But Charles was determined not to let them out of his sight again, and he walked beside them the remainder of the way to Atherstone. He remained silent and preoccupied during the evening which followed, pored over a newspaper, and went off to his room early, leaving Ralph dozing in the smoking-room.
It was a fine moonlight night, still and clear. He stood at the open window looking out for a few minutes, and then began fumbling in a dilapidated old travelling-bag such as only rich men use.
"Not much," he said to himself, spreading out a few sovereigns and some silver on the table, "but it will do."
He put the money in his pocket, took off his gold hunting watch, and then went back to the smoking-room.
"I am going out again, Ralph, as I did last night. If I come in late, you need not take me for a burglar."
Ralph murmured something unintelligible, and Charles ran down-stairs, and let himself out of the drawing-room French window, that long French window to the ground, which Evelyn had taken a fancy to in a neighbor's drawing-room, and which she could never be made to see was not in keeping with the character of her old black-and-white house. He put the shutter back after he had passed through, and carefully drawing the window to behind him, without actually closing it, he took a turn or two upon the bowling-green, and then walked off in the direction of the Slumberleigh woods.
After the lapse of an hour or more he returned as quietly as he had gone, let himself in, made all secure, and stole up to his room.
Vandon was considered by many people to be the most beautiful house in ——shire.
In these days of great brand-new imitation of intensely old houses, where the amount of ground covered measures the purse of the builder, it is pleasant to come upon a place like Vandon, a quiet old manor-house, neither large nor small, built of ancient bricks, blent to a dim purple and a dim red by that subtle craftsman Time.
Whoever in the years that were no more had chosen the place whereon to build had chosen well. Vandon stood on the slope of a gentle hill, looking across a sweep of green valley to the rising woods beyond, which in days gone by had been a Roman camp, and where the curious might still trace the wide ledges cut among the regular lines of the trees.
Some careful hand had planned the hanging gardens in front of the house, which fell away to the stream below. Flights of wide stone steps led down from terrace to terrace, each built up by its south wall covered with a wealth of jasmine and ivy and climbing roses. But all was wild and deserted now. Weeds had started up between the stone slabs of the steps, and the roses blossomed out sweet and profuse, for it was the time of roses, amid convolvulus and campion. The quaint old dove-cot near the house had almost disappeared behind the trees that had crowded up round it, and held aloft its weathercock in silent protest at their encroachment. The stables close at hand, with their worn-out clock and silent bell, were tenantless. The coach-houses were full of useless old chariots and carriages. Into one splendid court coach the pigeons had found their way through an open window, and had made nests, somewhat to the detriment of the green-and-white satin fittings.
Great cedars, bent beneath the weight of years, grew round the house. The patriarch among them had let fall one of his gnarled supplicating arms in the winter, and there it still lay where it had fallen.
Anything more out of keeping with the dignified old place than its owner could hardly be imagined, as he stood in his eternal light gray suit (with a badge of affliction lightly borne on his left arm), looking at his heritage, with his cropped head a little on one side.
The sun was shining, but, like a smile on a serious face, Vandon caught the light on all its shuttered windows, and remained grave, looking out across its terraces to the forest.
"If it were but a villa on the Mediterranean, or a house in London," he said to himself; "but I have no chance." And he shrugged his shoulders, and wandered back into the house again. But, if the outside oppressed him, the interior was not calculated to raise his spirits.
Dare had an elegant taste, which he had never hitherto been able to gratify, for blue satin furniture and gilding; for large mirrors and painted ceilings of lovers and cupids, and similar small deer. The old square hall at Vandon, with its great stained glass windows, representing the various quarterings of the Dare arms, about which he knew nothing and cared less, oppressed him. So did the black polished oak floor, and the walls with their white bass-reliefs of twisting wreaths and scrolls, with busts at intervals of Cicero and Dante, and other severe and melancholy personages. The rapiers upon the high white chimney-piece were more to his taste. He had taken them down the first day after his arrival, and had stamped and cut and thrust in the most approved style, in the presence of Faust, the black poodle.
Dare was not the kind of man to be touched by it; but to many minds there would have been something pathetic in seeing a house, which had evidently been an object of the tender love and care of a by-gone generation, going to rack and ruin from neglect. Careful hands had embroidered, in the fine exquisite work of former days, marvellous coverlets and hangings, which still adorned the long suites of empty bedrooms. Some one had taken an elaborate pleasure in fitting up those rooms, had put pot-pourri in tall Oriental jars in the passages, had covered the old inlaid Dutch chairs with dim needle-work.
The Dare who had lived at court, whose chariot was now the refuge of pigeons, whose court suits, with the tissue paper still in the sleeves, yet remained in one of the old oak chests, and whose jewelled swords still hung in the hall, had filled one of the rooms with engravings of the royal family and ministers of his day. The Dare who had been an admiral had left his miniature surrounded by prints of the naval engagements he had taken part in, and on the oak staircase a tattered flag still hung, a trophy of unremembered victory.
But they were past and forgotten. The hands which had arranged their memorials with such pride and love had long since gone down to idleness, and forgetfulness also. Who cared for the family legends now? They, too, had gone down into silence. There was no one to tell Dare that the old blue enamel bowl in the hall, in which he gave Faust refreshment, had been brought back from the loot of the Winter Palace of Pekin; or that the drawer in the Reisener table in the drawing-room was full of treasured medals and miniatures, and that the key thereof was rusting in a silver patch-box on the writing-table.
The iron-clamped boxes in the lumber-room kept the history to themselves of all the silver plate that had lived in them once upon a time, although the few odd pieces remaining hinted at the splendor of what had been. In one corner of the dining-room the mahogany tomb still stood of a great gold racing cup, under the portrait of the horse that had won it; but the cup had followed the silver dinner service, had followed the diamonds, had followed in the wake of a handsome fortune, leaving the after generations impoverished. If their money is taken from them, some families are left poor indeed, and to this class the Dares belonged. It is curious to notice the occasional real equality underlying the apparent inequality of different conditions of life. The unconscious poverty, and even bankruptcy, of some rich people in every kind of wealth except money affords an interesting study; and it seems doubly hard when those who have nothing to live upon, and be loved and respected for, except their money, have even that taken from them. As Dare wandered through the deserted rooms the want of money of his predecessors, and consequently of himself, was borne in upon him. It fell like a shadow across his light pleasure-loving soul. He had expected so much from this unlooked-for inheritance, and all he had found was a melancholy house with a past.
He went aimlessly through the hall into the library. It was there that his uncle had lived; there that he had been found when death came to look for him; among the books which he had been unable to carry away with him at his departure; rare old tomes and first editions, long shelves of dead authors, who, it is to be hoped, continue to write in other worlds for those who read their lives away in this. Old Mr. Dare's interests and affections had all been bound in morocco and vellum. A volume lay open on the table, where the old man had put it down beside the leather arm-chair where he had sat, with his back to the light, summer and winter, winter and summer, for so many years.
No one had moved it since. A wavering pencil-mark had scored the page here and there. Dare shut it up, and replaced it among its brethren. How triste and silent the house seemed! He wondered what the old uncle had been like, and sauntered into the staircase hall, much in need of varnish, where the Dares that had gone before him lived. But these were too ancient to have his predecessor among them. He went into the long oak-panelled dining-room, where above the high carved dado were more Dares. Perhaps that man with the book was his namesake, the departed Alfred Dare. He wondered vaguely how he should look when he also took his place among his relations. Nature had favored him with a better mustache than most men, but he had a premonitory feeling that the very mustache itself, though undeniable in real life, would look out of keeping among these bluff, frank, light-haired people, of whom it seemed he—he who had never been near them before—was the living representative.
A sudden access of pleasurable dignity came over him as he sat on the dining-table, the great mahogany dining-table, which still showed vestiges of a by-gone polish, and was heavily dented by long years of hammered applause. These ancestors of his! He would not disgrace them. A few minutes ago he had been wondering whether Vandon might not be let. Now, with one of the rapid transitions habitual to him, he resolved that he would live at Vandon, that in all things he would be as they had been. He would become that vague, indefinable, to him mythical personage—a "country squire." Fortunately, he had a neat leg for a stocking. It was lost, so to speak, in his present mode of dress; but he felt that it would appear to advantage in the perpetual knickerbockers which he supposed it would be his lot to wear. It would also become his duty and his pleasure to marry. For those who tread in safety the slippery heights of married life he felt a true esteem. It would be a strain, no doubt, a great effort; but at this moment he was capable of anything. The finger of duty was plain. And with that adorable Miss Ruth, with or without a fortune—Alas! he trusted she had a fortune, for, as he came to think thereon, he remembered that he was desperately poor. As far as he could make out from his agent, a grim, silent man, who had taken an evident dislike to him from the first, there was no money anywhere. The rents would come in at Michaelmas; but the interest of heavy mortgages had to be paid, the estate had to be kept up. There was succession duty; there were debts—long outstanding debts—which came pouring in now, which Waters spread before him with an iron smile, and which poor Dare contemplated with his head on one side, and solemn, arched eyebrows. When Dare was not smiling he was always preternaturally solemn. There was no happy medium in his face, or consequently in his mind, which was generally gay, but, if not, was involved in a tragic gloom.
"These bills, my friend," he would say at last, tapping them in deep dejection, and raising his eyebrows into his hair, "how do we pay them?"
But Waters did not know. How should he, Waters, know? Waters only knew that the farmers would want a reduction in these bad times—Mr. Dare might be sure of that. And what with arrears, and one thing and another, he need not expect more than two-thirds of his rents when they did arrive. Mr. Dare might lay his account for that.
The only money which Dare received to carry on with, on his accession to the great honor and dignity of proprietor of Vandon, was brought to him by the old dairywoman of the house, a faithful creature, who produced out of an old stocking the actual coins which she had received for the butter and cheese she had sold, of which she showed Dare an account, chalked up in some dead language on the dairy door.
She was a little doubled-up woman, who had served the family all her life. Dare's ready smile and handsome face had won her heart before he had been many days at Vandon, in spite of "his foreign ways," and he found himself constantly meeting her unexpectedly round corners, where she had been lying in wait for him, each time with a secret revelation to whisper respecting what she called the "goin's on."
"You'll not tell on me, sir, but it's only right you should know as Mrs. Smith" (the house-keeper, of whom Dare stood in mortal terror) "has them fine damask table-cloths out for the house-keeper's room; I see 'em myself; and everything going to rag and ruin in the linen closet!" Or, "Joseph has took in another flitch this very day, sir, as Mrs. Smith sent for, and the old flitch all cut to waste. Do'e go and look at the flitches, sir, and the hams. They're in the room over the stables. And it's always butter, butter, butter, in the kitchen! Not a bit o' dripping used! There's not a pot of dripping in the larder, or so much as a skin of lard. Where does it all go to? You ask Mrs. Smith; and how she sleeps in her bed at night I don't know!"
Dare listened, nodded, made his escape, and did nothing. In the village it was as bad. Time, which had dealt so kindly with Vandon itself, had taken the straggling village in hand too. Nothing could be more picturesque than the crazy black-and-white houses, with lichen on their broken-in thatch, and the plaster peeling off from between the irregular beams of black wood; nothing more picturesque—and nothing more miserable.
When Time puts in his burnt umbers and brown madders with a lavish hand, and introduces his beautiful irregularities of outline, and his artistic disrepair, he does not look to the drainage, and takes no thought for holes in the roof.
Dare could not go out without eager women sallying out of cottages as he passed, begging him just to come in and walk up-stairs. They would say no more—but would the new squire walk up-stairs? And Dare would stumble up and see enough to promise. Alas! how much he promised in those early days. And in the gloaming, heavy dull-eyed men met him in the lanes coming back from their work, and followed him to "beg pardon, sir," and lay before the new squire things that would never reach him through Waters—bitter things, small injustices, too trivial to seem worthy of mention, which serve to widen the gulf between class and class. They looked to Dare to help them, to make the crooked straight, to begin a new regime. They looked to the new king to administer his little realm; the new king, who, alas! cared for none of these things. And Dare promised that he would do what he could, and looked anxious and interested, and held out his brown hand, and raised hopes. But he had no money—no money.
He spoke to Waters at first; but he soon found that it was no good. The houses were bad? Of course they were bad. Cottage property did not pay; and would Mr. Dare kindly tell him where the money for repairing them was to come from? Perhaps Mr. Dare might like to put a little of his private fortune into the cottages and the drains and the new pumps? Dare winced. His fortune had not gone the time-honored way of the fortunes of spirited young men of narrow means with souls above a sordid economy, but still it had gone all the same, and in a manner he did not care to think of.
It was after one of these depressing interviews with Waters that Ralph and Evelyn found the new owner of Vandon, when they rode over together to call, a day or two after the school-feast. Poor Dare was sitting on the low ivy-covered wall of the topmost terrace, a prey to the deepest dejection. If he had lived in Spartan days, when it was possible to conceal gnawing foxes under wearing apparel, he would have made no use of the advantages of Grecian dress for such a purpose. Captivated by Evelyn's gentleness and sympathetic manner (strangers always thought Evelyn sympathetic), and impressed by Ralph's kindly, honest face, he soon found himself telling them something of his difficulties, of the maze in which he found himself, of the snubs which Waters had administered.
Ralph slapped himself with his whip, whistled, and gave other masculine signs of interest and sympathy. Evelyn looked from one to the other, amiably distressed in her well-fitting habit. After a long conversation, in which Evelyn disclosed that Ralph was possessed of the most extraordinary knowledge and experience in such matters, the two good-natured young people, seeing he was depressed and lonely, begged him to come and stay with them at Atherstone the very next day, when he might discuss his affairs with Ralph, if so disposed, and take counsel with him. Dare accepted with the most genuine pleasure, and his speaking countenance was in a moment radiant with smiles. Was not the little Molly of the school-feast their child? and was not Miss Deyncourt likewise staying with them?
When his visitors departed, Dare took a turn at the rapiers; then opened the piano with the internal derangement, and sang to his own accompaniment a series of little confidential French songs, which would have made the hair of his ancestors stand on end, if painted hair could do such a thing. And the "new squire," as he was already called, shrugged his shoulders, and lowered his voice, and spread out his expressive rapid hands, and introduced to Vandon, one after another, some of those choice little ditties, French and English, which had made him such a favorite companion in Paris, so popular in a certain society in America.
"I fear," with a glance at the yellow-back in his hand, "I am interrupting a studious hour, but—"
"Not in the least, I assure you," said Charles, shutting his novel. "What is regarded as study by the feminine intellect is to the masculine merely relaxation. I was 'unbending over a book,' that was all."
The process of "unbending" was being performed in the summer-house, whither he had retired after Evelyn and Ralph had started on their afternoon's ride to Vandon, in which he had refused to join.
"I thought I should find you here," continued Ruth, frankly. "I have been wishing to speak to you for several days, but you are as a rule so surrounded and encompassed on every side by Molly that I have not had an opportunity."
It had occurred to Charles once or twice during the last few days that Molly was occasionally rather in the way. Now he was sure of it. As Ruth appeared to hesitate, he pulled forward a rustic contorted chair for her.
"No, thanks," she said. "I shall not long interrupt the unbending process. I only came to ask—"
"To ask!" repeated Charles, who had got up as she was standing, and came and stood near her.
"You remember the first evening you were here?"
"And what we spoke of at dinner?"
"I came to ask you how much you lent Raymond?" Ruth's clear, earnest eyes were fixed full upon him.
At this moment Charles perceived Lady Mary at a little distance, propelling herself gently over the grass in the direction of the summer-house. In another second she had perceived Charles and Ruth, and had turned precipitately, and hobbled away round the corner with surprising agility.
"Confound her!" inwardly ejaculated Charles.
"I wish to know how much you lent him," said Ruth again, as he did not answer, happily unconscious of what had been going on behind her back.
"Only what I was well able to afford."
"And has he paid it back since?"
"I am sure he understood I should not expect him to pay it back at once."
"But he has had it three years."
Charles did not answer.
"I feel sure he is not able to pay it. Will you kindly tell me how much it was?"
"No, Miss Deyncourt; I think not."
"Because—excuse me, but I perceive that if I do you will instantly wish to pay it."
"I do wish to pay it."
"I thought so."
There was a short silence.
"I still wish it," said Ruth at last.
Charles was silent. Her pertinacity annoyed and yet piqued him. Being unmarried, he was not accustomed to opposition from a woman. He had no intention of allowing her to pay her brother's debt, and he wished she would drop the subject gracefully, now that he had made that fact evident.
"Perhaps you don't know," continued Ruth, "that I am very well off." (As if he did not know it! As if Lady Mary had not casually mentioned Ruth's fortune several times in his hearing!) "Lady Deyncourt left me twelve hundred a year, and I have a little of my own besides. You may not be aware that I have fourteen hundred and sixty-two pounds per annum."
"I am very glad to hear it."
"That is a large sum, you will observe."
"It is riches," assented Charles, "if your expenditure happens to be less."
"It does happen to be considerably less in my case."
"You are to be congratulated. And yet I have always understood that society exacts great sacrifices from women in the sums they feel obliged to devote to dress."
"Dress is an interesting subject, and I should be delighted to hear your views on it another time; but we are talking of something else just at this moment."
"I beg your pardon," said Charles, quickly, who did not quite like being brought back to the case in point. "I—the truth was, I wished to turn your mind from what we were speaking of. I don't want you to count sovereigns into my hand. I really should dislike it very much."
"You intend me to think from that remark that it was a small sum," said Ruth, with unexpected shrewdness. "I now feel sure it was a large one. It ought to be paid, and there is no one to do it but me. I know that what is firmness in a man is obstinacy in a woman, so do not on your side be too firm, or, who knows? you may arouse some of that obstinacy in me to which I should like to think myself superior."
"If," said Charles, with sudden eagerness, as if an idea had just struck him, "if I let you pay me this debt, will you on your side allow me to make a condition?"
"I should like to know the condition first."
"Of course. If I agree,"—Charles's light gray eyes had become keen and intent—"if I agree to receive payment of what I lent Deyncourt three years ago, will you promise not to pay any other debt of his, or ever to lend him money without the knowledge and approval of your relations?"
Ruth considered for a few minutes.
"I have so few relations," she said at length, with rather a sad smile, "and they are all prejudiced against poor Raymond. I think I am the only friend he has left in the world. I am afraid I could not promise that."
"Well," said Charles, eagerly, "I won't insist on relations. I know enough of those thorns in the flesh myself. I will say instead, 'natural advisers.' Come, Miss Deyncourt, you can't accuse me of firmness now!"
"My natural advisers," repeated Ruth, slowly. "I feel as if I ought to have natural advisers somewhere; but who are they? Where are they? I could not ask my sister or her husband for advice. I mean, I could not take it if I did. I should think I knew better myself. Uncle John? Evelyn? Lord Polesworth? Sir Charles, I am afraid the truth is I have never asked for advice in my life. I have always tried to do what seemed best, without troubling to know what other people thought about it. But as I am anxious to yield gracefully, will you substitute the word 'friends' for 'natural advisers'? I hope and think I have friends whom I could trust."
"Friends, then, let it be," said Charles. "Now," holding out his hand, "do you promise never, et cetera, et cetera, without first consulting your friends?"
Ruth put her hand into his.
"That is right. How amiable we are both becoming! I suppose I must now inform you that two hundred pounds is the exact sum I lent your brother."
Ruth went back to the house, and in a few minutes returned with a check in her hand. She held it towards Charles, who took it, and put it in his pocket-book.
"Thank you," she said, with gratitude in her eyes and voice.
"We have had a pitched battle," said Charles, relapsing into his old indifferent manner. "Neither of us has been actually defeated, for we never called out our reserves, which I felt would have been hardly fair on you; but we do not come forth with flying colors. I fear, from your air of elation, you actually believe you have been victorious."
"I agree with you that there has been no defeat," replied Ruth; "but I won't keep you any longer from your studies. I am just going out driving with Lady Mary to have tea with the Thursbys."
"Miss Deyncourt, don't allow a natural and most pardonable vanity to delude you to such an extent. Don't go out driving the victim of a false impression. If you will consider one moment—"
"Not another moment," replied Ruth; "our bugles have sung truce, and I am not going to put on my war-paint again for any consideration. There comes the carriage," as a distant rumbling was heard. "I must not keep Lady Mary waiting;" and she was gone.
Charles heard the carriage roll away again, and when half an hour later he sauntered back towards the house, he was surprised to see Lady Mary sitting in the drawing-room window.
"What! Not gone, after all!" he exclaimed, in a voice in which surprise was more predominant than pleasure.
"No, Charles," returned Lady Mary in her measured tones, looking slowly up at him over her gold-rimmed spectacles. "I felt a slight return of my old enemy, and Miss Deyncourt kindly undertook to make my excuses to Mrs. Thursby."
No one knew what the old enemy was, or in what manner his mysterious assaults on Lady Mary were conducted; but it was an understood thing that she had private dealings with him, in which he could make himself very disagreeable.
"Has Molly gone with her?"
"No; Molly is making jam in the kitchen, I believe. Miss Deyncourt most good-naturedly offered to take her with her; but,"—with a shake of the head—"the poor child's totally unrestrained appetites and lamentable self-will made her prefer to remain where she was."
"I am afraid," said Charles, meditatively, as if the idea were entirely a novel one, "Molly is getting a little spoiled among us. It is natural in you, of course; but there is no excuse for me. There never is. There are, I confess, moments when I don't regard the child's immortal welfare sufficiently to make her present existence less enjoyable. What a round of gayety Molly's life is! She flits from flower to flower, so to speak; from me to cook and the jam-pots; from the jam-pots to some fresh delight in the loft, or in your society. Life is one long feast to Molly. Whatever that old impostor the Future may have in store for her, at any rate she is having a good time now."
There was a shade of regretful sadness in Charles's voice that ruffled his aunt.
"The child is being ruined," she said, with resigned bitterness.
"Not a bit of it. I was spoiled as a child, and look at me!"
"You are spoiled. I don't spoil you; but other people do. Society does. And the result is that you are so hard to please that I don't believe you will ever marry. You look for a perfection in others which is not to be found in yourself."
"I don't fancy I should appear to advantage side by side with perfection," said Charles, in his most careless manner; and he rose, and wandered away into the garden.
He was irritated with Lady Mary, with her pleased looks during the last few days, with her annoying celerity that afternoon in the garden. It was all the more annoying because he was conscious that Ruth amused and interested him in no slight degree. She had the rare quality of being genuine. She stood for what she was, without effort or self-consciousness. Whether playful or serious, she was always real. Beneath a reserved and rather quiet manner there lurked a piquant unconventionality. The mixture of earnestness and humor, which were so closely interwoven in her nature that he could never tell which would come uppermost, had a strange attraction for him. He had grown accustomed to watch for and try to provoke the sudden gleam of fun in the serious eyes, which always preceded a retort given with an air of the sweetest feminine meekness, which would make Ralph rub himself all over with glee, and tell Charles, chuckling, he "would not get much change out of Ruth."
If only she had not been asked to Atherstone on purpose to meet him. If only Lady Mary had not arranged it; if only Evelyn did not know it; if only Ralph had not guessed it; if only he himself had not seen it from the first instant! Ruth and Molly were the only two unconscious persons in the house.
"I wonder," said Charles to himself, "why people can't allow me to manage my own affairs? Oh, what a world it is for unmarried men with money! Why did I not marry fifteen years ago, when every woman with a straight nose was an angel of light; when I felt a noble disregard for such minor details as character, mind, sympathy, if the hair and the eyes were the right shade? Why did I not marry when I was out of favor with my father, when I was head over ears in debt, and when at least I could feel sure no one would marry me for my money? Molly," as that young lady came running towards him with lingering traces of jam upon her flushed countenance, "you have arrived just in time. Uncle Charles was getting so dull without you. What have you been after all this time?"
"Cook and me have made thirty-one pots and a little one," said Molly, inserting a very sticky hand into Charles's. "And your Mr. Brown helped. Cook told him to go along at first, which wasn't kind, was it? but he stayed all the same; and I skimmed with a big spoon, and she poured it in the pots. Only they aren't covered up with paper yet, if you want to see them. And oh! Uncle Charles, what do you think? Father and mother have come back from their ride, and that nice funny man who was at the school-feast is coming here to-morrow, and I shall show him my guinea-pigs. He said he wanted to see them very much."
"Oh, he did, did he? When was that?"
"At the school-feast. Oh!" with enthusiasm, "he was so nice, Uncle Charles, so attentive, and getting things when you want them; and the wheel went over his foot when he was shaking hands, and he did not mind a bit; and he filled our teapots for us—Ruth's big one, you know, that holds such a lot."
"Oh! He filled the big teapot, did he?"
"Yes, and mine too; and then he helped us to unpack the dolls. He was so kind to me and Cousin Ruth."
"Kind to Miss Deyncourt, was he?"
"Yes; and when we went away he ran and opened the gate for us. Oh, there comes Cousin Ruth back again in the carriage. I'll run and tell her he's coming. She will be glad."
"Aunt Mary is right," said Charles, watching his niece disappear. "Molly has formed a habit of expressing herself with unnecessary freedom. Decidedly she is a little spoiled."
Dare arrived at Atherstone the following afternoon. Evelyn and Ralph, who had enlarged on the state of morbid depression of the lonely inhabitant of Vandon, were rather taken aback by the jaunty appearance of the sufferer when he appeared, overflowing with evident satisfaction and small-talk, his face wreathed with smiles.
"He bears up wonderfully," said Charles aside to Ruth, later in the evening, as Dare warbled a very discreet selection of his best songs after dinner. "No one knows better than myself that many a breaking heart beats beneath a smiling waistcoat, but unless we had been told beforehand we should never have guessed it in his case."
Dare, who was looking at Ruth, and saw Charles go and sit down by her, brought his song to an abrupt conclusion, and made his way to her also.
"You also sing, Miss Deyncourt?" he asked. "I am sure, from your face, you sing."
"Thank Heaven!" said Charles, fervently. "I did you an injustice. I thought you were going to say 'a little.' Every singing young lady I ever met, when asked that question, invariably replied 'a little.'"
"I leave my friends to say that for me," said Ruth.
"Perhaps you yourself sing a little?" asked Dare, wishing Charles would leave Ruth's ball of wool alone.
"No," said Charles; "I have no tricks." And he rose and went off to the newspaper-table. Dare's songs were all very well, but really his voice was nothing so very wonderful, and he was not much of an acquisition in other ways.
Then Dare took his opportunity. He dropped into Charles's vacant chair; he wound wool; he wished to learn to knit; his inquiring mind craved for information respecting shooting-stockings. He talked of music; of songs—Italian, French, and English; of American nigger melodies. Would Miss Deyncourt sing? Might he accompany her? Ah! she preferred the simple old English ballads. He loved the simple English ballad.
And Ruth, nothing loath, sang in her fresh, clear voice one song after another, Dare accompanying her with rapid sympathy and ease.
Charles put down his paper and moved slightly, so that he had a better view of the piano. Evelyn laid down her work and looked affectionately at Ruth.
"Exquisite," said Lady Mary from time to time, who had said the same of Lady Grace's wavering little soprano.
"You also sing duets? You sing duets?" eagerly inquired Dare, the music-stool creaking with his suppressed excitement; and, without waiting for an answer, he began playing the opening chords of "Greeting."
The two voices rose and fell together, now soft, now triumphant, harmonizing as if they sung together for years. Dare's second was low, pathetic, and it blended at once with Ruth's clear young contralto. Charles wondered that the others should applaud when the duet was finished. Ruth's voice went best alone in his opinion.
"And the 'Cold Blast'?" asked Dare, immediately afterwards. "The 'Cold Blast' was here a moment ago,"—turning the leaves over rapidly. "You are not tired, Miss Deyncourt?"
"Tired!" replied Ruth, her eyes sparkling. "It never tires me to sing. It rests me."
"Ah! so it is with me. That is just how I feel," said Dare. "To sing, or to listen to the voice of—of—"
"Of what? Confound him!" wondered Charles.
"Of another," said Dare. "Ah, here he is!" and he pounced on another song, and lightly touched the opening chords.
"'Oh! wert thou in the cold blast,'"
sang Ruth, fresh and sweet.
"'I'd shelter thee,'"
Dare assured her with manly fervor. He went on to say what he would do if he were monarch of the realm, affirming that the brightest jewel of his crown would be his queen.
"Anyhow, he can't pronounce Scotch," Charles thought.
"Would be his queen," Dare repeated, with subdued emotion and an upward glance at Ruth, which she was too much absorbed in the song to see, but which did not escape Charles. Dare's dark sentimental eyes spoke volumes of—not sermons—at that moment.
"Oh, Uncle Charles!" whispered Molly, who had been allowed to sit up about two hours beyond her nominal bedtime, at which hour she rarely felt disposed to retire—"oh, Uncle Charles! 'The brightest jewel in his crown!' Don't you wish you and me could sing together like that?"
Charles moved impatiently, and took up his paper again.
The evening passed all too quickly for Dare, who loved music and the sound of his own voice, and he had almost forgotten, until Charles left him and Ralph alone together in the smoking-room, that he had come to discuss his affairs with the latter.
"Dear me," said Evelyn, who had followed her cousin to her room after they had dispersed for the night, and was looking out of Ruth's window, "that must be Charles walking up and down on the lawn. Well, now, how thoughtful he is to leave Mr. Dare and Ralph together. You know, Ruth, poor Mr. Dare's affairs are in a very bad way, and he has come to talk things over with my Ralph."
"I hope Ralph will make him put his cottages in order," said Ruth, with sudden interest, shaking back her hair from her shoulders. "Do you think he will?"
"Whatever Ralph advises will be sure to be right," replied Evelyn, with the soft conviction of his infallibility which caused her to be considered by most of Ralph's masculine friends an ideal wife. It is women without reasoning powers of any kind whom the nobler sex should be careful to marry if they wish to be regarded through life in this delightful way by their wives. Men not particularly heroic in themselves, who yet are anxious to pose as heroes in their domestic circle, should remember that the smallest modicum of common-sense on the part of the worshipper will inevitably mar a happiness, the very existence of which depends entirely on a blind unreasoning devotion. In middle life the absence of reason begins perhaps to be felt; but why in youth take thought for such a far-off morrow!
"I hope he will," said Ruth, half to herself. "What an opportunity that man has if he only sees it. There is so much to be done, and it is all in his hands."
"Yes, it's not entailed; but I don't think there is so very much," said Evelyn. "But then, so long as people are nice, I never care whether they are rich or poor. That is the first question I ask when people come into the neighborhood. Are they really nice? Dear me, Ruth, what beautiful hair you have; and mine coming off so! And, talking of hair, did you ever see anything like Mr. Dare's? Somebody must really speak to him about it. If he would keep his hands still, and not talk so quick, and let his hair grow a little, I really think he would not look so like a foreigner."
"I don't suppose he minds looking like one."
"His mother was a Frenchwoman, wasn't she? I am sure I have heard so fifty times since his uncle died."
"And if she was," said Evelyn, reprovingly, "is not that an extra reason for his giving up anything that will remind people of it? And we ought to try and forget it, Ruth, and behave just the same to him as if she had been an Englishwoman. I wonder if he is a Roman Catholic?"
"I hope he is not," continued Evelyn, taking up her candle to go. "We never had one to stay in the house before. I don't mean," catching a glimpse of Ruth's face, "that Catholics are—well—I don't mean that. But still, you know, one would not like to make great friends with a Catholic, would one, Ruth? And he is so nice and so amusing that I do hope, as he is going to be a neighbor, he is a Protestant." And after a few more remarks of about the same calibre from Evelyn, the two cousins kissed and parted for the night.
"Will he do it?" said Ruth to herself, when she was alone. "Has he character enough, and perseverance enough, and money enough? Oh, I wish Uncle John would talk to him!"
Ruth was not aware that one word from herself would have more weight with a man like Dare than any number from an angel of heaven, if that angel were of the masculine gender. If at the other side of the house Dare could have known how earnestly Ruth was thinking about him, he would not have been surprised (for he was not without experience), but he would have felt immensely flattered.
Vandon lay in a distant part of Mr. Alwynn's parish, and a perpetual curate had charge of the district. Mr. Alwynn consequently seldom went there, but on the few occasions on which Ruth had accompanied him in his periodical visits she had seen enough. Who cares for a recital of what she saw? Misery and want are so common. We can see them for ourselves any day. In Ruth's heart a great indignation had kindled against old Mr. Dare, of Vandon, who was inaccessible as a ghost in his own house, haunting the same rooms, but never to be found when Mr. Alwynn called upon him to "put things before him in their true light." And when Mr. Dare descended to the Vandon vault, all Mr. Alwynn's interest, and consequently a good deal of Ruth's, had centred in the new heir, who was so difficult to find, and who ultimately turned up from the other end of nowhere just when people were beginning to despair of his ever turning up at all.
And now that he had come, would he make the crooked straight? Would the new broom sweep clean? Ruth recalled the new broom's brown handsome face, with the eager eyes and raised eyebrows, and involuntarily shook her head. It is difficult to be an impartial judge of any one with a feeling for music and a pathetic tenor voice; but the face she had called to mind did not inspire her with confidence. It was kindly, amiable, pleasant; but was it strong? In other words, was it not a trifle weak?
She found herself comparing it with another, a thin, reserved face, with keen light eyes and a firm mouth; a mouth with a cigar in it at that moment on the lawn. The comparison, however, did not help her meditations much, being decidedly prejudicial to the "new broom;" and the faint chime of the clock on the dressing-table breaking in on them at the same moment, she dismissed them for the night, and proceeded to busy herself putting to bed her various little articles of jewellery before betaking herself there also.
* * * * *
Any doubts entertained by Evelyn about Dare's religious views were completely set at rest the following morning, which happened to be a Sunday. He appeared at breakfast in a black frock-coat, the splendor of which quite threw Ralph's ancient Sunday garment into the shade. He wore also a chastened, decorous aspect, which seemed unfamiliar to his mobile face, and rather ill suited to it. After breakfast, he inquired when service would be, and expressed a wish to attend it. He brought down a high hat and an enormous prayer-book, and figured with them in the garden.
"Who is going to Greenacre, and who is going to Slumberleigh?" called out Ralph, from the smoking-room window. "Because, if any of you are going to foot it to Slumberleigh, you had better be starting. Which are you going to, Charles?"
"I am going where Molly goes. Which is it to be, Molly?"
"Slumberleigh," said Molly, with decision, "because it's the shortest sermon, and I want to see the little foal in Brown's field."
"Slumberleigh be it," said Charles. "Now, Miss Deyncourt," as Ruth appeared, "which church are you going to support—Greenacre, which is close in more senses than one, where they never open the windows, and the clergyman preaches for an hour; or Slumberleigh, shady, airy, cool, lying past a meadow with a foal in it? If I may offer that as any inducement, Molly and I intend to patronize Slumberleigh."
Ruth said she would do the same.
"Now, Dare, you will be able to decide whether Greenacre, with a little fat tower, or Slumberleigh, with a beautiful tall steeple, suits your religious views best."
"I will also go to Slumberleigh," said Dare, without a moment's hesitation.
"I thought so. I suppose,"—to Ralph and Evelyn—"you are going to Greenacre with Aunt Mary? Tell her I have gone to church, will you? It will cheer her up. Sunday is a very depressing day with her, I know. She thinks of all she has done in the week, preparatory to doing a little more on Monday. Good-bye. Now then, Molly, have you got your prayer-book? Miss Deyncourt, I don't see yours anywhere. Oh, there it is! No, don't let Dare carry it for you. Give it to me. He will have enough to do, poor fellow, to travel with his own. Come, Molly! Is Vic chained up? Yes, I can hear him howling. The craving for church privileges of that dumb animal, Miss Deyncourt, is an example to us Christians. Molly, have you got your penny? Miss Deyncourt, can I accommodate you with a threepenny bit? Now, are we all ready to start?"
"When this outburst of eloquence has subsided," said Ruth, "the audience will be happy to move on."
And so they started across the fields, where the grass was already springing faint and green after the haymaking. There was a fresh wandering air, which fluttered the ribbons in Molly's hat, as she danced on ahead, frisking in her short white skirt beside her uncle, her hand in his. Charles was the essence of wit to Molly, with his grave face that so seldom smiled, and the twinkle in the kind eyes, that always went before those wonderful, delightful jokes which he alone could make. Sometimes, as she laughed, she looked back at Ruth and Dare, half a field behind, in pity at what they were missing.
"Shall we wait and tell them that story, Uncle Charles?"
"No, Molly. I dare say he is telling her another which is just as good."
"I don't think he knows any like yours."
"Some people like the old, old story best."
"Do I know the old, old one, Uncle Charles?"
"Can you tell it?"
"No. I have never been able to tell that particular story."
"And do you really think he is telling it to her now?" with a backward glance.
"Not at this moment. It's no good running back. He's only thinking about it now. He will tell it her in about a month or six weeks' time."
"I hope I shall be there when he tells it."
"I hope you may; but I don't think it is likely. And now, Molly, set your hat straight, and leave off jumping. I never jump when I go to church with Aunt Mary. Quietly now, for there's the church, and Mr. Alwynn's looking out of the window."
Dare, meanwhile, walking with Ruth, caught sight of the church and lych-gate with heart-felt regret. The stretches of sunny meadowland, the faint glamour of church bells, the pale refined face beside him, had each individually and all three together appealed to his imagination, always vivid when he himself was concerned. He suddenly felt as if a great gulf had fixed itself, without any will of his own, between his old easy-going life and the new existence that was opening out before him.
He had crossed from the old to the new without any perception of such a gulf, and now, as he looked back, it seemed to yawn between him and all that hitherto he had been. He did not care to look back, so he looked forward. He felt as if he were the central figure (when was he not a central figure?) in a new drama. He was fond of acting, on and off the stage, and now he seemed to be playing a new part, in which he was not yet thoroughly at ease, but which he rather suspected would become him exceedingly well. It amused him to see himself going to church—to church—to hear himself conversing on flowers and music with a young English girl. The idea that he was rapidly falling in love was specially delightful. He called himself a vieux scelerat, and watched the progress of feelings which he felt did him credit with extreme satisfaction. He and Ruth arrived at the church porch all too soon for Dare; and though he had the pleasure of sitting on one side of her during the service, he would have preferred that Charles, of whom he felt a vague distrust, had not happened to be on the other.
"My dear," said Mrs. Alwynn to her husband that morning, as they started for church across the glebe, "if any of the Atherstone party are in church, as they ought to be, for I hear from Mrs. Smith that they are not at all regular at Greenacre—only went once last Sunday, and then late—I shall just tell Ruth that she is to come back to me to-morrow. A few days won't make any difference to her, and it will fit in so nicely her coming back the day you go to the palace. After all I've done for Ruth—new curtains to her room, and the piano tuned and everything—I don't think she would like to stay there with friends, and me all by myself, without a creature to speak to. Ruth may be only a niece by marriage, but she will see in a moment—"
And in fact she did. When Mrs. Alwynn took her aside after church, and explained the case in the all-pervading whisper for which she had apparently taken out a patent, Ruth could not grasp any reason why she should return to Slumberleigh three days before the time, but she saw at once that return she must if Mrs. Alwynn chose to demand it; and so she yielded with a good grace, and sent Mrs. Alwynn back smiling to the lych-gate, where Mr. Alwynn and Mabel Thursby were talking with Dare and Molly, while Charles interviewed the village policeman at a little distance.
"No news of the tramp," said Charles, meeting Ruth at the gate; and they started homeward in different order to that in which they had come, in spite of a great effort at the last moment on the part of Dare, who thought the old way was better. "The policeman has seen nothing of him. He has gone off to pastures new, I expect."
"I hope he has."
"Mrs. Alwynn does not want you to leave Atherstone to-morrow, does she?"
"I am sorry to say she does."
"But you won't go?"
"I must not only go, but I must do it as if I liked it."
"I hope Evelyn won't allow it."
"While I am living with Mrs. Alwynn, I am bound to do what she likes in small things."
"I should have thought, Sir Charles, that this particularly feminine and submissive sentiment would have met with your approval."
"It does; it does," said Charles, hastily. "Only, after the stubborn rigidity of your—shall I say your—week-day character, especially as regards money, this softened Sabbath mood took me by surprise for a moment."
"You should see me at Slumberleigh," said Ruth, with a smile half sad, half humorous. "You should see me tying up Uncle John's flowers, or holding Aunt Fanny's wools. Nothing more entirely feminine and young lady-like can be imagined."
"It must be a great change, after living with a woman like Lady Deyncourt—to whose house I often went years ago, when her son was living—to come to a place like Slumberleigh."
"It is a great change. I am ashamed to say how much I felt it at first. I don't know how to express it; but everything down here seems so small and local, and hard and fast."
"I know," said Charles, gently; and they walked on in silence. "And yet," he said at last, "it seems to me, and I should have thought you would have felt the same, that life is very small, very narrow and circumscribed everywhere; though perhaps more obviously so in Cranfords and Slumberleighs. I have seen a good deal during the last fifteen years. I have mixed with many sorts and conditions of men, but in no class or grade of society have I yet found independent men and women. The groove is as narrow in one class as in another, though in some it is better concealed. I sometimes feel as if I were walking in a ball-room full of people all dancing the lancers. There are different sets, of course—fashionable, political, artistic—but the people in them are all crossing over, all advancing and retiring, with the same apparent aimlessness, or setting to partners."
"There is occasionally an aim in that."
Charles smiled grimly.
"They follow the music in that as in everything else. You go away for ten years, and still find them, on your return, going through the same figures to new tunes. I wonder if there are any people anywhere in the world who stand on their own feet, and think and act for themselves; who don't set their watches by other people's; who don't live and marry and die by rote, expecting to go straight up to heaven by rote afterwards?"
"I believe there are such people," said Ruth, earnestly; "I have had glimpses of them, but the real ones look like the shadows, and the shadows like the real ones, and—we miss them in the crowd."
"Or one thinks one finds them, and they turn out only clever imitations after all. In these days there is a mania for shamming originality of some kind. I am always imagining people I meet are real, and not shadows, until one day I unintentionally put my hand through them, and find out my mistake. I am getting tired of being taken in."
"And some day you will get tired of being cynical."
"I am very much obliged to you for your hopeful view of my future. You evidently imagine that I have gone in for the fashionable creed of the young man of the present day. I am not young enough to take pleasure in high collars and cheap cynicism, Miss Deyncourt. Cynical people are never disappointed in others, as I so often am, because they expect the worst. In theory I respect and admire my fellow-creatures, but they continually exasperate me because they won't allow me to do so in real life. I have still—I blush to own it—a lingering respect for women, though they have taken pains to show me, time after time, what a fool I am for such a weakness."
Charles looked intently at Ruth. Women are so terribly apt in handling any subject to make it personal. Would she fire up, or would she, like so many women, join in abuse of her own sex? She did neither. She was looking straight in front of her, absently watching the figures of Dare and Molly in the next field. Then she turned her grave, thoughtful glance towards him.
"I think respect is never weakness," she said. "It is a sign of strength, even when it is misplaced. There is not much to admire in cunning people who are never taken in. The best people I have known, the people whom it did me good to be with, have been those who respected others and themselves. Do not be in too great a hurry to get rid of any little fragment that still remains. You may want it when it is gone."
Charles's apathetic face had become strangely earnest. There was a keen, searching look in his tired, restless eyes. He was about to make some answer, when he suddenly became aware of Dare and Molly sitting perched on a gate close at hand waiting for them. Never had he perceived Molly's little brown face with less pleasure than at that moment. She scrambled down with a noble disregard of appearances, and tried to take his hand. But it was coolly withdrawn. Charles fell behind on some pretence of fastening the gate, and Molly had to content herself with Ruth's and Dare's society for the remainder of the walk.
Ruth had almost forgotten, until Molly suggested at luncheon a picnic for the following day, that she was returning to Slumberleigh on Monday morning; and when she made the fact known, Ralph had to be "hushed" several times by Evelyn for muttering opinions behind the sirloin respecting Mrs. Alwynn, which Evelyn seemed to have heard before, and to consider unsuited to the ears of that lady's niece.
"But if you go away, Cousin Ruth, we can't have the picnic. Can we, Uncle Charles?"
"Impossible, Molly. Rather bread and butter at home than a mixed biscuit in the open air without Miss Deyncourt."
"Is Mrs. Alwynn suffering?" asked Lady Mary, politely, down the table.
Ruth explained that she was not in ill-health, but that she did wish to be left alone; and Ralph was "hushed" again.
Lady Mary was annoyed, or, more properly speaking, she was "moved in the spirit," which in a Churchwoman seems to be the same thing as annoyance in the unregenerate or unorthodox mind. She regretted Ruth's departure more than any one, except perhaps Ruth herself. She had watched the girl very narrowly, and she had seen nothing to make her alter the opinion she had formed of her; indeed, she was inclined to advance beyond it. Even she could not suspect that Ruth had "played her cards well;" although she would have aided and abetted her in any way in her power, if Ruth had shown the slightest consciousness of holding cards at all, or being desirous of playing them. Her frank yet reserved manner, her distinguished appearance, her sense of humor (which Lady Mary did not understand, but which she perceived others did), and the quiet savoir faire of her treatment of Dare's advances, all enhanced her greatly in the eyes of her would-be aunt. She bade her good-bye with genuine regret; the only person who bore her departure without a shade of compunction being Dare, who stood by the carriage till the last moment, assuring Ruth that he hoped to come over to the rectory very shortly; while Charles and Molly held the gate open meanwhile, at the end of the short drive.
"I know that Frenchman means business," said Lady Mary wrathfully to herself, as she watched the scene from the garden. Her mind, from the very severity of its tension, was liable to occasional lapses of this painful kind from the spiritual and ecclesiastical to the mundane and transitory. "I saw it directly he came into the house; and with his opportunities, and living within a stone's-throw, I should not wonder if he were to succeed. Any man would fetch a fancy price at Slumberleigh; and the most fastidious woman in the world ceases to be critical if she is reduced to the proper state of dulness. He is handsome, too, in his foreign way. But she does not like him now. She is inclined to like Charles, though she does not know it. There is an attraction between the two. I knew there would be. And he likes her. Oh, what fools men are! He will go away; and Dare, on the contrary, will ride over to Slumberleigh every day, and by the time he is engaged to her Charles will see her again, and find out that he is in love with her himself. Oh, the folly, the density, of unmarried men! and, indeed," (with a sudden recollection of the deceased Mr. Cunningham), "of the whole race of them! But of all men I have ever known, I really think the most provoking is Charles."
"Musing?" inquired her nephew, sauntering up to her.
"I was thinking that we had just lost the pleasantest person of our little party," said Lady Mary, viciously seizing up her work.
"I am still here," suggested Charles, by way of consolation. "I don't start for Norway in Wyndham's yacht for three days to come."
"Do you mean to say you are going to Norway?"
"I forget whether it was to be Norway; but I know I'm booked to go yachting somewhere. It's Wyndham's new toy. He paid through the parental nose for it, and he made me promise in London to go with him on his first cruise. I believe a very charming Miss Wyndham is to be of the party."
"And how long, pray, are you going to yacht with Miss Wyndham?"
"It is with her brother I propose to go. I thought I had explained that before. I shall probably cruise about, let me see, for three weeks or so, till the grouse-shooting begins. Then I am due in Scotland, at the Hope-Actons', and several other places."
Lady Mary laid down her work, and rose to her feet, her thin hand closing tightly over the silver crook of her stick.
"Charles," she said, in a voice trembling with anger, looking him full in the face, "you are a fool!" and she passed him without another word, and hobbled away rapidly into the house.
"Am I?" said Charles, half aloud to himself, when the last fold of her garment had been twitched out of sight through the window.
"Am I? Molly," with great gravity, as Molly appeared, "yes, you may sit on my knee; but don't wriggle. Molly, what is a fool?"
"I think it's Raca, only worse," said Molly. "Uncle Charles, Mr. Dare is going away too. His dog-cart had just come into the yard."
"Has it? I hope he won't keep it waiting."
"You are not going away, are you?"
"Not for three days more."
"Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. Why, they will be gone in a moment."
But to Charles they seemed three very long days indeed. He was annoyed with himself for having made so many engagements before he left London. At the time there did not seem anything better to be done, and he supposed he must go somewhere; but now he thought he would have liked to stay on at Atherstone, though he would not have said so to Lady Mary for worlds. He was tired of rushing up and down. He was not so fond of yachting, after all; and he remembered that he had been many times to Norway.
"I would get out of it if I could," he said to Lady Mary on the last morning; "and of this blue serge suit, too (you should see Miss Wyndham in blue serge!); but it is not a question of pleasure, but of principle. I don't like to throw over Wyndham at the last moment, after what you said when I failed the Hope-Actons last year. Twins could not feel more exactly together than you and I do where a principle is involved. I see you are about to advise me to keep my engagement. Do not trouble to do so; I am going to Portsmouth by the mid-day train. Brown is at this moment packing my telescope and life-belt."
It was the end of August. The little lawn at Slumberleigh Rectory was parched and brown. The glebe beyond was brown; so was the field beyond that. The thirsty road was ash-white between its gray hedge-rows. It was hotter in the open air than in the house, but Ruth had brought her books out into the garden all the same, and had made a conscientious effort to read under the chestnut-tree.
For under the same roof with Mrs. Alwynn she had soon learned that application or study of any kind was an impossibility. Mrs. Alwynn had several maxims as to the conduct of herself, and consequently of every one else, and one of those to which she most frequently gave utterance was that "young people should always be cheery and sociable, and should not be left too much to themselves."
When in the winter Mr. Alwynn had brought home Ruth, quite overwhelmed for the time by the shock of the first real trouble she had known, Mrs. Alwynn was kindness itself in the way of sweet-breads and warm rooms; but the only thing Ruth craved for, to be left alone, she would not allow for a moment. No! Mrs. Alwynn was cheerful, brisk, and pious at intervals. If she found her niece was sitting in her own room, she bustled up-stairs, poked the fire, gave her a kiss, and finally brought her down to the drawing-room, where she told her she would be as quiet as in her own room. She need not be afraid her uncle would come in; and she must not allow herself to get moped. What would she, Mrs. Alwynn, have done, she would like to know, if, when she was in trouble—and she knew what trouble meant, if any one did—she had allowed herself to get moped. Ruth must try and bear up. And at Lady Deyncourt's age it was quite to be expected. And Ruth must remember she still had a sister, and that there was a happy home above. And now, if she would get that green wool out of the red plush iron (which really was a work-box—such a droll idea, wasn't it?), Ruth should hold the wool, and they would have a cosey little chat till luncheon time.
And so Mrs. Alwynn did her duty by her niece; and Ruth, in the dark days that followed her grandmother's death, took all the little kindnesses in the spirit in which they were meant, and did her duty by her aunt.
But after a time Mrs. Alwynn became more exacting. Ruth was visibly recovering from what Mrs. Alwynn called "her bereavement." She could smile again without an effort; she took long walks with Mr. Alwynn, and later in the spring paid a visit to her uncle, Lord Polesworth. It was after this visit that Mrs. Alwynn became more exacting. She had borne with half attention and a lack of interest in crewel-work while Ruth was still "fretting," as she termed it. But when a person lays aside crape, and goes into half-mourning, the time had come when she may—nay, when she ought to be "chatty." This time had come with Ruth, but she was not "chatty." Like Mrs. Dombey, she did not make an effort, and, as the months passed on, Mrs. Alwynn began to shake her head, and to fear that "there was some officer or something on her mind." Mrs. Alwynn always called soldiers officers, and doctors physicians.
Ruth, on her side, was vaguely aware that she did not give satisfaction. The small-talk, the perpetual demand on her attention, the constant interruptions, seemed to benumb what faculties she had. Her mind became like a machine out of work—rusty, creaking, difficult to set going. If she had half an hour of leisure she could not fix her attention to anything. She, who in her grandmother's time had been so keen and alert, seemed to have drifted, in Mrs. Alwynn's society, into a torpid state, from which she made vain attempts to emerge, only to sink the deeper.
When she stood once more, fresh from a fortnight of pleasant intercourse with pleasant people, in the little ornate drawing-room at Slumberleigh, on her return from Atherstone, the remembrance of the dulled, confused state in which she had been living with her aunt returned forcibly to her mind. The various articles of furniture, the red silk handkerchiefs dabbed behind pendent plates, the musical elephants on the mantle-piece, the imitation Eastern antimacassars, the shocking fate, in the way of nailed and glued pictorial ornamentation, that had overtaken the back of the cottage piano—indeed, all the various objects of luxury and vertu with which Mrs. Alwynn had surrounded herself, seemed to recall to Ruth, as the apparatus of the sick-room recalls the illness to the patient, the stupor into which she had fallen in their company. With her eyes fixed upon the new brass pig (that was at heart a pen-wiper) which Mrs. Alwynn had pointed out as a gift of Mabel Thursby, who always brought her back some little "tasty thing from London"—with her eyes on the brass pig, Ruth resolved that, come what would, she would not allow herself to sink into such a state of mental paralysis again.
To read a book of any description was out of the question in the society of Mrs. Alwynn. But Ruth, with the connivance of Mr. Alwynn, devised a means of eluding her aunt. At certain hours of the day she was lost regularly, and not to be found. It was summer, and the world, or at least the neighborhood of Slumberleigh Rectory, which was the same thing, was all before her where to choose. In after-years she used to say that some books had always remained associated with certain places in her mind. With Emerson she learned to associate the scent of hay, the desultory remarks of hens, and the sudden choruses of ducks. Carlyle's "Sartor Resartus," which she read for the first time this year, always recalled to her afterwards the leathern odor of the box-room, with an occasional soupcon of damp flapping linen in the orchard, which spot was not visible from the rectory windows.
Gradually Mrs. Alwynn became aware of the fact that Ruth was never to be seen with a book in her hand, and she expressed fears that the latter was not keeping up her reading.
"And if you don't like to read to yourself, my dear, you can read to me while I work. German, now. I like the sound of German very well. It brings back the time when your Uncle John and I went up the Rhine on our honey-moon. And then, for English reading there's a very nice book Uncle John has somewhere on natural history, called 'Animals of a Quiet Life,' by a Mr. Hare, too—so comical, I always think. It's good for you to be reading something. It is what your poor dear granny would have wished if she had been alive. Only it must not be poetry, Ruth, not poetry."
Mrs. Alwynn did not approve of poetry. She was wont to say that for her part she liked only what was perfectly true, by which it is believed she meant prose.
She had no books of her own. In times of illness she borrowed from Mrs. Thursby (who had all Miss Young's works, and selections from the publications of the S.P.C.K.). On Sundays, when she could not work, she read, half aloud, of course, with sighs at intervals, a little manual called "Gold Dust," or a smaller one still called "Pearls of Great Price," which she had once recommended to Charles, whom she knew slightly, and about whom she affected to know a great deal, which nothing (except pressing) would induce her to repeat; which rendered the application of the "Pearls," to be followed by the "Dust," most essential to his future welfare.
On this particular morning in August, Ruth had slipped out as far as the chestnut-tree, the lower part of which was hidden from the rectory windows by a blessed yew hedge. It was too hot to walk, it was too hot to draw, it was even too hot to read. It did not seem, however, to be too hot to ride, for presently she heard a horse's hoofs clattering across the stones of the stable-yard, and she knew, from the familiarity of the sound at that hour of the day, that Dare had probably ridden over, and, more probably still, would stay to luncheon.
The foreign gentleman, as all the village people called him, had by this time become quite an institution in the neighborhood of Vandon. Every one liked him, and he liked every one. Like the sun, he shone upon the just and unjust. He went to every tennis-party to which he was invited. He was pleased if people were at home when he called. He became in many houses a privileged person, and he never abused his privileges. Women especially liked him. He had what Mrs. Eccles defined as "such a way with him;" his way being to make every woman he met think that she was particularly interesting in his eyes—for the time being. Men did not, of course, care for him so much. When he stayed anywhere, it was vaguely felt by the sterner sex of the party that he stole a march upon them. While they were smoking, after their kind, in clusters on the lawn, it would suddenly be observed that he was sitting in the drawing-room, giving a lesson in netting, or trying over a new song encircled by young ladyhood. It was felt that he took an unfair advantage. What business had he to come down to tea in that absurd amber plush smoking-suit, just because the elder ladies had begged to see it? It was all the more annoying, because he looked so handsome in it. Like most men who are admired by women, he was not much liked by men.
But the house to which he came the oftenest was Slumberleigh Rectory. He was faithful to his early admiration of Ruth; and the only obstacle to his making her (in his opinion) happy among women, namely, her possible want of fortune, had long since been removed by the confidential remarks of Mrs. Alwynn. To his foreign habits and ideas fourteen or fifteen hundred a year represented a very large sum. In his eyes Ruth was an heiress, and in all good earnest he set himself to win her. Mr. Alwynn had now become the proper person to consult regarding his property; and at first, to Ruth's undisguised satisfaction, he consulted him nearly every other day, his horse at last taking the turn for Slumberleigh as a matter of course. Many a time, in these August days, might Mrs. Eccles and all the other inhabitants of Slumberleigh have seen Dare ride up the little street, taking as much active exercise as his horse, only skyward; the saddle being to him merely a point of rebound.
But if the object of his frequent visits was misunderstood by Ruth at first, Dare did not allow it to remain so long. And not only Ruth herself, but Mr. and Mrs. Alwynn, and the rectory servants, and half the parish were soon made aware of the state of his affections. What was the good of being in love, of having in view a social aim of such a praiseworthy nature, if no one were aware of the same? Dare was not the man to hide even a night-light under a bushel; how much less a burning and a shining hymeneal torch such as this. His sentiments were strictly honorable. If he raised expectations, he was also quite prepared to fulfil them. Miss Deyncourt was quite right to treat him with her adorable, placid assumption of indifference until his attentions were more avowed. In the mean while she was an angel, a lily, a pearl, a star, and several other things, animal, vegetable, and mineral, which his vivid imagination chose to picture her. But whatever Dare's faults may have been—and Ruth was not blind to them—he was at least head over ears in love with her, fortune or none; and as his attachment deepened, it burned up like fire all the little follies with which it had begun.
A clergyman has been said to have made love to the helpmeet of his choice out of the Epistle to the Galatians. Dare made his out of material hardly more promising—plans for cottages, and estimates of repairs. He had quickly seen how to interest Ruth, though the reason for such an eccentric interest puzzled him. However, he turned it to his advantage. Ruth encouraged, suggested, sympathized in all the little he was already doing, and the much that he proposed to do.
Of late, however, a certain not ungrounded suspicion had gradually forced itself upon her which had led her to withdraw as much as she could from her former intercourse with Dare; but her change of manner had not quite the effect she had intended.
"She thinks I am not serious," Dare had said to himself; "she thinks that I play with her feelings. She does not know me. To-morrow I ride over; I set her mind at rest. To-morrow I propose; I make an offer; I claim that adored hand; I—become engaged."
Accordingly, not long after the clatter of horse's hoofs in the stable-yard, Dare himself appeared in the garden, and perceiving Ruth, for whom he was evidently looking, informed her that he had ridden over to ask Mr. Alwynn to support him at a dinner his tenants were giving in his honor—a custom of the Vandon tenantry from time immemorial on the accession of a new landlord. He spoke absently; and Ruth, looking at him more closely as he stood before her, wondered at his altered manner. He had a rose in his button-hole. He always had a rose in his button-hole; but somehow this was more of a rose than usual. His mustaches were twirled up with unusual grace.
"You will find Mr. Alwynn in the study," said Ruth, hurriedly.
His only answer was to cast aside his whip and gloves, as possible impediments later on, and to settle himself, with an elegant arrangement of the choicest gaiters, on the grass at her feet.
It is probably very disagreeable to repeat in any form, however discreetly worded, the old phrase—
"The reason why I cannot tell, But I don't like you, Doctor Fell."
But it must be especially disagreeable, if a refusal is at first not taken seriously, to be obliged to repeat it, still more plainly, a second time. It was Ruth's fate to be obliged to do this, and to do it hurriedly, or she foresaw complications might arise.
At last Dare understood, and the sudden utter blankness of his expression smote Ruth to the heart. He had loved her in his way after all. It is a bitter thing to be refused. She felt that she had been almost brutal in her direct explicitness, called forth at the moment by an instinct that he would proceed to extreme measures unless peremptorily checked.
"I am so sorry," she said, involuntarily.
Poor Dare, who had recovered a certain amount of self-possession, now that he was on his feet again, took up his gloves and riding-whip in silence. All his jaunty self-assurance had left him. He seemed quite stunned. His face under his brown skin was very pale.
"I am so sorry," said Ruth again, feeling horribly guilty.
"It is I who am sorry," he said, humbly. "I have made a great mistake, for which I ask pardon;" and, after looking at her for a moment, in blank incertitude as to whether she could really be the same person whom he had come to seek in such happy confidence half an hour before, he raised his hat, his new light gray hat, and was gone.
Ruth watched him go, and when he had disappeared, she sat down again mechanically in the chair from which she had risen a few moments before, and pressed her hands tightly together. She ought not to have allowed such a thing to happen, she said to herself. Somehow it had never presented itself to her in its serious aspect before. It is difficult to take a vain man seriously. Poor Mr. Dare! She had not known he was capable of caring so much about anything. He had never appeared to such advantage in her eyes as he had done when he had left her the moment before, grave and silent. She felt she had misjudged him. He was not so frivolous, after all. And now that her influence was at an end, who would keep him up to the mark about the various duties which she knew now he had begun to fulfil only to please her? Oh, who would help and encourage him in that most difficult of positions, a land-owner without means sufficient for doing the best by land and tenantry? She instinctively felt that he could not be relied upon for continuous exertion by himself.
"I wish I could have liked him," said Ruth to herself. "I wish, I wish, I could!"
During the whole of the following week Dare appeared no more at Slumberleigh. Mrs. Alwynn, whose time was much occupied as a rule in commenting on the smallest doings of her neighbors, and in wondering why they left undone certain actions which she herself would have performed in their place, Mrs. Alwynn would infallibly have remarked upon his absence many times during every hour of the day, had not her attention been distracted for the time being by a one-horse fly which she had seen go up the road on the afternoon of the day of Dare's last visit, the destination of which had filled her soul with anxious conjecture.
She did not ascertain till the following day that it had been ordered for Mrs. Smith, of Greenacre; though, as she told Ruth, she might have known that, as Mr. Smith was going for a holiday with Mrs. Smith, and their pony lame in its feet; that they would have to have a fly, and with that hill up to Greenacre she was surprised one horse was enough.
When the question of the fly had been thus satisfactorily settled, and Mrs. Alwynn had ceased wondering whether the Smiths had gone to Tenby or to Rhyl (she always imagined people went to one or other of these two places), her whole attention reverted to a screen which she was making, the elegance and novelty of which supplied her with a congenial subject of conversation for many days.
"There is something so new in a screen, an entire screen of Christmas cards," Mrs. Alwynn would remark. "Now, Mrs. Thursby's new screen is all pictures out of the Graphic, and those colored Christmas numbers. She has put all her cards in a book. There is something rather passy about those albums, I think. Now I fancy this screen will look quite out of the common, Ruth; and when it is done, I shall get some of those Japanese cranes and stand them on the top. Their claws are made to twist round, you know, and I shall put some monkeys—you know those droll chenille monkeys, Ruth—creeping up the sides to meet the cranes. I don't honestly think, my dear"—with complacency—"that many people will have anything like it."
Ruth did not hesitate to say that she felt certain very few would.
Mrs. Alwynn was delighted at the interest she took in her new work. Ruth was coming out at last, she told her husband; and she passed many happy hours entirely absorbed in the arrangement of the cards upon the panels. Ruth, thankful that her attention had been providentially distracted from the matter that filled her own thoughts, in a way that surprised and annoyed her, sorted, and snipped, and pasted, and decided weighty questions as to whether a goitred robin on a twig should be placed next to a smiling plum-pudding, dancing a polka with a turkey, or whether a congealed cross, with "Christian greeting" in icicles on it, should separate the two.
To her uncle Ruth told what had happened; and as he slowly wended his way to Vandon on the day fixed for the tenant's dinner, Mr. Alwynn mused thereon, and I believe, if the truth were known, he was sorry that Dare had been refused. He was a little before his time, and he stopped on the bridge, and looked at the river, as it came churning and sweeping below, fretted out of its usual calm by the mill above. I think that as he leaned over the low stone parapet he made many quiet little reflections besides the involuntary one of himself in the water below. He would have liked (he was conscious that it was selfish, but yet he would have liked) to have Ruth near him always. He would have liked to see this strange son of his old friend in good hands, that would lead him—as it is popularly supposed a woman's hand sometimes can—in the way of all others in which Mr. Alwynn was anxious that he should walk; a way in which he sometimes feared that Dare had not made any great progress as yet. Mr. Alwynn felt at times, when conversing with him, that Dare's life could not have been one in which the nobler feelings of his nature had been much brought into play, so crude and unformed were his ideas of principle and responsibility, so slack and easy-going his views of life.
But if Mr. Alwynn felt an occasional twinge of anxiety and misgiving about his young friend, it speedily turned to self-upbraiding for indulging in a cynical, unworthy spirit, which was ever ready to seek out the evil and overlook the good; and he gradually convinced himself that only favorable circumstances were required for the blossoming forth of those noble attributes, of which the faintest indications on Dare's part were speedily magnified by the powerful lens of Mr. Alwynn's charity to an extent which would have filled Dare with satisfaction, and would have overwhelmed a more humble nature with shame.
And Ruth would not have him! Mr. Alwynn remembered a certain passage in his own youth, a long time ago, when somebody (a very foolish somebody, I think) would not have him either; and it was with that remembrance still in his mind that he met Dare, who had come as far as the lodge gates to meet him, and whose forlorn appearance touched Mr. Alwynn's heart the moment he saw him.
There was not time for much conversation. To his astonishment Mr. Alwynn found Dare actually nervous about the coming ordeal; and on the way to the Green Dragon, where the dinner was to be given, he reassured him as best he could, and suggested the kind of answer he should make when his health was drunk.
When, a couple of hours later, all was satisfactorily over, when the last health had been drunk, the last song sung, and Dare was driving Mr. Alwynn home in the shabby old Vandon dog-cart, both men were at first too much overcome by the fumes of tobacco, in which they had been hidden, to say a word to each other. At last, however, Mr. Alwynn drew a long breath, and said, faintly:
"I trust I may never be so hot again. Drive slowly under these trees, Dare. It is cooling to look at them after sitting behind that steaming volcano of a turkey. How is your head getting on? I saw you went in for punch."
"Was that punch?" said Dare. "Then I take no more punch in the future."
"You spoke capitally, and brought in the right sentiment, that there is no place like home, in first-rate style. You see, you need not have been nervous."
"Ah! but it was you who spoke really well," said Dare, with something of his old eager manner. "You know these people. You know their heart. You understand them. Now, for me, I said what you tell me, and they were pleased, but I can never be with them like you. I understand the words they speak, but themselves I do not understand."
"It will come."
"No," with a rare accession of humility. "I have cared for none of these things till—till I came to hear them spoken of at Slumberleigh by you and—and now at first it is smooth, because I say I will do what I can, but soon they will find out I cannot do much, and then—" He shrugged his shoulders.
They drove on in silence.
"But these things are nothing—nothing," burst out Dare at last, in a tremulous voice, "to the one thing I think of all night, all day—how I love Miss Deyncourt, and how," with a simplicity which touched Mr. Alwynn, "she does not love me at all."
There is something pathetic in seeing any cheerful, light-hearted animal reduced to silence and depression. To watch a barking, worrying, jovial puppy suddenly desist from parachute expeditions on unsteady legs, and from shaking imaginary rats, and creep, tail close at home, overcome by affliction, into obscurity, is a sad sight. Mr. Alwynn felt much the same kind of pity for Dare as he glanced at him, resignedly blighted, handsomely forlorn, who but a short time ago had taken life as gayly and easily as a boy home for the holidays.
"Sometimes," said Mr. Alwynn, addressing himself to the mill, and the bridge, and the world in general, "young people change their minds. I have known such things happen."
"I shall never change mine."
"Perhaps not; but others might."
"Ah!" and Dare turned sharply towards Mr. Alwynn, scanning his face with sudden eagerness. "You think—you think, possibly—"
"I don't think anything at all," interposed Mr. Alwynn, rather taken aback at the evident impression his vague words had made, and anxious to qualify them. "I was only speaking generally; but—ahem! there is one point, as we are on the subject, that—"
"Whether you consider any decision as final or not"—Mr. Alwynn addressed the clouds in the sky—"I think, if you do not wish it to be known that anything has taken place, you had better come and see me occasionally at Slumberleigh. I have missed your visits for the past week. The fact is, Mrs. Alwynn has a way of interesting herself in all her friends. She has a kind heart, and—you—understand—any little difference in their behavior might be observed by her, and might possibly—might possibly"—Mr. Alwynn was at a loss for a word—"be, in short, commented on to others. Suppose now you were to come back with me to tea to-day?"
And Dare went, nothing loath, and arrived at a critical moment in the manufacture of the screen, when all the thickest Christmas cards threatened to resist the influence of paste, and to curl up, to the great anxiety of Mrs. Alwynn.
One of the principle reasons of Dare's popularity was the way in which he threw his whole heart into whatever he was doing, for the time; never for a long time, certainly, for he rarely bored himself or others by adherence to one set of ideas after its novelty had worn off.
And now, as if nothing else existed in the world, and with a grave manner suggesting repressed suffering and manly resignation, he concentrated his whole mind on Mrs. Alwynn's recalcitrant cards, and made Ruth grateful to him by his tact in devoting himself to her aunt and the screen.
"Well, I never!" said Mrs. Alwynn, after he was gone. "I never did see any one like Mr. Dare. I declare he has made the church stick, Ruth, and 'Blessings on my friend,' which turned up at the corners twice when you put it on, and the big middle one of the kittens skating, too! Dear me! I am pleased. I hope Mrs. Thursby won't call till it's finished. But he did not look well, Ruth, did he? Rather pale now, I thought."
"He has had a tiring day," said Ruth.
At Slumberleigh you have time to notice the change of the seasons. There is no hurry at Slumberleigh. Spring, summer, autumn, and winter, each in their turn, take quite a year to come and go. Three months ago it was August; now September had arrived. It was actually the time of damsons. Those damsons which Ruth had seen dangling for at least three years in the cottage orchards were ripe at last. It seemed ages ago since April, when the village was a foaming mass of damson blossom, and the "plum winter" had set in just when spring really seemed to have arrived for good. It was a well-known thing in Slumberleigh, though Ruth till last April had not been aware of it, that God Almighty always sent cold weather when the Slumberleigh damsons were in bloom, to harden the fruit. And now the lame, the halt, and the aged of Slumberleigh, all with one consent, mounted on tottering ladders to pick their damsons, or that mysterious fruit, closely akin to the same, called "black Lamas ploums."
There were plum accidents, of course, in plenty. The Lord took Mrs. Eccles's own uncle from his half-filled basket to another world, for which, as a "tea and coffee totaller," he was no doubt well prepared. The too receptive organisms of unsuspecting infancy suffered in their turn. In short, it was a busy season for Mr. and Mrs. Alwynn.
Ruth had plenty of opportunities now for making her long-projected sketch of the ruined house of Arleigh, for the old woman who lived in the lodge close by, and had charge of the place, had "ricked" her back in a damson-tree, and Ruth often went to see her. She had been Ruth's nurse in her childhood, and having originally come from Slumberleigh, returned there when the Deyncourt children grew up, and lived happily ever after, with the very blind and entirely deaf old husband of her choice, in the gray stone lodge at Arleigh.
It was on her return from one of these almost daily visits that Mrs. Eccles pounced on Ruth as she passed her gate, and under pretence of inquiring after Mrs. Cotton, informed her that she herself was suffering in no slight degree. Ruth, who suddenly remembered that she had been remiss in "dropping in" on Mrs. Eccles of late, dropped in then and there to make up for past delinquencies.
"Is it rheumatism again?" she asked, as Mrs. Eccles seemed inclined to run off at once into a report of the goings on of Widow Jones's Sally.
"Not that, my dear, so much as a sinking," said Mrs. Eccles, passing her hand slowly over what seemed more like a rising than a depression in her ample figure. "But there! I've not been myself since the Lord took old Samiwell Price, and that's the truth."
Samuel Price was the relation who had entered into rest off a ladder, and Ruth looked duly serious.
"I have no doubt it upset you very much," she said.
"Well, miss," returned Mrs. Eccles, with dignity, "it's not as if I'd had my 'ealth before. I've had something wrong in the cistern" (Ruth wondered whether she meant system) "these many years. From a gell I suffered in my inside. But lor'! I was born to trouble, baptized in a bucket, and taken with collects at a week old. And how did you say Mrs. Cotton of the lodge might be, miss, as I hear is but poorly too?"