Cicely drove off through the park at half-past ten. Until she had passed through the lodge gates and got between the banks of a deep country lane, Kitty went her own pace, quite aware that she was being driven by one whose unreasonable inclinations for speed must subordinate themselves to the comfort of pony-flesh as long as she was in sight of house or stables. Then, with a shake of her head, she suddenly quickened her trot, but did not escape the cut of a whip which was always administered to her at this point. With that rather vicious little cut Cicely expressed her feelings at a state of things in which, with fourteen or fifteen horses in the stable and half a dozen at the home farm, the only animal at the disposal of herself and her sisters was always wanted for something else whenever they asked for it.
The Squire had four hunters—sometimes more—which nobody but himself ever used, and the price of a horse that would carry a man of his weight comfortably ran into treble figures more often than not. Dick kept a couple always at Kencote, even Walter had one, and Humphrey and Frank could always be mounted whenever they wanted a day with the South Meadshire. There were nine or ten horses, standing in stalls or loose boxes or at grass, kept entirely for the amusement of her father and brothers, besides half a dozen more for the carriages, the station omnibus, the luggage cart, and all the dynamic demands of a large household. The boys had all had their ponies as soon as their legs could grip a saddle. This very pony that she was driving was really Frank's, having been rescued for him from a butcher's cart in Bathgate fourteen years before, and nobody knew how old she was. She was used for the mowing machine and for every sort of little odd job about the garden, and seemed as if she might go on for ever. It was only when Cicely or the twins drove her that the reminder was given that she was not as young as she had been, and must not be hustled.
And she was all they were ever allowed to drive, and then only when she was not wanted for something else. It was a Clinton tradition, deriving probably from Colonel Thomas and his six stay-at-home daughters, that the women of the family did not hunt. They were encouraged to drive and allowed to ride to the meets of hounds if there was anything to carry them, and in Cicely's childhood there had been other ponies besides Kitty, left-offs of her elder brothers, which she had used. But she had never been given a horse of her own, and the hunters were far too precious to be galled by a side-saddle. What did she want to ride for? The Squire hated to see women flying about the country like men, and he wasn't going to have any more horses in the stable. The men had more than enough to do as it was. It was part of the whole unfair scheme on which life at Kencote was based. Everything was done for the men and boys of the family, and the women and girls must content themselves with what was left over.
Pondering these and other things, Cicely drove along the country lanes, between banks and hedges bright with the growth of early summer, through woods in which pheasants, reared at great expense that her father and brothers and their friends might kill them, called one another hoarsely, as if in a continual state of gratulation at having for a year at least escaped their destined end; between fields in which broods of partridges ran in and out of the roots of the green corn; across a bridge near which was a deep pool terrifically guarded by a notice-board against those who might have disturbed the fat trout lying in its shadows; across a gorse-grown common, sacred home of an old dog-fox that had defied the South Meadshire hounds for five seasons; and so, out of her father's property on to that of Jim Graham, in which blood relations of the Kencote game and vermin were protected with equal care, in order that the Grahams might fulfil the destiny appointed for them and the Clintons and the whole race of squirearchy alike.
The immediate surroundings of Mountfield were prettier than those of Kencote. The house stood at the foot of a wooded rise, and its long white front showed up against a dark background of trees. It was older in date than Georgian Kencote, and although its walls had been stuccoed out of all resemblance to those of an old house, its high-pitched roof and twisted chimney stacks had been left as they were. The effect was so incongruous that even unaesthetic Alexander Graham, Jim's father, had thought of uncovering the red brick again. But the front had been altered to allow for bigger windows and a portico resembling that at Kencote, and the architect whom he had consulted, had pressed him to spend more money on it than he felt inclined to. So he had left it alone and spent none; and Jim, who was not so well off as his father by the amount of Muriel's portion and the never-to-be-forgiven Harcourt duties, was not likely to have a thousand pounds to spare for making his rooms darker for some years to come.
The old stable buildings, untouched by the restorer, flanked the house on one side and the high red brick wall of the gardens on the other. The drive sloped gently up from the gates through an undulating park more closely planted than that of Kencote. There were some very old trees at Mountfield and stretches of bracken here and there beneath them. It was a pity that the house had been spoilt in appearance, but its amenities were not wholly destroyed. Cicely knew it almost as well as she knew Kencote, but she acknowledged its charm now as she drove up between the oak and the young fern. Under the blue June sky strewn with light clouds, it stood for a peaceful, pleasant life, if rather a dull one, and she could not help wondering whether her friend would really be happier in a house of her own in Melbury Park, which, if painted in somewhat exaggeratedly dark colours by Cicely's father, had not struck her, when she had seen it from the railway, as a place in which any one could possibly live of choice. Perhaps Walter had over-persuaded her. She would know very soon now, for Muriel told her everything.
A GOOD LONG TALK
Mrs. Graham—she was the Honourable Mrs. Graham, a daughter of the breeder of Jove II. and other famous shorthorns—came out of the door leading to the stableyard as Cicely drove up. She had been feeding young turkeys, and wore a shortish skirt of brown tweed, thick boots and a green Tyrolean hat, and was followed by three dogs—a retriever, a dachshund, and one that might have been anything. She was tall and spare, with a firm-set, healthy face, and people sometimes said that she ought to have been a man. But she was quite happy as a woman, looking after her poultry and her garden out of doors, and her dogs and her household within. She had hardly moved from Mountfield since her marriage thirty years before, and the only fly in the ointment of content in which she had embalmed herself was that she would have to leave it when Jim married. But she greeted Cicely, who was expected to supplant her, with bright cordiality, and lifted up a loud voice to summon a groom to lead off Kitty to the stable.
"My dear," she said; "such a nuisance as this wedding is you never knew. It's as much as I can do to keep the birds and the animals fed, and how I shall look in heliotrope and an aigrette the Lord only knows. But I suppose nobody will look at me, and Muriel will be a picture. Have you heard that Walter is going to take her to live at Melbury Park? It seems a funny place to go to live in, doesn't it? But I suppose they won't mind as long as they are together. I never saw such a pair of love-birds."
"Walter wrote to father about it this morning," said Cicely, "and he is coming down this afternoon. Father is furious with him."
"Well, I'm sure I don't know why," said Mrs. Graham equably. "I shouldn't care to live in Melbury Park myself, and I don't suppose Mr. Clinton would. But nobody asks him to. If they want to, it's their own affair. I'm all for letting people go their own way—always have been. I go mine."
"Why does Walter choose such a place as that to take Muriel to?" asked Cicely, who had not remained quite unimpressed by the Squire's diatribe against the unfortunate suburb.
"Oh, it's convenient for his hospital and gives him the sort of practice he wants for a year or two. I don't know. They won't live there for ever. I don't suppose it will kill them to know a few people you wouldn't ask to dinner. It hasn't killed me. I get on with farmers' wives better than anybody—ought to have been one."
"Father is going to ask you to put your foot down and say Muriel shan't go there," said Cicely.
"Well then, I won't," replied Mrs. Graham decisively. "I'm not a snob." Then she added hurriedly, "I don't say that your father is one either; but he does make a terrible fuss about all that sort of thing. I should have thought a Clinton was good enough to be able to know anybody without doing himself any harm. But you had better go and talk to Muriel about it, my dear. You will find her upstairs, with her clothes. Oh, those clothes! I must go and look after the gardeners. They are putting liquid manure on the roses, and I'm afraid they will mix it too strong."
Mrs. Graham went off to attend to her unsavoury but congenial task, and Cicely went indoors and up to Muriel's room, where she found her friend with a maid, busy over some detail of her trousseau. They greeted one another with coolness but affection, the maid was sent out of the room, and they settled down in chintz-covered easy-chairs by the window for the usual good long talk.
Muriel was a pretty girl, less graceful than Cicely, but with her big brown eyes and masses of dark hair, a foil to her friend's fair beauty. She had her mother's sensible face, but was better-looking than her mother had ever been.
"Now you must tell me every word from the beginning," she said. "You said nothing in your letters. You didn't make me see the room, or any one in it."
Cicely had a good deal to say about her late experiences, but her friend's own affairs were of more recent interest. "But I want to hear about Walter and Melbury Park first," she said. "There is a rare to-do about it at Kencote, I can tell you, Muriel."
"Is there?" said Muriel, after a short pause, as if she were adjusting her thoughts. "That was what Walter was afraid of."
"Don't you mind going to live in a place like that?" asked Cicely. "Father thinks it is a shame that Walter should take you there."
"O my dear," said Muriel, with a trifle of impatience, "you know quite well what I think about all that sort of thing. We have talked it over hundreds of times. Here we are, stuck down in the middle of all this, with nothing in the world to do but amuse ourselves, if we can, and never any chance of pushing along. We have got it all; there is nothing to go for. That's what I first admired about my darling old Walter. He struck out a line of his own. If he had been content just to lop over the fence into Kencote Rectory, I don't think I should ever have fallen in love with him. I don't know, though. He is the sweetest old dear."
"Oh, don't begin about Walter," urged Cicely.
"Yes, I will begin about Walter," replied Muriel, "and I'll go on with Walter. He says now that the only thing he is really keen about—except me—is his work. He always liked it, in a way, but when he made up his mind to be a doctor it was only because he knew he must have some profession, and he thought he might as well have one that interested him. But now it takes up all his thoughts, except when he comes down here for a holiday, and you know how the old pet enjoys his holidays. Well, I'm going to do all I can to help him to get on. He says this practice at Melbury Park is just what he wants, to get his hand in; he won't be worried with a lot of people who aren't really ill at all, but have to be kept in a good humour in case they should go off to another doctor. It will be hard, sound work, and he will be in touch with the hospital all the time. He is immensely keen about it. I don't want to say anything against Mr. Clinton, but why can't he see that Walter is worth all the rest of your brothers put together, because he has set out to do something and they are just having a good time?"
"Oh, well, Muriel, I can't allow that," said Cicely. "Dick is quite a good soldier. He got his D.S.O. in the war. And besides, his real work is to look after the property, and he knows as much about that as father. And Humphrey has to go about a lot. You must, in the Foreign Office. And Frank—he is doing all right. He was made doggy to his Admiral only the other day."
"Well, at any rate," replied Muriel, "they start from what they are. And you can't say that their chief aim isn't to have a good time. Walter has gone in against men who have to work, whether they want to or not, and he has done as well as any of them. He owes nothing to being the son of a rich man. It has been against him, if anything."
"Father hoped he was going to set up as a consulting physician," said Cicely.
"Yes, and why?" asked Muriel. "Only because he wants him to live amongst the right sort of people. He doesn't care a bit whether he would make a good consultant or not. Walter says he isn't ready for it. He wants more experience. It will all come in time. He is not even quite sure what he wants to specialise on, or if he wants to specialise at all. At present he only wants to be a G.P., with plenty of work and time for the hospital."
"What is a G.P.?" asked Cicely.
"Oh, a general practitioner. It's what Walter calls it."
"Then why can't he be a G.P. in a nicer place than Melbury Park? It is rather hard on you, Muriel, to take you to a place where you can't know anybody."
"O my dear, what do I care for all that nonsense about knowing people? Surely there's enough of that here! Is this person to be called on, who has come to live in a house which nobody ever called at before, or that person, because nobody has ever heard of her people? I'm sick of it. Even mother won't call on Bathgate people, however nice they may be, and she's not nearly so stuck up as most of the county women."
"Yes, I know all that, and of course it's nonsense. But you must admit that it is different with people who aren't gentle-people at all."
"I'm not a fool, and I don't pretend that I'm going to make bosom friends of all Walter's patients, though I am going to do what I can to make things pleasant all round. We shall see our friends in London, of course. Jim is going to give us a jolly good motor-car, and we shall be able to dine out and go to the play and all that if we want to, and people ask us. But it is all so unimportant, Cicely, that side of it. Walter wants to get out of it. He'll be very busy, and the best times we shall have will be in our own little house alone, or going right away when we get a holiday."
"I dare say you are quite right," said Cicely. "Of course it will be jolly to have your own house and do what you like with it. Has Walter got a house yet?"
"There is quite a decent one we can have where the man who wants to sell the practice lives. It is really bigger than we want, although it's only a semi-detached villa. I should be able to have my friends to stay with me. Cicely, you must come directly we move in, and help to get things straight, if we go there."
"Oh, you'll go there all right, if Walter has made up his mind about it," said Cicely. "Father thinks he will hold out, but he knows, really, that he won't. That's what makes him so wild."
Both the girls laughed. "He is a funny old thing," said Muriel apologetically, "but he has been very nice to me."
"Only because you have got ten thousand pounds, my dear, and are the right sort of match for Walter. He wouldn't be very nice to you if Walter had found you at Melbury Park; not even if you had your ten thousand pounds. Oh dear, I wish I had ten thousand pounds."
"What would you do with it?"
"I should travel. At any rate I should go away from Kencote. Muriel, I am sick to death of it."
"Ah, that is because it seems dull after London. You haven't told me a word about all that you have been doing, and I have been talking about myself all the time."
"I didn't care a bit about London. I didn't enjoy it at all—except the opera."
"Don't try to be blasee, my dear girl. Of course you enjoyed it."
"I tell you I didn't. Look here, Muriel, really it is unfair the way the boys have everything in our family and the girls have nothing."
"I do think it is a shame you are not allowed to hunt."
"It isn't only that. It is the same with everything. I have seen it much more plainly since I went to London."
"Well, my dear, you went to a Court Ball, and to all the best houses. The boys don't do more than that. I shouldn't do as much if I went to London in the season."
"Yes, I went. And I went because Cousin Humphrey took the trouble to get cards for us. He is an old darling. Do you suppose father would have taken the smallest trouble about it—for me and mother?"
"He knows all the great people. I suppose a Clinton is as good as anybody."
"Yes, a man Clinton. That is just it. Dick and Humphrey go everywhere as a matter of course. I saw enough of it to know what society in London means. It is like a big family; you meet the same people night after night, and everybody knows everybody else—that is in the houses that Cousin Humphrey got us invited to. Dick and Humphrey know everybody like that; they were part of the family; and mother and I were just country cousins who knew nobody."
"Well, of course, they are there all the time and you were only up for a fortnight. Didn't they introduce you to people?"
"O yes. Dick and Humphrey are kind enough. They wanted me to have a good time. But you are not supposed to want introductions in London. You are supposed to know enough men to dance with, or you wouldn't be there. And the men don't like it. I often heard Dick and Humphrey apologising to their friends for asking them to dance with me. You know the sort of thing, Muriel: 'You might take a turn with my little sister, old man, if you've nobody better. She's up here on the spree and she don't know anybody.'"
"O Cicely, they wouldn't give you away like that."
"Perhaps not quite as bad as that. Dick and Humphrey are nice enough as brothers, and I believe they're proud of me too, in a way. They always danced with me themselves, and they always noticed what I was wearing, and said I looked a topper. I know I looked all right, but directly I opened my mouth I gave myself away, just like a maid in her mistress's clothes."
"Well, it was like that. I had nothing to talk about. I don't know London; I can't talk scandal about people I don't know. Of course I had to tell them I had always lived in the country, and then they began to talk about hunting at once. Then I had to say that I didn't hunt, and then they used to look at me through their eyeglasses, and wonder what the deuce I did do with myself. The fact is, that I can't do anything. Even the ones with brains—there were a few of them—who tried me with things besides hunting, couldn't get anything out of me, because there is nothing to get. I've never been anywhere or seen anything. I don't know anything—nothing about books or pictures or music or plays. Why on earth should they want to talk to me? Hardly any of them did twice, unless it was those who thought I was pretty and wanted to flirt with me. I felt such a fool!"
She was almost in tears. Her pretty face under its white motor-cap was flushed; she twisted her gloves in her slender hands.
"O Cicely, darling!" said Muriel sympathetically, "you are awfully bright and clever, really. You've many more brains than I have."
"I'm not clever, but I've got as many brains as other girls. And what chance have I ever had of learning anything? Dick and Humphrey and Walter were all sent to Eton and Oxford or Cambridge. They have all had the most expensive education that any boys could have, and as long as they behaved themselves pretty well, nobody cared in the least whether they took advantage of it or not. What education have I had? Miss Bird! I don't suppose she knows enough to get a place as teacher in a village school. I suppose I know just about as much as the girls who do go to a village school. I haven't even had lessons in drawing or music, or anything that I might perhaps have been good at. I'm an ignorant fool, and it's all father's fault, and it isn't fair."
She had talked herself into actual tears now. Muriel said, in a dry voice which did not accord with her expression of face, "This sudden rage for learning is a new thing, my dear."
Cicely dabbed her eyes impatiently and sat up in her chair. "I dare say I am talking a lot of nonsense," she said, "but I have been wondering what I do get for being the daughter of a rich country gentleman; because father is rich, as well as being the head of an important family, as he is always reminding us, though he pretends to think nothing of it. He has never gone without anything he wanted in the whole of his life, and the boys have everything they want too, that can be got for money."
"Your allowance was just twice as much as mine, when father was alive," Muriel reminded her.
"Oh, I know I can have plenty of nice clothes and all that," said Cicely, "and I have nice food too, and plenty of it, and a nice room, and a big house to live in. But I don't call it living, that's all. Father and the boys can live. We can't. Outside Kencote, we're nobody at all—I've found that out—and mother is of no more importance than I am. We're just the women of the family. Anything is good enough for us."
"I don't think you are quite fair, Cicely. Mrs. Clinton doesn't care for going about, does she? It would depend more upon her than your father and brothers."
"What would depend on her?"
"Well, I mean you grumble at Dick and Humphrey knowing more people than you do."
"I suppose what you do mean is that the Birkets aren't as good as the Clintons."
There was the slightest pause. Then Muriel said, a little defiantly, "Well, the Grahams aren't as good as the Conroys."
"I know that mother isn't only as good as father; she is a great deal better."
Cicely spoke with some heat, and Muriel made a little gesture with her hands. "Oh, all right, my dear," she said, "if you don't want to talk straight." It was a formula they used.
Cicely hesitated. "If you mean," she began, but Muriel interrupted her. "You know quite well what I mean, and you know what I don't mean. You know I would never say that Mrs. Clinton wasn't as good as anybody in the world, in the sense you pretended to take my words. We were talking of something quite different."
"Sorry, Muriel," replied Cicely. This was another formula. "We did go to a dance at Aunt Emmeline's, you know. If I hadn't been to all those other houses I should have enjoyed it immensely. Well, I did enjoy it—better, really. Aunt Emmeline saw that I had heaps of partners and I got on well with them. They were mostly barristers and people like that. They took the trouble to talk, and some of them even made me talk. It is a lovely house—of course not like one of the great London houses, but with two big drawing-rooms, and Iff's band, and everything done very well. If I had gone straight up from here to that ball, it would have been one of the best I had ever gone to."
"Well, Mr. Birket is a famous barrister, and I suppose is very well off too. I should think he knows as many interesting people as anybody."
"Interesting people, yes; but there wasn't a soul there that I had seen at the other houses, except Dick and Humphrey."
"Were they there?"
"There!" cried Cicely triumphantly. "You see you are quite surprised at that."
"Well," said Muriel firmly, "they were there. And how did they behave?"
"Oh, they behaved all right. Humphrey went away early, but Dick stayed quite a long time. Dick can be very sweet if he likes, and he doesn't give himself airs, really—he only takes it for granted that he is a great personage. And so he is; you would say so if you saw him in London. Do you know, Muriel, I was next to the Duchess of Pevensey at Dunster House, and I heard her whisper to her daughter, quite sharply, 'Evelyn, keep a valse for Captain Clinton, in case he asks you.' Of course she hadn't an idea that I was Captain Clinton's sister. She had looked down her nose at me just before, and wondered what I was doing there."
"I suppose she didn't say so."
"Her nose did. You should have seen her face when Dick came up the moment after and said, 'Here you are, Siskin; come and have a spin'; and didn't take any notice of dear Evelyn, who must have been at least thirty."
"Well, go on about Mrs. Birket's."
"Yes, well, Dick said, 'Now, Siskin, I don't know any of the pretty ladies here, and I'm going to dance with you.' But when Aunt Emmeline came up and insisted upon introducing him to a lot of girls, he went off as nicely as possible and danced with the whole lot of them. And, you know, a man like Dick isn't supposed to have to do that sort of thing."
Muriel laughed; and Cicely, who had recovered her good humour, laughed too. "Of course, it wasn't anything to fuss about, really," she said, "but you see what I mean, Muriel, don't you?"
"No, I don't," said Muriel, "unless you mean exactly what I said just now, and you bit my head off for. Mr. Clinton is what some people call a swell, and Dick is a swell too. The Grahams aren't swells, and the Birkets aren't either. And if you want it quite straight, my dear, neither you nor I are swells; we're only what they call county."
"You're so sensible, Muriel darling!" said Cicely.
"And you've had your head turned, Cicely darling!" retorted Muriel. "You have been taken up by your great relations, and you have come back to your simple home discontented."
"It's all very well, though," said Cicely, becoming serious again, "but I'm a Clinton just as much as the boys are, and just as much as you are a Graham. You say the Grahams are not swells—you do use horrible language, Muriel dear—but I suppose Lord Conroy is, and so, according to your argument, you ought to be."
"Uncle Blobs isn't a swell—he's only a farmer with a title."
"Oh! then I don't know what you mean by a swell."
"Well, of course the Conroys are swells in a way, but they don't care about swelling. If mother had liked—and father had let her—she could have been a fashionable lady, and dear Muriel could have been a fashionable girl, with her picture in the illustrated papers, sitting in front of a lattice window with a sweet white frock and a bunch of lilies. 'We give this week a charming photograph of Miss Muriel Graham, the only daughter of the Honourable Mrs. Graham. Mrs. Graham is a daughter of' and so on. As it is, dear Muriel is just the daughter of a country squire."
"That is all dear Cicely is, though you said just now that father was a swell. I don't see, really, that he is much more of a swell than Mr. Graham was—here."
"No—he isn't—here. That's just it. That is what you are running your head against, my dear. Perhaps he isn't really a swell at all, now. But he could be if he liked, and he was when he was young. It is because he likes being a country squire best that you have got to put up with being a country squire's daughter. I'm sorry for you, as you seem to feel it so much, but I'm afraid there's no help for it. I don't think, really, you have much to grumble at, but I suppose if you live for a fortnight exclusively amongst dukes and duchesses, you are apt to get a little above yourself. Now tell me all about the Court Ball."
Cicely told her all about the Court Ball; then they talked about other things, and Muriel said, "You have never asked about Jim. His ship is due in London next Wednesday and he will be home the day after."
"Dear old Jim," said Cicely—she was at work on some embroidery for Muriel. "It will be jolly to see him back again. But it doesn't seem like a year since he went away."
"You don't seem to have missed him much."
"O yes, I have. But it was like when the boys went back to school or to Cambridge—frightfully dull at first, and then you got used to it, and they were back before you knew where you were."
"Yes, I know. But I don't feel like that about Walter now. I don't know what I should do if he were to go off for a year."
"Oh, that's quite different. You are deeply in love, my dear."
"So were you once."
"Never in the world, Muriel, and you know that quite well. I was a little donkey. I had only just put my hair up and I thought it a fine thing to be engaged. Not that that lasted long. Dear old Jim soon repented, and I don't blame him."
"Jim is pretty close about things, but I sometimes doubt whether he has repented."
"You mean that he still cherishes a tender passion for sweet Cicely Clinton."
"I shouldn't wonder."
"Well, I should. Anyway, it isn't returned. I love Jim, but if I heard that he had come home engaged, as I dare say he will, I shouldn't mind in the very least. I should be the first to congratulate him."
"No, you wouldn't. He would tell mother and me first. And you needn't give yourself airs, you know. Jim would be a very good match for you. You would be mistress of Mountfield. I'm not making half such a brilliant alliance."
"Brilliant! I'm quite sure you would rather be going to marry somebody who had his way to make, like Walter, than trickle off from one big, dull country house to another. Wouldn't you, now?"
"Well, yes, I would. But it wouldn't make any difference to me, really, if I had Walter. If Dick were to die, which I'm sure I hope he won't, and Walter were to succeed to Kencote, I should like it just as much."
"Well, I dare say it would be all right when one got older. At present I think it would be burying yourself alive when you ought to have the chance of doing something and seeing something. No, Muriel, dear. I have been a squire's daughter all my life, and there's no money in it, as Humphrey says. The last thing I want to be at present is a squire's wife. I believe Jim has forgotten all that silliness as much as I have. If I thought he hadn't, I shouldn't be so glad as I am at the prospect of seeing him back."
"I dare say he has. You're not good enough for him."
"And he isn't good enough for me. I must be going home, or father will accuse me of over-driving Kitty. I always do over-drive her, but he doesn't notice unless I am late. Good-bye, Muriel. It has done me good to talk to you."
The Rector was shown into the library where the Squire was reading the Times, for which a groom rode over to Bathgate every morning at eleven o'clock, and woe betide him if he ever came back later than half-past twelve. It was a big room lined with books behind a brass lattice which nobody ever opened. Though the Squire used it every day, and had used it for five-and-thirty years, he had never altered its appointments, and his grandfather had not lived in it. Merchant Jack had furnished it handsomely for a library, and the Reverend John Clinton Smith, the historian of Kencote, had bought the books for him, and read most of them for him too. If he had returned from the tomb in which he had lain for a hundred years to this room where he had spent some of the happiest hours of his life, he would only have had to clear out a boxful or two of papers from the cupboards under the bookshelves and the drawers of the writing-tables, and remove a few photographs and personal knick-knacks, and there would have been nothing there that was not familiar, except the works of Surtees and a few score other books, which he would have taken up with interest and laid down again with contempt, in some new shelves by the fireplace. The Squire had no skill with a room. He hated any alteration in his house, and he had debated this question of a new bookcase to hold the few books he did read from time to time with as much care as the Reverend John Clinton Smith, book-lover as he was, had devoted to the housing of the whole library.
"Ah, my dear Tom," said the Squire heartily, "I'm glad you came up. I should have come down to you, but I've been so busy all the morning that I thought you wouldn't mind a summons. Have you brought Grace?"
"She is with Nina," said the Rector, and sat heavily down in the easy-chair opposite to that from which the Squire had risen. He was a big man, with a big face, clean shaven except for a pair of abbreviated side whiskers. He had light-blue eyes and a mobile, sensitive mouth. His clothes were rather shabby, and except for a white tie under a turned-down collar, not clerical. His voice, coming from so massive a frame, seemed thin, but it was of a pleasant tenor quality, and went well with the mild and attractive expression of his face. All the parishioners of Kencote liked the Rector, though he was not at all diligent in visiting them. Perhaps they liked him the better on that account.
The Rector was the Squire's half-brother. Colonel Thomas Clinton, the Squire's grandfather, had followed, amongst other traditions of his family, that of marrying early, and marrying money. His wife was a city lady, daughter of Alderman Sir James Banket, and brought him forty thousand pounds. Besides his six daughters, he had one son, who was delicate and could not support the fatigue of his own arduous pursuit of sport. He was sent to Eton and to Trinity College, and a cornetcy was bought for him in the Grenadier Guards. He also married early, and married, following an alternative tradition, not money, but blood. His wife was a sister of a brother officer, the Marquis of Nottingham, and they were happy together for a year. He died of a low fever immediately after the birth of his son, Edward, that Squire of Kencote with whom we have to do.
Colonel Thomas took a great deal more pride in his sturdy grandson than ever he had been able to take in his weakly son. He taught him to ride and to shoot, and to tyrannise over his six maiden aunts, who all took a hand in bringing him up. His own placid, uncomplaining wife had died years before, and Lady Susan Clinton, tired of living in a house where women seemed to exist on sufferance, had married again, but had not been allowed to take her child to her new home. She had the legal right to do so, of course, but was far too frightened of the weather-beaten, keen-eyed old man, who could say such cutting things with such a sweet smile upon his lips, to insist upon it. Her second husband was the Rector of a neighbouring parish, who grew hot to the end of his days when he thought of what he had undergone to gain possession of his bride. He did not keep her long, for she died a year later in giving him a son. That son was now the Reverend Thomas Beach, Rector of Kencote, to which preferment the Squire had appointed him nearly thirty years before, when he was only just of canonical age to receive it. And in the comfortable Rectory of Kencote, except for a year's curacy to his father, he had lived all his clerical life.
The Squire and the Rector were not altogether unlike in appearance. They were both tall and well covered with flesh, and there was a family resemblance in their features. But the Squire's bigness and ruddiness were those of a man who took much exercise in the open air, the Rector's of a man physically indolent, who lived too much indoors, and lived too well.
But if they were not unlike in appearance, they were as dissimilar as possible in character. The Squire's well-carried, massive frame betokened a man who considered himself to have a right to hold his head high and plant his footsteps firmly; the Rector's big body disguised a sensitive, timorous character, and a soul never quite at ease in its comfortable surroundings. That ponderous weight of soft flesh, insistent on warmth and good food and much rest, had a deal to answer for. Spare and active, with adventures of the spirit not discouraged by the indolence of the flesh, the Rector of Kencote might have been anything in the way of a saint that his Church encourages. He would certainly not have been Rector of Kencote for thirty years, with the prospect of being Rector of Kencote for thirty years more if he lived so long. He had a simple, lovable soul. It told him that he did nothing to speak of in return for his good income and the fine house in which he lived in such comfort, and troubled him on this score more than it would have troubled a man with less aptitude for goodness; and it omitted to tell him that he had more direct influence for righteousness than many a man who would have consciously exercised all the gifts with which he might have been endowed. He simply could not bring himself to visit his parish regularly, two or three afternoons a week, as he had made up his mind to do when he was first ordained. The afternoons always slipped away somehow, and there were so many of them. The next would always do. So it had been for the first years of his pastorate, and he had long since given way altogether to his indolence and shyness in respect of visiting his flock; but his conscience still troubled him about it. He was a great reader, but his reading had become quite desultory, and he now read only for his own entertainment. His sermons were poor; he had no delivery and no gift of expression; he could not even give utterance to the ideas that did, not infrequently, act on his brain, nor hardly to the human tenderness which was his normal attitude towards mankind. But he did go on writing fresh ones, stilted and commonplace as they were. Mental activity was less of a burden to him than bodily activity, and he had kept himself up to that part of what he thought to be his clerical duty.
For the rest, he was fond of his books and his garden, fond of his opulent, well-appointed house, and all that it contained, and fond of the smaller distractions of a country life, but no sportsman. He had no children, but a graceful, very feminine wife, who reacted pleasantly on his intellect and looked well after the needs of his body. He sometimes went to London for a week or two, and had been to Paris; but he liked best to be at home. He watched the progress of the seasons with interest, and knew something about birds, something about flowers and trees, was a little of a weather prophet, and often thought he would study some branch of natural science, but had lacked the energy to do so. He liked the winter as well as the summer, for then his warm house called him more seductively. He liked to tramp home along muddy country roads in the gloaming, drink tea in his wife's pretty drawing-room, chat to her a little, and then go into his cosy, book-lined study and read till dinner-time. He would have been a happy man as a layman, relieved of that gnawing conviction that his placid, easy life was rather far from being apostolic. And nobody, not even his wife, had any idea that he was not quite contented, and grateful for the good things that he enjoyed.
"Well, Tom," said the Squire, "I'm infernally worried again. It's that boy Walter. What do you think he wants to do now?" He spoke with none of the heat of the morning. It might have been thought that he had already accepted the inevitable and was prepared to make the best of it.
"I don't know, Edward," said the Rector; and the Squire told him.
"And you have a particular objection to this place, Melbury Park?" inquired the Rector guilelessly.
"O my dear Tom," said the Squire impatiently, "have you ever seen the place?"
"From the railway only," admitted the Rector; "and chiefly its back-gardens. It left an impression of washing on my mind."
"It left an impression of not washing on mine," said the Squire, and leant back in his chair to laugh heartily at his witticism.
The Rector also did justice to it, perhaps more than justice, with a kind smile. "Well, Edward," he said, "it may be so, but it is, otherwise, I should say, respectable. It is not like a slum. Has Walter any particular reason for wishing to go there?"
The Squire gave a grudging summary of the reasons Walter had advanced for wishing to go there, and made them appear rather ridiculous reasons. He also produced again such of the arguments he had advanced at breakfast-time as seemed most weighty, and managed to work himself up into a fair return of his morning's feeling of being very badly treated.
"Well, Edward," said the Rector gently, when he had come to an end, "I think if I were you I should not make any objections to Walter's going to Melbury Park."
"You wouldn't?" asked the Squire, rather weakly.
"No, I don't think I would. You see, my dear Edward, some of us are inclined to take life too easily. I'm sometimes afraid that I do myself."
"You do your duty, Tom. Nobody is asked to do more than that."
"Well, you may be right, but I am not sure. However, what I was going to say was that one cannot help respecting—perhaps even envying—a young fellow like Walter who doesn't want to take life easily."
"He has stuck to his work," said the Squire. "I will say that for the boy; and he's never come to me for money to pay bills with, as Humphrey has, and even Dick—though, as far as Dick goes, he'll have the property some day, and I don't grudge him what he wants now within reason."
"You see, Edward, when a man has congenial work which takes up his time, he is not apt to get into mischief. I think, if I may say so, that you ought to admit now, however much you may have objected to Walter's choice of a profession in the first instance, that he has justified his choice. He put his hand to the plough and he has not looked back. That is a good deal to say for a young man with Walter's temptations towards an easy, perhaps idle, life."
"Well," said the Squire, "I do admit it. I do admit it, Tom. I have my natural prejudices, but I'm the last man in the world that any one has a right to call obstinate. I objected to Walter becoming a doctor in the first instance. It was natural that I should. He ought to have succeeded you, as Dick will succeed me. And none of our family have ever been doctors. But I gave way, and I've every wish, now, that he should succeed in his profession. And the reason I object to this move so strongly is that as far as my judgment goes it is not a step in the right direction. It might be so for the ordinary doctor—I don't know and I can't say—but I'm willing to help a son of mine over some of the drudgery, and it will be very disagreeable for me to have Walter settling down to married life in a place like Melbury Park, when he might do so much better. You must remember, Tom, that he is the first of the boys to get married. Dick will marry some day soon, I hope and trust, and Humphrey too, but until they do, Walter's son, if he has one, will be heir to this property, eventually. He ought not to be brought up in a place like Melbury Park."
"There is a good deal in what you say, Edward," replied the Rector, who privately thought that there was very little; "but the contingency you mention is a very unlikely one."
"I don't lay too much stress on it. If I thought that Walter was right from the point of rising in his profession to go to this place I would leave all that out of the question."
"Well, I'll tell you what, Edward," said the Rector, with an engaging smile, "supposing you keep an open mind on the question until you have heard what Walter has to say about it. How would that be?"
The Squire hummed and ha'd, and thought that on the whole it might be the best thing to do.
"You see," said the Rector in pursuance of his bright idea, "it is just possible that there may be reasons which Walter has considered, and may wish to urge, that might make it advisable for him, even with the exceptional advantages you could give him, to go through the training afforded by just such a practice as this. I should let him urge them, Edward, if I were you. I should let him urge them. You can but repeat your objections, if they do not appeal to your judgment. You will be in a better position to make your own views tell, if you dispose your mind to listen to his. I should take a kindly tone, I think, if I were you. You don't want to set the boy against you."
"No, I don't want that," said the Squire. "And I should have done what you advise, in any case. It's the only way, of course. Let us go in and have some luncheon. Then you don't think, Tom, that there would be any serious objection to my giving way on this point, if Walter is reasonable about it?"
"Well, Edward, do you know, I really don't think there would," replied the Rector, as they crossed the hall to the dining-room.
The ladies were already there. Mrs. Beach was by the window talking to the twins, who adored her. She was getting on for fifty, but she was still a pretty woman, and moved gracefully as she came across the room to shake hands with her brother-in-law. "It is very nice to see you back again, Edward," she said, with a charming smile. "You do not look as if London had disagreed with you."
"My dear Grace," said the Squire, holding her white, well-formed hand in his big one. "I'll tell you my private opinion of London, only don't let it go any further. It can't hold a candle to Kencote." Then he gave a hearty laugh, and motioned her to a seat on his right. The twins cast a look of intelligence at one another, and Cicely glanced at her mother. The Squire had recovered his good humour.
"For these an' all his mercies," mumbled the Squire, bending his head.—"Oh, beg your pardon, Tom," and the Rector said grace.
"Have you heard what that silly fellow Walter wants to do, Grace?" asked the Squire.
"Nothing except that he hopes to get married next month," replied Mrs. Beach, helping herself to an omelette, "and I hope that he will make a better husband than Tom."
The Rector, already busy, spared her a glance of appreciation, and the twins giggled at the humour of their favourite.
"Yes, he is going to be married, and he proposes to take Muriel to live at Melbury Park, of all places in the world."
"Then in that case," replied Mrs. Beach equably, "Tom and I will not give them the grand piano we had fixed upon for a wedding present. They must content themselves with the railway whistles."
The twins laughed outright and were ineffectively rebuked by Miss Bird. That they were to be seen and not heard at table was a maxim she had diligently instilled into them. But they were quite right to laugh. Aunt Grace was surpassing herself. She always kept the Squire in a good humour, by her ready little jokes and the well-disguised deference she paid him. The deference was not offered to him alone, but to all men with whom she came in contact, even her husband, and men liked her immensely. She teased them boldly, but she deferred to their manhood. Women sometimes grew tired of her sweetness of manner, which was displayed to them too, and quite naturally. She was a sweet woman, if also, in spite of her ready tongue, rather a shallow one. Mrs. Clinton did not like her, but did not show it, except in withholding her confidence, and Mrs. Beach had no idea that they were not intimate. Cicely was indifferent towards her, but had loved her as a child, for the same reason that the twins thought her the most charming of womankind, because she treated them as if they were her equals in intelligence, as no doubt they were. It had never occurred to them to mimic her, which was a feather in her cap if she had known it. And another was that Miss Bird adored her, being made welcome in her house, and, as she said, treated like anybody else.
By the time luncheon was over the Squire had so overcome his bitter resentment at the idea of Walter's going to live at Melbury Park, that he could afford to joke about it. Aunt Grace had suggested that they should all go and live there, and had so amused the Squire with a picture of himself coming home to his villa in the evening and eating his dinner in the kitchen in his shirt sleeves, with carpet slippers on his feet, which was possibly the picture in her mind of "how the poor live," that he was in the best of humours, and drank two more glasses of port than his slightly gouty tendency usually permitted.
The twins persuaded Miss Bird to take them to the station to meet Walter in the afternoon. They were not allowed to go outside the park by themselves, and walked down the village on either side of the old starling, each of them over-topping her by half a head, like good girls, as she said herself. They wore cool white dresses, and shady hats trimmed with poppies, and looked a picture. When they reached the by-road to the station, Joan said, "One, two, three, and away," and they shot like darts from the side of their instructress, arriving on the platform flushed and laughing, not at all like good girls, while Miss Bird panted in their rear, clucking threats and remonstrances, to the respectful but undisguised amusement of the porter, and the groom who had preceded them with the dog-cart.
Walter got out of a third-class carriage when the train drew up and said, "Hullo, twanky-diddleses! Oh, my adorable Sturna vulgaris vetus, embrace me! Come to my arms!"
"Now, Walter, do behave," said Miss Bird sharply. "What will people think and Joan 'n Nancy I shall certainly tell Mrs. Clinton of your disgraceful behaviour I am quite ashamed of you running off like that which you know you are not allowed to do you are very naughty girls and I am seriously displeased with you."
"Ellen Bird," said Walter, "don't try and put it on to the twankies. I looked out of the carriage window and saw you sprinting along the station road yourself. You have had a little race and are annoyed at being beaten. I shall put you up in the cart and send you home, and I will walk back with the twankies." And in spite of Miss Bird's almost frenzied remonstrances, up into the cart she was helped, and driven off at a smart pace, with cheers from the twins, now entirely beyond her control.
"Well, twanky dears," said Walter, starting off at a smart pace with a twin on either side, "I suppose there's a deuce of a bust up, eh? Look here, you can't hang on. It's too hot."
"It wouldn't be too hot for Muriel to hang on," said Joan, her arm having been returned to her.
"There was a bust up this morning at breakfast," said Nancy. "Edward came in purple with passion two minutes late for prayers."
"Eh?" said Walter sharply. "Look here, you mustn't speak of the governor like that."
"It's only her new trick," said Joan. "She'll get tired of it."
"You're not to do it, Nancy, do you hear?" said Walter.
"Oh, all right," said Nancy. "Mr. Clinton of Kencote, J.P., D.L., was so put out that he wouldn't kneel down to say his prayers."
"Annoyed, eh?" said Walter.
"Yes," said Joan, "but he's all right now, Walter. Aunt Grace came to lunch, and beat Bogey."
"It's only her new trick," said Nancy. "She'll get tired of it. She means put him in a good humour."
"Really, you twankies do pick up some language. Then there's nothing much to fear, what?"
"No, we are all coming to live at Melbury Park, and Aunt Grace is going to take in our washing."
"Oh, that's the line taken, is it?" said Walter. "Well, I dare say it's all very funny, but I can't have you twankies giving yourselves airs, you know. I don't know why they talk over things before you. The governor might have kept it to himself until he had seen me."
"Mr. Clinton doesn't keep things to himself," said Nancy. "You might know that by this time; and Joan and I are quite old enough to take an intelligent interest in family affairs. We do take the deepest interest in them, and we know a lot. Little pitchers have long ears, you know."
"So have donkeys, and they get them pinched if they're not careful," retorted Walter. "How are you getting on with your lessons, twankies?"
"I believe our progress is quite satisfactory, thank you, Dr. Clinton," replied Joan. "Perhaps you would like to hear us a few dates, so that our afternoon walk may not pass entirely unimproved."
"You had much better look at Joan's tongue," said Nancy. "Starling said last night that her stomach was a little out of order, and we rebuked her for her vulgarity."
"You are a record pair, you two," said Walter, looking at them with unwilling admiration. "I don't believe any of us led that poor old woman the dance that you do. Do you want some jumbles, twankies?"
"Ra-ther," said the twins with one voice, and they turned into the village shop.
The tea-table was spread on the lawn, and the Squire came out of the window of the library as Walter reached the garden. "Well, my boy," he said, "so you're going to settle down at Melbury Park, are you? That's a nice sort of thing to spring on us; but good luck to you! You can always come down here when you want a holiday."
BY THE LAKE
Whitsuntide that year fell early in June, and the weather was glorious. Cicely awoke on Friday morning with a sense of happiness. She slept with her blinds up, and both her windows were wide open. She could see from her pillow a great red mass of peonies backed by dark shrubs across the lawn, and in another part of the garden laburnums and lilacs and flowering thorns, and all variations of young green from trees and grass under a sky of light blue. Thrushes and blackbirds were piping sweetly. She loved these fresh mornings of early summer, and had often wakened to them with that slight palpitation of happiness.
But, when she was fully awake, it had generally happened that the pleasure had rather faded, at any rate of late years, since she had grown up. In her childhood it had been enough to have the long summer day in front of her, especially in holiday time, when there would be no irksome schoolroom restraint, nothing but the pleasures and adventures of the open air. But lately she had needed more, and more, at Kencote, had seldom been forthcoming. Moreover she had hardly known what the "more" was that she had wanted. She had never been unhappy, but only vaguely dissatisfied, and sometimes bored.
This morning her waking sense of well-being did not fade as she came to full consciousness, but started into full pleasure as she remembered that her cousins, Angela and Beatrice Birket, with their father and mother, were in the house. And Dick and Humphrey had come down with them the evening before. Guests were so rare at Kencote that to have a party of them was a most pleasurable excitement. Dick and Humphrey would see that there was plenty of amusement provided, quiet enough amusement for them, no doubt, but for Cicely high pleasure, with something to do all the day long, and people whom she liked to do it with.
And—oh yes—Jim had returned home from his travels the day before, and would be sure to come over, probably early in the morning.
She jumped out of bed, put on her dressing-gown, and went to the window. The clock from the stable turret struck six, but she really could not lie in bed on such a morning as this, with so much about to happen. She would dress and go out into the garden. A still happier thought—she would go down to the lake and bathe from the Temple of Melancholy. It was early in the year, but the weather had been so warm for the last month that it was not too early to begin that summer habit. Perhaps the twins would come with her. They were early risers.
She was just about to turn away from the window when she saw the twins themselves steal round the corner of the house. Their movements were mysterious. Although there was nobody about, they trod on tiptoe across the broad gravel path and on to the dewy lawn. Joan—she could always tell them apart, although to the outside world they were identical in form and feature—carried a basket which probably contained provisions, a plentiful supply of which was generally included in the elaborate arrangements the twins made for their various games of adventure. There was nothing odd in this, but what was rather odd was that she also held a long rope, the other end of which was tied around Nancy's neck, while Nancy's hands were knotted behind her.
When they got on to the grass they both turned at the same moment to glance up at the windows of the house, and caught sight of Cicely, who then perceived that Joan's features were hidden by a mask of black velvet. She saw them draw together and take counsel, and then, without speaking, beckon her insistently to join them. She nodded her head and went back into the room, smiling to herself, while the twins pursued their mysterious course towards the shrubberies. She thought she would not bathe after all; but she dressed quickly and went down into the garden, a little curious to learn what new invention the children were busying themselves with.
It proved to be nothing more original than the old game of buccaneers. Nancy had awakened to find herself neatly trussed to her bed and Joan in an unfinished state of attire, but wearing the black velvet mask, brandishing in her face a horse pistol, annexed from the collection of old-fashioned weapons in the hall. Thus overpowered she had succumbed philosophically. It was the fortune of war, and if she had thought of it she might just as well have been kneeling on Joan's chest, as Joan was kneeling, somewhat oppressively, on hers. Given her choice of walking the plank from the punt on the lake or being marooned on the rhododendron island, she had accepted the latter alternative, stipulating for an adequate supply of food; and a truce having been called, while pirate and victim made their toilets and raided together for the necessary rations, she had then allowed herself to be bound and led off to the shore where the pirate ship was beached.
All this was explained to Cicely—the search for provisions having no particular stress laid on it—when she joined them, and she was awarded the part of the unhappy victim's wife, who was to gaze across the water and tear her hair in despair at being unable to go to the rescue.
"You must rend the air with your cries," Joan instructed her, "not too loud, because we don't want any one to hear. The pirate king will then appear on the scene, and stalking silently up behind you—well, you'll see. I won't hurt you."
Nancy was already comfortably marooned. She could be seen relieved of her bonds seated amongst the rhododendrons, which were in full flower on the island and all round the lake, making her first solitary meal off cold salmon and a macedoine of fruit, and supporting her painful situation with fortitude.
Cicely accepted her role, but dispensed with the business of tearing her hair. "O my husband!" she cried, stretching her arms across the water. "Shall I never see thee more? What foul ruffian has treated thee thus?"
"Very good," said Nancy, with her mouth full—she was only twenty yards away—"keep it up, Sis."
"I will not rest until I have discovered the miscreant and taken his life," proceeded Cicely.
"Shed his blood," corrected Nancy. "Say something about my bones bleaching on the shore."
"Thy bones will bleach on the shore," Cicely obeyed. "And I, a disconsolate widow, will wander up and down this cruel strand—oh, don't, Joan, you are hurting."
For she found herself in the grip of the pirate king, who hissed in her ear, "Ha, ha, fair damsel! Thou art mine at last. 'Twas for love of thee I committed this deed. Thy lily-livered husband lies at my mercy, and once in Davy Jones's locker will be out of my path. Then the wedding bells shall ring and we will sail together over the bounding main. Gently, gently, pretty dove! Do not struggle. I will not hurt thee."
"Unhand me, miscreant," cried Cicely. "Think you that I would forget my brave and gallant husband for such as thou, steeped in crime from head to foot? Unhand me, I say. Help! Help!"
"Peace, pretty one!" cooed the pirate king. "Thou art in my power and thy cries do not daunt me. I have only to lift my voice and my brave crew will be all around me. Better come with me quietly. There is a cabin prepared for thee in my gallant barque. None shall molest thee. Cease struggling and come with me."
Urged towards the shore by the pirate king, Cicely redoubled her cries for assistance, but no one was more surprised than she to see an elderly gentleman in a grey flannel suit and a straw hat bound from behind the bushes, level a latch-key at the head of the masked bandit, and cry, "Loose her, perjured villain, or thy brains shall strew the sand."
Nancy's clear, delighted laugh came from the island, Joan giggled and said, "O Uncle Herbert!"
"Uncle me no Herberts," said Mr. Birket. "Put up your hands or I shoot. (Cicely, if you will kindly swoon in my arms—Thank you.) Know, base buccaneer, that I represent his Britannic Majesty on these seas, and wherever the British flag flies there is liberty. Allow me to disarm you of your weapon."
"I yield to superior force," said the bold buccaneer in stately tones.
"Very wise of you. I should fold my arms and scowl if I were you. Behold, the lady cometh to. She is, yes she is, the daughter I have mourned these many years. And you, base marauder, though you know it not, are the long-lost brother of that luckless wight starving, if I mistake not, to death on the island. Well for you that your hands are not imbrued in his gore. Put off at once in your stout ship—and be careful not to tumble overboard—and restore him to his hapless bride."
"I will obey your bidding," said the pirate king proudly. "The claims of relationship are paramount."
"Well put. I have hopes of you yet. I am also hungry. Bring back the victim's basket, and we will eat together and forget this unfortunate occurrence."
Joan punted across to the island and the marooned Nancy was brought to the mainland with her somewhat depleted store of provisions. Mr. Birket dropped his role while the embarkation proceeded, and mopped his brow with a bandana handkerchief. He was a short, grey-haired man with a keen lawyer's face. "Well, my dear," he said to Cicely, "I think that went off very well, but it is somewhat exhausting."
Cicely laughed. "The twins will never forget it," she said. "Did you see them come out?"
"I saw them come on to the lake. I was in the Temple, getting through a little work."
"What ever time did you get up?"
"Oh, half-past five. My regular hour in the summer. I'm kept pretty busy, my dear. But I don't generally have such a charming place as this to work in. Now then, pirate, hurry up with those victuals. Your uncle is hungry."
They picnicked on the shore—the twins' provisioning having fortunately been ample—and Mr. Birket proved himself an agreeable companion. Joan said to Nancy afterwards that the practice of the law seemed to brighten people's brains wonderfully. He smoked a cigar, told them stories, and made them laugh. At half-past eight he fetched his papers from the Temple and they went indoors to get ready for breakfast. "I think," he said, as they crossed the lawn, "we had better say nothing about the startling occurrences of the morning. They might come as a shock to our elders and betters." And Joan and Nancy, remembering the contents of the basket and the source from which they had been derived, agreed.
Herbert Birket was Mrs. Clinton's only brother. Their father had been a Colonel in the Indian Army, and had retired to end his days in a little house on the outskirts of Bathgate, desiring nothing more than to read the Times through every morning and find something in it to disagree with, walk so many miles a day, see his son well started in the profession he had chosen, and his daughter well, but not splendidly, married. He had gained his desires in all but the last item. The young Squire of Kencote, in all the glory of his wide inheritance and his lieutenancy in the Household Cavalry, had ridden past the little house on his way to Bathgate and seen a quiet, unassuming, fair-haired girl watering her flowers in the garden, had fallen in love with her, met her at a county ball, fallen still more deeply in love, and finally carried her off impetuously from the double-fronted villa in the Bathgate Road to rule over his great house at Kencote.
South Meadshire had rung with the romance, and old Colonel Birket had not been altogether delighted with his daughter's good fortune, wishing to spend his last days in peace and not in glory. The wedding had taken place in London, with a respectable show of relations on the bride's side and all the accompaniments of semi-military parade on the bridegroom's. There was no talk of a misalliance on the part of his friends, nor was there a misalliance, for the Birkets were good enough people; but the young Squire's six maiden aunts had returned to the dower-house at Kencote after the wedding and shaken their respective heads. No good would come of it, they said, and had, perhaps, been a little disappointed ever afterwards that no harm had come of it, at any rate to their nephew.
The old Colonel had long since been laid in his grave, and the little house in the Bathgate Road, now in the respectable occupancy of a retired druggist, would have seemed as strange a dwelling-place to the daughters of Herbert Birket, who had prospered exceedingly, as to the children of Mrs. Clinton of Kencote.
Angela and Beatrice Birket were handsome girls, both of them younger than Cicely, but with their assured manners and knowledge of the world, looking older. They had been brought up strictly by their mother, who had paid great attention to their education. They might have been seen during their childhood on any reasonably fine afternoon walking in Kensington Gardens or Hyde Park with a highly priced French governess, two well, but plainly dressed children with long, straight hair and composed faces. They never appeared in their mother's drawing-room when visitors were there, being employed in a room upstairs either at lessons, or consuming the plainest variety of schoolroom tea. They were taken sometimes to an afternoon concert, and on very rare occasions to a play. When they were at home in London, their days were given to their lessons, with the requisite amount of regular exercise to keep them in good health. In holiday time, in the summer, at Christmas and at Easter, they were allowed to run quite wild, in old clothes at some out-of-the-way seaside place, in country farmhouses, where they scrambled about on ponies and amongst ducks and chickens, or in the country houses of their friends and relations, where there were other children of their age for them to play with. So they had loved the country and hated London, and had never been so surprised in their lives as when they were duly presented and launched in society to find that London was the most amusing place in the world and that all the pains and drudgery to which they had been put there had prepared them for the enjoyment of the manifold interests and pleasures that came in their way. They had developed quickly, and those who had known them in their rather subdued childhood would hardly have known them now.
Of all the places in which they had spent their holidays in days gone by they had liked Kencote best. It had been a paradise of fun and freedom for them; they and Cicely had been happy from morning till night. The elder boys home from school or college had been kind to them, and Frank, the sailor, who was about their own age, and not too proud to make a companion of his sister and cousins, had led the way in all their happy adventures. And they had loved the twins, whom they had seen grow up from babyhood. No, there had been no place like Kencote in the old days, and the pleasure of a visit there still persisted, although it was no longer the most congenial house at which they visited.
All the party assembled for prayers in the dining-room. That was understood to be the rule. The twins were there, very clean and well brushed and very demure. Mr. Birket wished them good-morning solemnly and hoped that they had slept well, at which they giggled and were rebuked by Miss Bird, when their uncle turned away to ask the same question of Cicely. As Miss Bird said,—What would their uncle think of them if they could not answer a civil question without behaving in that silly fashion? At which they giggled again. Angela and Beatrice, tall and glossy-haired, dressed in white, made a handsome quartet with Dick and Humphrey, the one in smart grey flannel, the other in white.
"This little rest will do you both good," said Dick. "You shall lie about, and Miss Bird shall read to you. You will go back to the excitements of the metropolis thoroughly refreshed."
"Oh, we are going to be very energetic," said Angela. "We want to play lawn tennis, for one thing. One never gets a chance nowadays, and we both hate croquet."
"We'll get up a tournament," said Humphrey, "and invite the neighbourhood. You'll see some queer specimens. I hear you're writing a book, Trixie."
Beatrice laughed, and blushed a little. "I've left off," she said.
"Ah, I've heard stories about you," said Dick. "Soon have something else to do, eh? Don't blush. I won't tell anybody. Look here, we'll play golf this morning. We laid out quite a decent little course in the park last autumn. And in the afternoon we'll have a picnic."
"Oh, preserve us!" said Humphrey.
"Oh, do let us have a picnic," said Angela.
"It will be like old times," said Beatrice.
"We'll go to Blackborough Castle," said Dick, "and take the twankies. We must give them a little fun. Siskin, how about a picnic?"
Mrs. Birket was telling Mrs. Clinton that Beatrice's engagement would be announced when they returned to London. "She is young," she said, "but both the girls are older in mind than in age."
"You have educated them well," Mrs. Clinton said. She looked across the room at the two handsome, smiling girls, and at her own pretty daughter, who had not been very well educated and was not older in mind than in age. But just then the gong sounded, every one took their seats, the Squire came in with a hearty "Good-morning! Good-morning!" which greeting his assembled family and guests might take and divide amongst them, and the proceedings of the day began.
Later in the morning Angela and Beatrice, Dick and Humphrey were actively engaged at lawn tennis. Cicely was sitting under a great lime on the lawn waiting for her turn. The twins, having discovered an unusually congenial companion in their uncle, had carried him off somewhere out of sight, and Cicely was alone for the moment. A voice behind her, "Hullo, Cicely!" made her start, and then she sprang up. "Jim!" she cried. "How jolly to see you back! I thought you would come over this morning."
The game had to be interrupted while the returned traveller was welcomed. "You look as fit as a fiddle, old boy," said Dick. "You'll be able to stay at home and enjoy yourself now, I hope. Will you play when we've finished this? I can lend you a pair of shoes."
"No thanks," said Jim. "I'll talk to Cicely." So the others went back on to the lawn.
"Come and have a stroll round," Jim suggested; and Cicely, with a half-regretful glance at the tennis lawn, rose to go with him.
They went to the rhododendron dell round the lake. It was where every one went naturally if they wanted to walk and talk at the same time. Jim's honest, weathered face was very frequently turned towards Cicely's fair, young one, and there was a light in his eyes which made her turn hers away a little confusedly when they met it. But Jim's voice was level enough, and his speech ordinary. "I'm jolly glad to get back again," he said. "I've never liked Mountfield half so well. I was up at six o'clock this morning, and out and about."
"So was I," said Cicely, and she told him, laughing, of the events of the morning.
"I expect they've grown, those young beggars," said Jim, alluding thus disrespectfully to the twins. "I've often thought of them while I've been away, and of everybody at Kencote—you especially."
"We've all thought of you, too," said Cicely, "and talked about you. You haven't been forgotten, Jim."
"I hoped I shouldn't be," he said simply. "By Jove, how I've looked forward to this—coming over here the first moment I could. I wish you hadn't got all these people here, though."
"All these people!" echoed Cicely. "Why, Jim, you know them as well as we do."
"Yes, I'm a selfish beggar. I wanted to have you all to myself."
Cicely was a little disturbed in her mind. Jim had not talked to her like this for five years. Ever since that long, happy summer when he and she had been together nearly every day, when he had made love to her in his slow, rather ponderous way, and she, her adolescence flattered, had said "yes" when he had asked her to marry him—or rather ever since he had written to her from Oxford to say that he must wait for some years before he could expect to marry and that she was to consider herself quite free—he had never by word or sign shown whether he also considered himself free, or whether he intended, when the time came, to ask her again to be his wife. When he had come back to Mountfield at Christmas he had been in all respects as he had been up to six months before, friendly and brotherly, and no more. It made it easier for her, for her pride had been a little wounded. If he had held aloof, but shown that, although he had given her her freedom, he hoped she had not accepted it, she would have felt irked, and whatever unformed love she had for Jim would quickly have disappeared. But, as it was, his equable friendship kept alive the affection which she had always felt for him; only it seemed to make the remembrance of their love passages a little absurd. She was not exactly ashamed of what had happened, but she never willingly thought of it, and after a year or so it became as much a part of her past life as the short frocks and pinafores of her childhood. She had been mildly chaffed about Jim on occasions, and there was no doubt that in the minds both of her family and of Jim's the expectation of an eventual marriage had never altogether subsided. Nor, strangely enough, had it altogether subsided in hers, although if she had ever asked herself the question as to whether she was in love with Jim in the slightest degree she would have answered it forcibly in the negative. But—there it was, as it is with every young girl—some day she would be married; and it might happen that she would be married to Jim.
"Do you remember," Jim asked her when they had walked the length of the lake and come out in front of the Temple, "how you used to try to teach me to draw here?"
Yes, it was obviously Jim's intention to open up a buried subject, and she was not by any means prepared for that. The sketching lessons had been a shameless subterfuge for obtaining privacy, for Jim had about as much aptitude for the arts as a dromedary, and his libels on the lake and the rhododendrons would have made old Merchant Jack and his landscape gardener turn in their graves.
Cicely laughed. "Have you brought back any sketches from your travels?" she asked.
"No. I've got lots of photographs, though." Jim was always literal.
"Angela and Beatrice paint beautifully," Cicely said. "We are going to make sketches at Blackborough this afternoon. Will you come with us, Jim? We are all going."
"Yes, I'll come," said Jim. "Cicely, are you glad to see me home again?"
"Yes, of course, I'm glad. We have all missed you awfully, Jim."
"You can't think how bucked up I am to think that I need never leave Mountfield again as long as I live. That's what's so jolly about having a place of your own. It's part of you. You feel that, don't you, Cicely?"
"Well, as I haven't got a place of my own, Jim, I don't know that I do."
"When those beastly death duties are paid off," Jim began, but Cicely would not let him finish. "Anyhow," she said, "I should hate to think I was going to stay in one place all my life, however much I liked it. Of course, it is natural that you should feel as you do when you have been travelling for a year. If I ever have the chance of travelling for a year perhaps I shall feel like that about Kencote." She laughed and looked him in the face, blushing a little. "Let us go back and play tennis," she said.
His face fell, and he walked by her side without speaking. Cicely little knew how keen was his disappointment. This was the hour he had been looking forward to every day for the last year, and this the place, with the sun glinting through the young green of beech and ash and lighting up those masses and drifts of brilliant colour everywhere about them. It was true that he had meant to come to no conclusions with the girl he loved with all his heart. The time for that would not be for another year at least, according to the decision he had long since come to. But he had so hungered for her during his long exile, for such it had seemed to him in spite of the various enjoyments and interests he had gained from it, that the thought had grown with him that he would take just a little of the sweetness that a word from her, to show that she was his as he was hers, would give him. She had not spoken the word, and Jim's heart was heavy as he walked back to the garden by her side.
THE QUESTION OF MARRIAGE
"Blackborough Castle?" said the Squire at luncheon. "Well, if you like—but you'll take your tea in the company of Dick, Tom and Harry, and I think you would be more comfortable at home."
"I don't suppose there'll be anybody else there to-day," said Dick, "and the spirit of youth cries aloud for tea on the floor." So it was settled. Mrs. Clinton and Mrs. Birket went in the carriage, Angela rode with Humphrey, and Dick drove the rest of the party, which did not include the Squire, in the brake.
"You look like bean-feasters," said Humphrey, as they drove past him and Angela. "But you need not behave as such," said Miss Bird to the twins, who, one on each side of their uncle, were inclined to be a trifle uproarious.
They had the old keep of the castle pretty well to themselves, spread their cloth on the green turf by the battlements, where centuries ago men-at-arms had tramped the now covered stones, and made merry in true picnic style. There was a footman to clear away, and the party broke up into little groups, and explored the ruins, and wandered in the thick woods which surrounded them.
Jim looked a little wistfully at Cicely as she went away with her arm in that of Beatrice Birket, but made no attempt to join her, and presently allied himself to the storming party which Joan was collecting to rescue Miss Bird, confined in the deepest dungeon.
"Now, Trixie, you have got to tell me all about it," Cicely said, when the two girls were out of hearing of the rest.
"My dear," said Beatrice, laughing, "I told you last night that he had asked me and I had said yes, and that I am very happy."
"Oh, I know. But that was before Angela, and she said we were to have no raptures. I want raptures, please."
"Well, I'm afraid you won't get them. I'm too well drilled. You know, Cicely, I rather envy you being brought up as you were. You're more natural, somehow, than Angela and I."
"Well, I envy you; so we're quits. But never mind about that now. Trixie, is Angela just the least bit jealous?"
"No, not a bit," said Beatrice loyally. "But you see she's a year older, and ever so much cleverer, and prettier too."
"She's none of those things except a year older. But she's a dear all the same, and so are you. I don't wonder at anybody falling in love with you. Are you very much in love too?"
"Well, Cicely, I don't mind telling you in strict confidence that I am. But, perhaps, it's in a way you would not sympathise with particularly."
"Tell me in what way, and you'll see."
"Of course George isn't especially good-looking; in fact he isn't good-looking at all, except for his eyes. I used to think I should never love anybody unless he was as handsome as—as, well, Dick is, for instance—that sort of man—you know—smart and well set up, and"—with a laugh—"rather ignorant."
"Dick isn't ignorant," said Cicely indignantly.
"My dear, compared to George he is a monument of ignorance, a pyramid of it; so are most men. It was just that; George is so clever, and he's making such use of his brains too. He is one of the youngest men in parliament, and is in office already. It was looking up to him as a pillar of wisdom, and then finding that he looked to me of all people, to help him on."
"I'm sure you will help him on. I heard some one say in London that many politicians owed a great deal of their success to their wives."
"I don't mean quite in that way. I don't think George is ambitious, though I am for him. He wants to get things done. Father says it is because he is so young. He tells me about everything, and it makes me grateful—you know, I think when you are very grateful, that is being in love."
"You dear thing!" said Cicely, squeezing her arm. "Does Uncle Herbert like him? They are not on the same side in politics, are they?"
"No. But it doesn't seem to matter. It doesn't matter in the least to me. Of course, there are things. George is a tremendous churchman, you know, and I have never thought much about religion—not deeply, I mean. But it is a real thing with him, and I'm learning. You see, Cicely, we are rather a different engaged couple from most, although we don't appear so to the world at large. Outside our two selves, George is a coming man, and I am a lucky girl to be making such a match."
"I'm glad you have told me about it all," Cicely said. "It must be splendid to be looking forward to helping your husband in all the good things he is going to do."
"Oh, it is. I am ever so happy. And George is the dearest soul—so kind and thoughtful, for all his cleverness. Cicely, you must meet him."
"I should love to," said Cicely simply. "I never meet anybody interesting down here." Her incipient sense of revolt had died down for the time; she was young enough to live in the present, if the present was agreeable enough, as it was with this mild, unwonted, holiday stir about her. She only felt, vaguely, a little sorry for herself.
"It is lovely," said Beatrice; "but I own I shouldn't care for it all day and every day. It is rather jolly to feel you're in the middle of things."
"Oh, I know it is," said Cicely, laughing. "I was in the middle of things in London, and I enjoyed it immensely."
Beatrice's engagement was the subject of another conversation that evening. When the party got back from the picnic, Cicely set out for the dower-house. Nobody had been near the old aunts that day; it was seven o'clock, and there was just time to pay them a short visit. Mr. Birket was in the hall as she passed through, and she asked him to go with her.
"I should like to pay my respects to those two admirable ladies," he said. "They make me feel that I am nobody, which is occasionally good for the soul of man."
"Ah," said Cicely, as they went across the garden together, "you are a wicked Radical, you see, and you want to disestablish their beloved Church."
"Do I?" said Mr. Birket. "How truly shocking of me. My dear, don't believe everything you hear. I am sure that my chief fault is that I don't possess land. Cicely, how much land must you possess if you really want to hold your head up? Would a hundred acres or so do the trick? I suppose not. Two hundred acres, now! I might run to that if the land was cheap."
"Two hundred acres, I should think, uncle," said Cicely, "with a manor-house, and, say, a home farm. And if you could get the advowson of a living, it would be all to the good."
"Would it? Thank you for telling me. But then I should have to ask the parson to dinner, and we might not get on. And I should have to go to church. I like going to church when I'm not obliged to—that is if they'll preach me a good sermon. I insist upon a good sermon. But if I had to go to set an example—well, I shouldn't go; and then I should get into trouble."
"Yes, I think you would, uncle. You can't live your own life entirely in the country. There are responsibilities."
"Ah, you've thought of that, have you? You do think things over?"
"Yes. I do think things over. There's nothing much else to do."
Mr. Birket cast a side glance at her. The sun striking through the trees of the park flushed translucently the smooth, fair flesh of her cheek and her ungloved hand. In her white frock, moving freely, with the springy grace of a young animal, she attracted the eye. Her head, under her wide hat-brim, was pensive, but she looked up at him with a smile. "If you could bring yourself to it, you know," she began, and broke off. "I mean," she began again, "I think you must either be a man, or—or very young, or not young at all."
Mr. Birket was a man of very quick perception. His face softened a little. "My dear," he said, "when you are very young things are happening every day, when you are a little older anything may happen, and when you are older still happenings don't matter. But you haven't got to the third stage yet."
"No," Cicely said, "I suppose not. Happenings do matter to me; and there aren't enough of them."
The two old ladies received Mr. Birket courteously. He was accidentally allied to the Clintons, and in his own path of life had striven, not without success, to make himself worthy of the alliance. He came to see them, two old ladies who had lived all their long lives in a small country village, had hardly ever been to London, and never out of England, who had been taught to read and write and to add up pounds, shillings and pence, and had never felt the lack of a wider education. He came with his great reputation, his membership of Parliament, his twenty thousand a year of income earned by the exercise of his brain, and a judgeship looming in the near future, and as far as they were concerned he came straight out of the little house on the Bathgate Road, now fitly occupied by a retired chemist. But far be it from them to show a brother of their nephew's wife that he was not welcome among them.
They talked of the weather, of Blackborough Castle, of Jim Graham's return, and of Walter's coming marriage with Muriel.
"Well, that will be the first wedding in the new generation," said Mr. Birket. "But there will be another very soon. Have you heard that my girl, Beatrice, is going to be married?"
The old ladies had not heard this piece of news and expressed their interest. Privately they thought it a little odd that Mr. Birket should talk as if there were any connection between the two events, although, of course, it was true that Walter was of the new Birket generation as well as the new Clinton generation.
"She is rather young," pursued Mr. Birket, "but George Senhouse is a steady fellow as well as a successful one. It is George Senhouse she is going to marry—you have heard of him?"
"Any relation, if I may ask, to Sir George Senhouse of whom we read in the House of Parliament?" asked Aunt Ellen.
"Yes—George Senhouse—that's the man. Not on my side, you know, Miss Clinton, but I'm sure you won't think that a drawback."
Indeed it was not. Mr. Birket was a Liberal, and therefore a deadly foe to the true religion of the Church of England as by compromise established, and to all the societies for raising mankind to a just appreciation of that religion which the Misses Clinton supported. And Sir George Senhouse, a capable and earnest young man, with an historic name, had early devoted his powers to the defence of those things in the outside world which they held dear. It was, indeed, a surprising piece of good fortune for Mr. Birket—and no wonder that he was so evidently pleased.
"I hope your daughter will be strengthened to assist him in all the good work he does," said Aunt Ellen.
"I sincerely hope she will," said Mr. Birket. "The engagement is not announced yet; but I tell you, Miss Clinton—and Miss Laura."
"Oh, we should not say a word before the proper time," said Aunt Laura.
When Cicely and Mr. Birket had gone, Aunt Ellen said, "You may take my word for it, sister, that it is owing to the Clinton connection. We have lived a retired life, but I know very well how these things tell."
As Cicely dressed for dinner—it was the first time she had been alone during the day—she thought about Jim, and what he had said to her, or tried to say to her, early in the morning. He had disturbed her mind and given her something that she had to think about. She had told Mr. Birket that she thought things over, and it was true; she had courage in that way. With but little in her education or scope of life to feed it, her brain was active and inquiring. It worked on all matters that came within her ken, and she never shirked a question. She was affectionate, loyal, and naturally light-hearted, but she was critical too, of herself no less than of others. It would have been easy for her, if she had had less character, to put away from her, as she had done for the last five years, the consideration of her relationship to Jim, to have ignored his approach to her, since she had stopped him from coming closer, and to have deferred searching her own mind until he should have approached her again and in such a way that she could no longer have avoided it. But she had locked up the remembrance of the happenings of five years before in a cupboard of her brain, and locked the key on it. If she had thought of it at all, she would have had to think of herself as having made a present to Jim which he had returned to her. And because she could not altogether escape from the memory of it, she had come to look upon herself as a rather foolish and very immature young person in those days, who had not in the least known what she was about when she allowed herself to be made love to.