-shooting. I object to his going, because the sport is a cruel and a brutal one, whoever may practise it. If I have any authority over him, I insist upon it that he shall not go. If he goes, I shall not stop here any longer. You can do as you like about it, of course, but you have my final word upon the matter. Lynmouth, go down to the study.'
'Stop, Lynmouth,' cried his father, boiling over visibly with indignation: 'Stop. Never mind what Mr. Le Breton says to you; do you hear me? Go out if you choose with Gerald Talfourd.'
Lynmouth didn't wait a moment for any further permission. He ran downstairs at once and banged the front door soundly after him with a resounding clatter. Lady Hilda looked imploringly at Ernest, and whispered half audibly, 'Now you've done it.' Ernest stood a second irresolute, while the Earl tramped angrily up and down the drawing-room, and then he said in a calmer voice, 'When would it be convenient, Lord Exmoor, that I should leave you?'
'Whenever you like,' Lord Exmoor answered violently. 'To-day if you can manage to get your things together. This is intolerable, absolutely intolerable! Gross and palpable impertinence; in my own house, too! "Cruel and brutal," indeed! "Cruel and brutal." Fiddlesticks! Why, it's not a bit different from partridge-shooting!' And he went out, closely followed by Ernest, leaving Lady Hilda alone and frightened in the drawing-room.
Ernest ran lightly upstairs to his own little study sitting-room. 'I've done it this time, certainly, as Lady Hilda said,' he thought to himself; 'but I don't see how I could possibly have avoided it. Even now, when all's done, I haven't succeeded in saving the lives of the poor innocent tortured pigeons. They'll be mangled and hunted for their poor frightened lives, anyhow. Well, now I must look out for that imaginary schoolmastership, and see what I can do for dear Edie. I shan't be sorry to get out of this after all, for the place was an impossible one for me from the very beginning. I shall sit down this moment and write to Edie, and after that I shall take out my portmanteau and get the man to help me put my luggage up to go away this very evening. Another day in the house after this would be obviously impossible.'
At that moment there came a knock at the door—a timid, tentative sort of knock, and somebody put her head inquiringly halfway through the doorway. Ernest looked up in sudden surprise. It was Lady Hilda.
'Mr. Le Breton,' she said, coming over towards the table where Ernest had just laid out his blotting-book and writing-paper: 'I couldn't prevent myself from coming up to tell you how much I admire your conduct in standing up so against papa for what you thought was right and proper. I can't say how greatly I admire it. I'm so glad you did as you did do. You have acted nobly.' And Hilda looked straight into his eyes with the most speaking and most melting of glances. 'Now,' she said to herself, 'according to all correct precedents, he ought to seize my hand fervently with a gentle pressure, and thank me with tears in his eyes for my kind sympathy.'
But Ernest, only looking puzzled and astonished, answered in the quietest of voices, 'Thank you very much, Lady Hilda: but I assure you there was really nothing at all noble, nothing at all to admire, in what I said or did in any way. In fact, I'm rather afraid, now I come to think of it, that I lost my temper with your father dreadfully.'
'Then you won't go away?' Hilda put in quickly. 'You think better of it now, do you? You'll apologise to papa, and go with us to Dunbude for the autumn? Do say you will, please, Mr. Le Breton.'
'Oh dear, no,' Ernest answered, smiling quietly at the bare idea of his apologising to Lord Exmoor. 'I certainly won't do that, whatever I do. To tell you the truth, Lady Hilda, I have not been very anxious to stop with Lynmouth all along: I've found it a most unprofitable tutorship—no sense of any duty performed, or any work done for society: and I'm not at all sorry that this accident should have broken up the engagement unexpectedly. At the same time, it's very kind of you to come up and speak to me about it, though I'm really quite ashamed you should have thought there was anything particularly praiseworthy or commendable in my standing out against such an obviously cruel sport as pigeon-shooting.'
'Ah, but I do think so, whatever you may say, Mr. Le Breton,' Hilda went on eagerly. 'I do think so, and I think it was very good of you to fight it out so against papa for what you believe is right and proper. For my own part, you know, I don't see any particular harm in pigeon-shooting. Of course it's very dreadful that the poor dear little things should be shot and wounded and winged and so forth; but then everything, almost, gets shot, you see—rabbits, and grouse, and partridges, and everything; so that really it's hardly worth while, it seems to me, making a fuss about it. Still, that's not the real question. You think it's wrong; which is very original and nice and proper of you; and as you think it's wrong, you won't countenance it in any way. I don't care, myself, whether it's wrong or not—I'm not called upon, thank goodness, to decide the question; but I do care very much that you should suffer for what you think the right course of action.' And Lady Hilda in her earnestness almost laid her hand upon his arm, and looked up to him in the most unmistakable and appealing fashion.
'You're very good, I'm sure, Lady Hilda,' Ernest replied, half hesitatingly, wondering much in his own mind what on earth she could be driving at.
There was a moment's pause, and then Hilda said pensively, 'And so we shall never walk together at Dunbude on the Clatter any more, Mr. Le Breton! We shall never climb again among the big boulders on those Devonshire hillsides! We shall never watch the red deer from the big pool on top of the sheep-walk! I'm sorry for it, Mr. Le Breton, very sorry for it. Oh, I do wish you weren't going to leave us!'
Ernest began to feel that this was really growing embarrassing. 'I dare say we shall often see one another,' he said evasively; for simple-minded as he was, a vague suspicion of what Lady Hilda wanted him to say had somehow forced itself timidly upon him. 'London's a very big place, no doubt; but still, people are always running together unexpectedly in it.'
Hilda sighed and looked at him again intently without speaking. She stood so, face to face with him across the table for fully two minutes; and then, seeming suddenly to awake from a reverie, she started and sighed once more, and turned at last reluctantly to leave the little study. 'I must go,' she said hastily; 'mamma would be very angry indeed with me if she knew I'd come here; but I couldn't let you leave the house without coming up to tell you how greatly I admire your spirit, and how very, very much I shall always miss you, Mr. Le Breton. Will you take this, and keep it as a memento?' As she spoke, she laid an envelope upon the table, and glided quietly out of the room.
Ernest took the envelope up with a smile, and opened it with some curiosity. It contained a photograph, with a brief inscription on the back, 'E. L. B., from Hilda Tregellis.'
As he did so, Hilda Tregellis, red and pale by turns, had rushed into her own room, locked the door wildly, and flung herself in a perfect tempest of tears on her own bed, where she lay and tossed about in a burning agony of shame and self-pity for twenty minutes. 'He doesn't love me,' she said to herself bitterly; 'he doesn't love me, and he doesn't care to love me, or want to marry me either! I'm sure he understood what I meant, this time; and there was no response in his eyes, no answer, no sympathy. He's like a block of wood—a cold, impassive, immovable, lifeless creature! And yet I could love him—oh, if only he would say a word to me in answer, how I could love him! I loved him when he stood up there and bearded papa in his own drawing-room, and asked him how dare he speak so, how dare he address him in such a manner; I KNEW then that I really loved him. If only he would let me! But he won't! To think that I could have half the Algies and Berties in London at my feet for the faintest encouragement, and I can't have this one poor penniless Ernest Le Breton, though I go down on my knees before him and absolutely ask him to marry me! That's the worst of it! I've humiliated myself before him by letting him see, oh, ever so much too plainly, that I wanted him to ask me; and I've been repulsed, rejected, positively refused and slighted by him! And yet I love him! I shall never love any other man as I love Ernest Le Breton.'
Poor Lady Hilda Tregellis! Even she too had, at times, her sentimental moments! And there she lay till her eyes were red and swollen with crying, and till it was quite hopeless to expect she could ever manage to make herself presentable for the Cecil Faunthorpes' garden-party that afternoon at Twickenham.
Ernest had packed his portmanteau, and ordered a hansom, meaning to take temporary refuge at Number 28 Epsilon Terrace; and he went down again for a few minutes to wait in the breakfast-room, where he saw the 'Times' lying casually on the little table by the front window. He took it up, half dreamily, by way of having something to do, and was skimming the telegrams in an unconcerned manner, when his attention was suddenly arrested by the name Le Breton, printed in conspicuous type near the bottom of the third column. He looked closer at the paragraph, and saw that it was headed 'Accident to British Tourists in Switzerland.' A strange tremor seized him immediately. Could anything have happened, then, to Herbert? He read the telegram through at once, and found this bald and concise summary before him of the fatal Pontresina accident:—
'As Mr. H. Oswald, F.R.S., of Oriel College, Oxford, and Mr. Le Breton, Fellow and Bursar of St. Aldate's College, along with three guides, were making the ascent of the Piz Margatsch, in the Bernina Alps, this morning, one of the party happened to slip near the great gulley known as the Gouffre. Mr. Oswald and two of the guides were precipitated over the edge of the cliff and killed immediately: the breaking of the rope at a critical moment alone saved the lives of Mr. Le Breton and the remaining guide. The bodies have been recovered this evening, and brought back to Pontresina.'
Ernest laid down the paper with a thrill of horror. Poor Edie! How absolutely his own small difficulties with Lord Exmoor faded out of has memory at once in the face of that terrible, irretrievable calamity. Harry dead! The hope and mainstay of the family—the one great pride and glory of all the Oswalds, on whom their whole lives and affections centred, taken from them unexpectedly, without a chance of respite, without a moment's warning! Worst of all, they would probably learn it, as he did, for the first time by reading it accidentally in the curt language of the daily papers. Pray heaven the shock might not kill poor Edie!
There was only a minute in which to make up his mind, but in that minute Ernest had fully decided what he ought to do, and how to do it. He must go at once down to Calcombe Pomeroy, and try to lighten this great affliction for poor little Edie. Nay, lighten it he could not, but at least he could sympathise with her in it, and that, though little, was still some faint shade better than nothing at all. How fortunate that his difference with the Exmoors allowed him to go that very evening without a moment's delay. When the hansom arrived at the door, Ernest told the cabman to drive at once to Paddington Station. Almost before he had had time to realise the full meaning of the situation, he had taken a third-class ticket for Calcombe Road, and was rushing out of London by the Plymouth express, in one of the convenient and commodious little wooden horse-boxes which the Great Western Railway Company provide as a wholesome deterrent for economical people minded to save half their fare by going third instead of first or second.
Didcot, Swindon, Bath, Bristol, Exeter, Newton Abbot, all followed one after another, and by the time Ernest had reached Calcombe Road Station he had begun to frame for himself a definite plan of future action. He would stop at the Red Lion Inn that evening, send a telegram from Exeter beforehand to Edie, to say he was coming next day, and find out as much as possible about the way the family had borne the shock before he ventured actually to see them.
The Calcombe omnibus, drawn by two lean and weary horses, toiled its way slowly up the long steep incline for six miles to the Cross Foxes, and then rattled down the opposite slope, steaming and groaning, till it drew up at last with a sudden jerk and a general collapse in front of the old Red Lion Inn in the middle of the High Street. There Ernest put up for the present, having seen by the shutters at the grocer's shop on his way down that the Oswalds had already heard of Harry's accident. He had dinner by himself, with a sick heart, in the gloomy, close little coffee-room of the village inn, and after dinner he managed to draw in the landlord in person for a glass of sherry and half an hour's conversation.
'Very sad thing, sir, this 'ere causality in Switzerland,' said the red-faced landlord, coming round at once to the topic of the day at Calcombe, after a few unimportant preliminary generalities. 'Young Mr. Oswald, as has been killed, he lived here, sir; leastways his parents do. He was a very promising young gentleman up at Oxford, they do tell me—not much of a judge of horses, I should say, but still, I understand, quite the gentleman for all that. Very sad thing, the causality, sir, for all his family. 'Pears he was climbing up some of these 'ere Alps they have over there in them parts, covered with snow from head to foot in the manner of speaking, and there was another gentleman from Oxford with him, a Mr. Le Breton——'
'My brother,' Ernest put in, interrupting him; for he thought it best to let the landlord know at once who he was talking to.
'Oh, your brother, sir!' said the red-faced landlord, with a gleam of recognition, growing redder and hotter than ever; 'well, now you mention it, sir, I find I remember your face somehow. No offence, sir, but you're the young gentleman as come down in the spring to see young Mr. Oswald, aren't you?'
Ernest nodded assent.
'Ah, well, sir,' the landlord went on more freely—for of course all Calcombe had heard long since that Ernest was engaged to Edie Oswald—'you're one of the family like, in that case, if I may make bold to say so. Well, sir, this is a shocking trouble for poor old Mr. Oswald, and no mistake. The old gentleman was sort of centred on his son, you see, as the saying is: never thought of nobody else hardly, he didn't. Old Mr. Oswald, sir, was always a wonderful hand at figgers hisself, and powerful fond of measurements and such kinds of things. I've heard tell, indeed, as how he knew more mathematics, and trigononomy, and that, than the rector and the schoolmaster both put together. There's not one in fifty as knows as much mathematics as he do, I'll warrant. Well, you see, he brought up this son of his, little Harry as was—I can remember him now, running to and from the school, and figgerin' away on the slates, doin' the sums in algemer for the other boys when they went a-mitchin'—he brought him up like a gentleman, as you know very well, sir, and sent him to Oxford College: "to develop his mathematical talents, Mr. Legge," his father says to me here in this very parlour. What's the consequence? He develops that boy's talent sure enough, sir, till he comes to be a Fellow of Oxford College, they tell me, and even admitted into the Royal Society up in London. But this is how he did it, sir: and as you're a friend of the family like, and want to know all about it, no doubt, I don't mind tellin' you on the strict confidential, in the manner of speakin'.' Here the landlord drew his chair closer, and sipped the last drop in his glass of sherry with a mysterious air of very private and important disclosures. Ernest listened to his roundabout story with painful attention.
'Well, sir,' the landlord went on after a short and pensive pause, 'old Mr. Oswald's business ain't never been a prosperous one—though he was such a clover hand at figgers, he never made it remunerative; a bare livin' for the family, I don't mind sayin'; and he always spent more'n he ought to 'a done on Mr. Harry, and on the young lady too, sir, savin' your presence. So when Mr. Harry was goin' to Oxford to college, he come to me, and he says to me, "Mr. Legge," says he, "it's a very expensive thing sending my boy to the University," says he, "and I'm going to borrow money to send him with." "Don't you go a-doin' that, Mr. Oswald," says I; "your business don't justify you in doin' it, sir," says I. For you see, I knowed all the ins and outs of that there business, and I knowed he hadn't never made more'n enough just to keep things goin' decent like, as you may say, without any money saved or put by against a emergence. "Yes, I will, Mr. Legge," says he; "I can trust confidentially in my son's abilities," says he; "and I feel confidential he'll be in a position to repay me before long." So he borrowed the money on an insurance of Mr. Harry's life. Mr. Harry he always acted very honourable, sir; he was a perfect gentleman in every way, as YOU know, sir; and he began repayin' his father the loan as fast as he was able, and I daresay doin' a great deal for the family, and especially for the young lady, sir, out of his own pocket besides. But he still owed his father a couple of hundred pound an' more when this causality happened, while the business, I know, had been a-goin' to rack and ruin for the last three year. To-day I seen the agent of the insurance, and he says to me, "Legge," says he, most private like, "this is a bad job about young Oswald, I'm afeard, worse'n they know for." "Why, sir?" says I. "Well, Legge," says he, "they'll never get a penny of that there insurance, and the old gentleman'll have to pay up the defissit on his own account," says he. "How's that, Mr. Micklethwaite?" says I. "Because," says he, "there's a clause in the policy agin exceptional risks, in which is included naval and military services, furrin residences, topical voyages, and mountain-climbin'," says he; "and you mark my words," says he, "they'll never get a penny of it." In which case, sir, it's my opinion that old Mr. Oswald'll be clean broke, for he can't never make up the defissit out of his own business, can he now?'
Ernest listened with sad forebodings to the red-faced landlord's pitiful story, and feared in his heart that it was a bad look-out for the poor Oswalds. He didn't sleep much that evening, and next day he went round early to see Edie. The telegram he found would be a useless precaution, for the gossip of Calcombe Pomeroy had recognised him at once, and news had reached the Oswalds almost as soon as he arrived that young Mr. Le Breton was stopping that evening at the Red Lion.
Edie opened the door for him herself, pale of face and with eyes reddened by tears, yet looking beautiful even so in her simple black morning dress, her mourning of course hadn't yet come home—and her deep white linen collar. 'It's very good of you to have come so soon, Mr. Le Breton,' she said, taking his hand quietly—he respected her sorrow too deeply to think of kissing her; 'he will be back with us to-morrow. Your brother is bringing him back to us, to lay him in our little churchyard, and we are all so very very grateful to him for it.'
Ernest was more than half surprised to hear it. It was an unusual act of kindly thoughtfulness on the part of Herbert.
Next day the body came home as Edie had said, and Ernest helped to lay it reverently to rest in Calcombe churchyard. Poor old Mr. Oswald, standing bowed and broken-hearted by the open grave side, looked as though he could never outlive that solemn burial of all his hopes and aspirations in a single narrow coffin. Yet it was wonderful to Ernest to see how much comfort he took, even in this terrible grief, from the leader which appeared in the 'Times' that morning on the subject of the Pontresina accident. It contained only a few of the stock newspaper platitudes of regret at the loss of a distinguished and rising young light of science—the ordinary glib commonplaces of obituary notices which a practised journalist knows so well how to adapt almost mechanically to the passing event of the moment; but they seemed to afford the shattered old country grocer an amount of consolation and solemn relief that no mere spoken condolences could ever possibly have carried with them. 'See what a wonderful lot they thought of our boy up in London, Mr. Le Breton,' he said, looking up from the paper tearfully, and wiping his big gold spectacles, dim with moisture. 'See what the "Times" says about him: "One of the ablest among our young academical mathematicians, a man who, if his life had been spared to us, might probably have attained the highest distinction in his own department of pure science." That's our Harry, Mr. Le Breton; that's what the "Times" says about our dear, dead Harry! I wish he could have lived to read it himself, Edie—"a scholar of singularly profound attainments, whose abilities had recently secured him a place upon the historic roll of the Royal Society, and whom even the French Academy of Sciences had held worthy out of all the competitors of the civilised world, to be adjudged the highest mathematical honours of the present season." My poor boy! my poor, dear, lost boy! I wish you could have lived to hear it! We must keep the paper, Edie: we must keep all the papers; they'll show us at least what people who are real judges of these things thought about our dear, loved, lost Harry.'
Ernest dared hardly glance towards poor Edie, with the tears trickling slowly down her face; but he felt thankful that the broken-hearted old father could derive so much incomprehensible consolation from those cold and stereotyped conventional phrases. Truly a wonderful power there is in mere printer's ink properly daubed on plain absorbent white paper. And truly the human heart, full to bursting and just ready to break will allow itself to be cheated and cajoled in marvellous fashions by extraordinary cordials and inexplicable little social palliatives. The concentrated hopes of that old man's life were blasted and blighted for ever; and he found a temporary relief from that stunning shock in the artificial and insincere condolences of a stock leader-writer on a daily paper!
Walking back by himself in such sad meditations to the Red Lion, and sitting there by the open window, Ernest overheard a tremulous chattering voice mumbling out a few incoherent words at the Rector's doorway opposite. 'Oh, yes,' chirped out the voice in a tone of cheerful resignation, 'it's very sad indeed, very sad and shocking, and I'm naturally very sorry for it, of course. I always knew how it would be: I warned them of it; but they're a pig-headed, heedless, unmannerly family, and they wouldn't be guided by me. I said to him, "Now, Oswald, this is all very wrong and foolish of you. You go and put your son to Oxford, when he ought to be stopping at home, minding the shop and learning your business. You borrow money foolishly to send him there with. He'll go to Oxford; he'll fall in with a lot of wealthy young gentlemen—people above his own natural station—he'll take up expensive, extravagant ways, and in the end he'll completely ruin himself. He won't pay you back a penny, you may depend upon it—these boys never do, when you make fine gentlemen of them; they think only of their cigars and their horses, and their dog-carts and so forth, and neglect their poor old fathers and mothers, that brought them up and scraped and saved to make fine gentlemen of them. You just take my advice, Oswald, and don't send him to college." But Oswald was always a presumptuous, high-headed, independent sort of man, and instead of listening to me, what does he do but go and send this sharp boy of his up to Oxford. Well, now the boy's gone to Switzerland with one of the young Le Bretons—brother of the poor young man they've inveigled into what they call an engagement with Miss Edith, or Miss Jemima, or whatever the girl's name is—very well-connected people, the Le Bretons, and personal friends of the Archdeacon's—and there he's thrown himself over a precipice or something of the sort, no doubt to avoid his money-matters and debts and difficulties. At any rate, Micklethwaite tells me the poor old father'll have to pay up a couple of hundred pound to the insurance company: and how on earth he's ever to do it I don't know, for to my certain knowledge the rent of the shop is in arrears half-a-year already. But it's no business of mine, thank goodness!—and I only hope that exposure will serve to open that poor young Le Breton's eyes, and to warn him against having anything further to say to Miss Jemima. A designing young minx, if ever there was one! Poor young Le Breton's come down here for the funeral, I hear, which I must say was very friendly and proper and honourable of him; but now it's over, I hope he'll go back again, and see Miss Jemima in her true colours.'
Ernest turned back into the stuffy little coffee-room with his face on fire and his ears tingling with mingled shame and indignation. 'Whatever happens,' he thought to himself, 'I can't permit Edie to be subjected any longer to such insolence as this! Poor, dear, guileless, sorrowing little maiden! One would have thought her childish innocence and her terrible loss would have softened the heart even of such a cantankerous, virulent old harridan as that, till a few weeks were over, at least. She spoke of the Archdeacon: it must be old Miss Luttrell! Whoever it is, though, Edie shan't much longer be left where she can possibly come in contact with such a loathsome mass of incredible and unprovoked malice. That Edie should lose her dearly-loved brother is terrible enough; but that she should be exposed afterwards to be triumphed over in her most sacred grief by that bad old woman's querulous "I told you so" is simply intolerable!' And he paced up and down the room with a boiling heart, unable to keep down his righteous anger.
For the next fortnight Ernest remained at the Red Lion, though painfully conscious that he was sadly wasting his little reserve of funds from his late tutorship, in order to find out exactly what the Oswalds' position would be after the loss of poor Harry. Towards the end of that time he took Edie, pale and pretty in her simple new mourning, out once more into the Bourne Close for half an hour's quiet conversation. Very delicate and sweet and refined that tiny girlish face and figure looked in the plain unostentatious black and white of her great sorrow, and Ernest felt as he walked along by her side that she seemed to lean upon him naturally now; the loss of her main support and chief advisor in life seemed to draw her closer and closer every day to her one remaining prop and future husband.
'Edie,' he said to her, as they rested once more beside the old wooden bridge across the little river, 'I think it's time now we should begin to talk definitely over our common plans for the future. I know you'd naturally rather wait a little longer before discussing them; I wish for both our sakes we could have deferred it; but time presses, and I'm afraid from what I hear in the village that things won't go on henceforth exactly as they used to do with your dear father and mother.'
Edie coloured slightly as she answered, 'Then you've heard of all that already, Ernest'—she was learning to call him 'Ernest' now quite naturally. 'The Calcombe tattle has got round to you so soon! I'm glad of it, though, for it saves me the pain of having to tell you. Yes, it's quite true, and I'm afraid it will be a terrible, dreadful struggle for poor darling father and mother.' And the tears came up afresh, as she spoke, into her big black eyes—too familiar with them of late to make her even try to brush them away hastily from Ernest's sight with her little handkerchief.
'I'm sorry to know it's true,' Ernest said, taking her hand gently; 'very, very sorry. We must do what we can to lighten the trouble for them.'
'Yes,' Edie replied, looking at him through her tears; 'I mean to try. At any rate, I won't be a burden to them myself any longer. I've written already up to an agency in London to see whether they can manage to get me a place as a nursery-governess.'
'You a governess, Edie!' Ernest exclaimed hastily, with a gesture of deprecation. 'You a governess! Why, my own precious darling, you would never do for it!'
'Oh yes, indeed,' Edie answered quickly, 'I really think I could, Ernest. Of course I don't know very much—not judged by a standard like yours or our dear Harry's. Harry used to say all a woman could ever know was to find out how ignorant she was. Dear fellow! he was so very learned himself he couldn't understand the complacency of little perky, half-educated schoolmistresses. But still, I know quite as much, I think, in my little way, as a great many girls who get good places in London as governesses. I can speak French fairly well, you know, and read German decently; and then dear Harry took such a lot of pains to make me get up books that he thought were good for me—history and so forth—and even to teach me a little, a very little, Latin. Of course I know I'm dreadfully ignorant; but not more so, I really believe, than a great many girls whom people consider quite well-educated enough to teach their daughters. After all, the daughters themselves are only women, too, you see, Ernest, and don't expect more than a smattering of book-knowledge, and a few showy fashionable accomplishments.'
'My dear Edie,' Ernest answered, smiling at her gently in spite of her tearful earnestness; 'you quite misunderstand me. It wasn't THAT I was thinking of at all. There are very few governesses and very few women anywhere who have half the knowledge and accomplishments and literary taste and artistic culture that you have; very few who have had the advantage of associating daily with such a man as poor Harry; and if you really wanted to get a place of the sort, the mere fact that you're Harry's sister, and that he interested himself in superintending your education, ought, by itself, to ensure your getting a very good one. But what I meant was rather this—I couldn't endure to think that you should be put to all the petty slights and small humiliations that a governess has always to endure in rich families. You don't know what it is, Edie; you can't imagine the endless devices for making her feel her dependence and her artificial inferiority that these great people have devised in their cleverness and their Christian condescension. You don't know what it is, Edie, and I pray heaven you may never know; but I do, for I've seen it—and, darling, I CAN'T let you expose yourself to it.'