Looking back, the view was quite open in most places. The wooded lanes and strips they had passed were little more in so vast a panorama than the black stripes on a backgammon board. The site was so high that the eye swept over all, and rested on a broad valley beyond, with a patchwork pattern of variegated fields and the curling steam of engines flying across all England; then swept by a vast incline up to a horizon of faint green hills, the famous pastures of the United Kingdom. So that it was a deep basin of foliage in front; but you had only to turn your body, and there was a forty-mile view, with all the sweet varieties of color that gem our fields and meadows, as they bask in the afternoon sun of that golden time when summer melts into autumn, and mellows without a chill.
"Oh," cried Miss Gale, "don't anybody speak, please! It is too beautiful!"
They respected an enthusiasm so rare in this young lady, and let her contemplate the scene at her ease.
"I reckon," said she, dogmatically, and nodding that wise little head, "that this is Old England—the England my ancestors left in search of liberty, and that's a plant that ranks before cherry-trees, I rather think. No, I couldn't have gone; I'd have stayed and killed a hundred tyrants. But I wouldn't have chopped their heads off" (to Vizard, very confidentially); "I'd have poisoned 'em."
"Don't, Miss Gale!" said Fanny; "you make my blood run cold."
As it was quite indifferent to Miss Gale whether she made Miss Dover's blood run cold or not, she paid no attention, but proceeded with her reflections. "The only thing that spoils it is the smoke of those engines, reminding one that in two hours you or I, or that pastoral old hermit there in a smock-frock, and a pipe—and oh, what bad tobacco!—can be wrenched out of this paradise, and shrieked and rattled off and flung into that wilderness of brick called London, where the hearts are as hard as the pavement—except those that have strayed there from Barfordshire."
The witch changed face and tone and everything like lightning, and threw this last in with a sudden grace and sweetness that contrasted strangely with her usual sharpness.
Zoe heard, and turned round to look down on her with a smile as sweet as honey. "I hardly think that is a drawback," said she, amicably. "Does not being able to leave a place make it sweeter? for then we are free in it, you know. But I must own there is a drawback—the boys' faces, Miss Gale, they are so pasty."
"Indeed!" says Rhoda, pricking up her ears.
"Form no false hopes of an epidemic. This is not an infirmary in a wood, Miss Gale," said Vizard. "My sister is a great colorist, and pitches her expectations too high. I dare say their faces are not more pasty than usual; but this is a show place, and looks like a garden; so Zoe wants the boys to be poppies and pansies, and the girls roses and lilies. Which—they—are—not."
"All I know is," said Zoe, resolutely, "that in Islip the children's faces are rosy, but here they are pasty—dreadfully pasty."
"Well, you have got a box of colors. We will come up some day and tint all the putty-faced boys." It was to Miss Dover the company owed this suggestion.
"No," said Rhoda. "Their faces are my business; I'll soon fix them. She didn't say putty-faced; she said pasty."
"Grateful to you for the distinction, Miss Gale," said Zoe.
Miss Gale proceeded to insist that boys are not pasty-faced without a cause, and it is to be sought lower down. "Ah!" cried she, suddenly, "is that a cherry that I see before me? No, a million. They steal them and eat them by the thousand, and that's why. Tell the truth, now, everybody—they eat the stones."
Miss Vizard said she did not know, but thought them capable.
"Children know nothing," said Vizard. "Please address all future scientific inquiries to an 'old inhabitant.' Miss Gale, the country abounds in curiosities; but, among those curiosities, even Science, with her searching eye, has never yet discovered an unswallowed cherry stone in Hillstoke village."
"What! not on the trees?"
"She is too much for me. Drive on, coachman, and drown her replies in the clatter of hoofs. Round by the Stag, Zoe. I am uneasy till I have locked Fair Science up. I own it is a mean way of getting rid of a troublesome disputant."
"Now I think it is quite fair," said Fanny. "She shuts you up, and so you lock her up."
"'Tis well," said Vizard, dolefully. "Now I am No. 3—I who used to retort and keep girls in their places—with difficulty. Here is Ned Severne, too, reduced to silence. Why, where's your tongue? Miss Gale, you would hardly believe it, this is our chatterbox. We have been days and days, and could not get in a word edgewise for him. But now all he can do is to gaze on you with canine devotion, and devour the honey—I beg pardon, the lime-juice—of your lips. I warn you of one thing, though; there is such a thing as a threatening silence. He is evidently booking every word you utter; and he will deliver it all for his own behind your back some fine day."
With this sort of banter and small talk, not worth deluging the reader dead with, they passed away the time till they reached the farm.
"You stay here," said Vizard—"all but Zoe. Tom and George, get the things out." The grooms had already jumped out of the dog-cart, and two were at the horses' heads. The step-ladder was placed for Zoe, and Vizard asked her to go in and see the rooms were all right, while he took Miss Gale to the stables. He did so, and showed her a spirited Galloway and a steady old horse, and told her she could ride one and drive the other all over the country.
She thanked him, but said her attention would be occupied by the two villages first, and she should make him a report in forty-eight hours.
"As you please," said he. "You are terribly in earnest."
"What should I be worth if I was not?'
"Well, come and see your shell; and you must tell me if we have forgotten anything essential to your comfort."
She followed him, and he led her to a wing of the farmhouse comparatively new, and quite superior to the rest. Here were two good sunny rooms, with windows looking south and west, and they were both papered with a white watered pattern, and a pretty French border of flowers at the upper part, to look gay and cheerful.
Zoe was in the bedroom, arranging things with a pretty air of hospitality. It was cheerily fitted up, and a fire of beech logs blazing.
"How good you are!" said Rhoda, looking wistfully at her. But Zoe checked all comments by asking her to look at the sitting-room and see if it would do. Rhoda would rather have stayed with Zoe; but she complied, and found another bright, cheerful room, and Vizard standing in the middle of it. There was another beech fire blazing, though it was hot weather. Here was a round table, with a large pot full of flowers, geraniums and musk flowers outside, with the sun gilding their green leaves most amiably, and everything unpretending, but bright and comfortable; well padded sofa, luxurious armchair, stand-up reading desk, and a very large knee-hole table; a fine mirror from the ceiling to the dado; a book-case with choice books, and on a pembroke table near the wall were several periodicals. Rhoda, after a cursory survey of the room, flew to the books. "Oh!" said she, "what good books! all standard works; and several on medicine; and, I declare, the last numbers of the Lancet and the Medical Gazette, and the very best French and German periodicals! Oh, what have I done? and what can I ever do?"
"What! Are you going to gush like the rest—and about nothing?" said Vizard. "Then I'm off. Come along, Zoe;" and he hurried his sister away.
She came at the word; but as soon as they were out of the house, asked him what was the matter.
"I thought she was going to gush. But I dare say it was a false alarm."
"And why shouldn't she gush, when you have been so kind?"
"Pooh—nonsense! I have not been kind to her, and don't mean to be kind to her, or to any woman; besides, she must not be allowed to gush; she is the parish virago—imported from vast distances as such—and for her to play the woman would be an abominable breach of faith. We have got our gusher, likewise our flirt; and it was understood from the first that this was to be a new dramatis persona—was not to be a repetition of you or la Dover, but—ahem—the third Grace, a virago: solidified vinegar."
Rhoda Gale felt very happy. She was young, healthy, ambitious, and sanguine. She divined that, somehow, her turning point had come; and when she contrasted her condition a month ago, and the hardness of the world, with the comfort and kindness that now surrounded her, and the magnanimity which fled, not to be thanked for them, she felt for once in a way humble as well as grateful, and said to herself, "It is not to myself nor any merit of mine I owe such a change as all this is." What some call religion, and others superstition, overpowered her, and she kneeled down and held communion with that great Spirit which, as she believed, pervades the material universe, and probably arises from it, as harmony from the well strung harp. Theory of the day, or Plato redivivus—which is it?
"O great creative element, and stream of tendencies in the universe, whereby all things struggle toward perfection, deign to be the recipient of that gratitude which fills me, and cannot be silent; and since gratitude is right in all, and most of all in me at this moment, forgive me if, in the weakness of my intellect, I fall into the old error of addressing you as an individual. It is but the weakness of the heart; we are persons, and so we cry out for a personal God to be grateful to. Pray receive it so—if, indeed, these words of mine have any access to your infinitely superior nature. And if it is true that you influence the mind of man, and are by any act of positive volition the cause of these benefits I now profit by, then pray influence my mind in turn, and make me a more worthy recipient of all these favors; above all, inspire me to keep faithfully to my own sphere, which is on earth; to be good and kind and tolerant to my fellow creatures, perverse as they are sometimes, and not content myself with saying good words to you, to whose information I can add nothing, nor yet to your happiness, by any words of mine. Let no hollow sentiment of religion keep me long prating on my knees, when life is so short, and" (jumping suddenly up) "my duties can only be discharged afoot."
Refreshed by this aspiration, the like of which I have not yet heard delivered in churches—but the rising generation will perhaps be more fortunate in that respect—she went into the kitchen, ordered tea, bread and butter, and one egg for dinner at seven o'clock, and walked instantly back to Hillstoke to inspect the village, according to her ideas of inspection.
Next morning down comes the bailiff's head man in his light cart, and a note is delivered to Vizard at the breakfast table. He reads it to himself, then proclaims silence, and reads it aloud:
"DEAR SIR—As we crossed your hall to luncheon, there was the door of a small room half open, and I saw a large mahogany case standing on a marble table with one leg, but three claws gilt. I saw 'Micro' printed on the case. So I hope it is a microscope, and a fine one. To enable you to find it, if you don't know, the room had crimson curtains, and is papered in green flock. That is the worst of all the poisonous papers, because the texture is loose, and the poisonous stuff easily detached, and always flying about the room. I hope you do not sit in it, nor Miss Vizard, because sitting in that room is courting death. Please lend me the microscope, if it is one, and I'll soon show you why the boys are putty faced. I have inspected them, and find Miss Dover's epithet more exact than Miss Vizard's, which is singular. I will take great care of it. Yours respectfully,
Vizard ordered a servant to deliver the microscope to Miss Gale's messenger with his compliments. Fanny wondered what she wanted with it. "Not to inspect our little characters, it is to be hoped," said Vizard. "Why not pay her a visit, you ladies? then she will tell you, perhaps." The ladies instantly wore that bland look of inert but rocky resistance I have already noted as a characteristic of "our girls." Vizard saw, and said, "Try and persuade them, Uxmoor."
"I can only offer Miss Vizard my escort," said Lord Uxmoor.
"And I offer both ladies mine," said Ned Severne, rather loud and with a little sneer, to mark his superior breeding. The gentleman was so extremely polite in general that there was no mistaking his hostile intentions now. The inevitable war had begun, and the first shot was fired. Of course the wonder was it had not come long before; and perhaps I ought to have drawn more attention to the delicacy and tact of Zoe Vizard, which had averted it for a time. To be sure, she had been aided by the size of the house and its habits. The ladies had their own sitting rooms; Fanny kept close to Zoe by special orders; and nobody could get a chance te'te-'a-te'te with Zoe unless she chose. By this means, her native dignity and watchful tact, by her frank courtesy to Uxmoor, and by the many little quiet ways she took to show Severne her sentiments remained unchanged, she had managed to keep the peace, and avert that open competition for her favor which would have tickled the vanity of a Fanny Dover, but shocked the refined modesty of a Zoe Vizard.
But nature will have her way soon or late, and it is the nature of males to fight for the female.
At Severne's shot Uxmoor drew up a little haughtily, but did not feel sure anything was intended. He was little accustomed to rubs. Zoe, on the other hand, turned a little pale—just a little, for she was sorry, but not surprised; so she proved equal to the occasion. She smiled and made light of it. "Of course we are all going," said she.
"Except one," said Vizard, dryly.
"That is too bad," said Fanny. "Here he drives us all to visit his blue-stocking, but he takes good care not to go himself."
"Perhaps he prefers to visit her alone," suggested Severne. Zoe looked alarmed.
"That is so," said Vizard. "Observe, I am learning her very phrases. When you come back, tell me every word she says; pray let nothing be lost that falls from my virago."
The party started after luncheon; and Severne, true to his new policy, whipped to Zoe's side before Uxmoor, and engaged her at once in conversation.
Uxmoor bit his lip, and fell to Fanny. Fanny saw at once what was going on, and made herself very agreeable to Uxmoor. He was polite and a little gratified, but cast uneasy glances at the other pair.
Meantime Severne was improving his opportunity. "Sorry to disturb Lord Uxmoor's monopoly," said he, sarcastically, "but I could not bear it any longer."
"I do not object to the change," said Zoe, smiling maternally on him; "but you will be good enough to imitate me in one thing—you will always be polite to Lord Uxmoor."
"He makes it rather hard."
"It is only for a time; and we must learn to be capable of self-denial. I assure you I have exercised quite as much as I ask of you. Edward, he is a gentleman of great worth, universally respected, and my brother has a particular wish to be friends with him. So pray be patient; be considerate. Have a little faith in one who—"
She did not end the sentence.
"Well, I will," said he. "But please think of me a little. I am beginning to feel quite thrust aside, and degraded in my own eyes for putting up with it."
"For shame, to talk so," said Zoe; but the tears came into her eyes.
The master of arts saw, and said no more. He had the art of not overdoing: he left the arrow to rankle. He walked by her side in a silence for ever so long. Then, suddenly, as if by a mighty effort of unselfish love, went off into delightful discourse. He cooed and wooed and flattered and fascinated; and by the time they reached the farm had driven Uxmoor out of her head.
Miss Gale was out. The farmer's wife said she had gone into the town—meaning Hillstoke—which was, strictly speaking, a hamlet or tributary village. Hillstoke church was only twelve years old, and the tithes of the place went to the parson of Islip.
When Zoe turned to go, Uxmoor seized the opportunity, and drew up beside her, like a soldier falling into the ranks. Zoe felt hot; but as Severne took no open notice, she could not help smiling at the behavior of the fellows; and Uxmoor got his chance.
Severne turned to Fanny with a wicked sneer. "Very well, my lord," said he; "but I have put a spoke in your wheel."
"As if I did not see, you clever creature!" said Fanny, admiringly.
"Ah, Miss Dover, I need to be as clever as you! See what I have against me: a rich lord, with the bushiest beard."
"Never you mind," said Fanny. "Good wine needs no bush, ha! ha! You are lovely, and have a wheedling tongue, and you were there first. Be good, now—and you can flirt with me to fill up the time. I hate not being flirted at all. It is stagnation."
"Yes, but it is not so easy to flirt with you just a little. You are so charming." Thereupon he proceeded to flatter her, and wonder how he had escaped a passionate attachment to so brilliant a creature. "What saved me," said he, oracularly, "is, that I never could love two at once; and Zoe seized my love at sight. She left me nothing to lay at your feet but my admiration, the tenderest friendship man can feel for woman, and my lifelong gratitude for fighting my battle. Oh, Miss Dover, I must be quite serious a moment. What other lady but you would be so generous as to befriend a poor man with another lady, when there's wealth and title on the other side?"
Fanny blushed and softened, but turned it off. "There—no heroics, please," said she. "You are a dear little fellow; and don't go and be jealous, for he shan't have her. He would never ask me to his house, you know. Now I think you would perhaps—who knows? Tell me, fascinating monster, are you going to be ungrateful?"
"Not to you. My home would always be yours; and you know it." And he caught her hand and kissed it in an ungovernable transport, the strings of which be pulled himself. He took care to be quick about it, though, and not let Zoe or Uxmoor see, who were walking on before and behaving sedately.
In Hillstoke lived, on a pension from Vizard, old Mrs. Greenaway, rheumatic about the lower joints, so she went on crutches; but she went fast, being vigorous, and so did her tongue. At Hillstoke she was Dame Greenaway, being a relic of that generation which applied the word dame to every wife, high and low; but at Islip she was "Sally," because she had started under that title, fifty-five years ago, as house-maid at Vizard Court; and, by the tenacity of oral tradition, retained it ever since, in spite of two husbands she had wedded and buried with equal composure.
Her feet were still springy, her arms strong as iron, and her crutches active. At sight of our party she came out with amazing wooden strides, agog for gossip, and met them at the gate. She managed to indicate a courtesy, and said, "Good day, miss; your sarvant, all the company. Lord, how nice you be dressed, all on ye, to—be—sure! Well, miss, have ye heerd the news?"
"No, Sally. What is it?"
"What! haant ye heerd about the young 'oman at the farm?"
"Oh yes; we came to see her."
"No, did ye now? Well, she was here not half an hour agone. By the same toaken, I did put her a question, and she answered me then and there."
"And may I ask what the question was?"
"And welcome, miss. I said, says I, 'Young 'oman, where be you come from?' so says she, 'Old 'oman, I be come from forin parts.' 'I thought as much,' says I. 'And what be 'e come for?' 'To sojourn here,' says she, which she meant to bide a time. 'And what do 'e count to do whilst here you be?' says I. Says she, 'As much good as ever I can do, and as little harm.' 'That is no answer,' says I. She said it would do for the present; 'and good day to you, ma'am,' says she. 'Your sarvant, miss,' says I; and she was off like a flash. But I called my grandson Bill, and I told him he must follow her, go where she would, and let us know what she was up to down in Islip. Then I went round the neighbors, and one told me one tale, and another another. But it all comes to one—we have gotten A BUSYBODY; that's the name I gives her. She don't give in to that, ye know; she is a Latiner, and speaks according. She gave Master Giles her own description. Says she, 'I'm suspector-general of this here districk.' So then Giles he was skeared a bit—he have got an acre of land of his own, you know—and he up and asked her did she come under the taxes, or was she a fresh imposition; 'for we are burdened enough a'ready, no offense to you, miss,' says Josh Giles. 'Don't you be skeared, old man,' says she, 'I shan't cost you none; your betters pays for I.' So says Giles, 'Oh, if you falls on squire, I don't vally that; squire's back is broad enough to bear the load, but I'm a poor man.' That's how a' goes on, ye know. Poverty is always in his mouth, but the old chap have got a hatful of money hid away in the thatch or some're, only he haan't a got the heart to spend it."
"Tell us more about the young lady," asked Uxmoor.
"What young lady? Oh, her. She is not a young lady—leastways she is not dressed like one, but like a plain, decent body. She was all of a piece—blue serge! Bless your heart, the peddlers bring it round here at elevenpence half-penny the yard, and a good breadth too; and plain boots, not heeled like your'n, miss, nor your'n, ma'am; and a felt hat like a boy. You'd say the parish had dressed her for ten shillings, and got a pot of beer out on't."
"Well, never mind that," said Zoe; "I must tell you she is a very worthy young lady, and my brother has a respect for her. Dress? Why, Sally, you know it is not the wisest that spend most on dress. You might tell us what she does."
Dame Greenaway snatched the word out of her mouth. "Well, then, miss, what she have done, she have suspected everything. She have suspected the ponds; she have suspected the houses; she have suspected the folk; she must know what they eat and drink and wear next their very skin, and what they do lie down on. She have been at the very boys and forebade 'em to swallow the cherry stones, poor things; but old Mrs. Nash—which her boys lives on cherries at this time o' year, and to be sure they are a godsend to keep the children hereabout from starving—well, Dame Nash told her the Almighty knew best; he had put 'em together on the tree, so why not in the boys' insides; and that was common sense to my mind. But la! she wouldn't heed it. She said, 'Then you'd eat the peach stones by that rule, and the fish bones and all.' Says she, quite resolute like, 'I forbid 'em to swallow the stones;' and says she, 'Ye mawnt gainsay me, none on ye, for I be the new doctor.' So then it all come out. She isn't suspector-general; she is a wench turned doctor, which it is against reason. Shan't doctor me for one; but that there old Giles, he says he is agreeable, if so be she wool doctor him cheap—cussed old fool!—as if any doctoring was cheap that kills a body and doan't cure 'em. Dear heart, I forgot to tell ye about the ponds. Well, you know there be no wells here. We makes our tea out of the ponds, and capital good tea to drink, far before well water, for I mind that one day about twenty years agone some interfering body did cart a barrel up from Islip; and if we wants water withouten tea, why, we can get plenty on't, and none too much malt and hops, at 'The Black Horse.' So this here young 'oman she suspects the poor ponds and casts a hevil-eye on them, and she borrows two mugs of Giles, and carries the water home to suspect it closer. That is all she have done at present, but, ye see, she haan't been here so very long. You mark my words, miss, that young 'oman will turn Hillstoke village topsy-turvy or ever she goes back to London town."
"Nonsense, Sally," said Zoe; "how can anybody do that while my brother and I are alive?" She then slipped half a crown into Sally's hand, and led the way to Islip.
On the road her conversation with Oxmoor took a turn suggestive of this interview. I forget which began it; but they differed a little in opinion, Uxmoor admiring Miss Gale's zeal and activity, and Zoe fearing that she would prove a rash reformer, perhaps a reckless innovator.
"And really," said she, "why disturb things? for, go where I will, I see no such Paradise as these two villages."
"They are indeed lovely," said Uxmoor; "but my own village is very pretty. Yet on nearer inspection I have found so many defects, especially in the internal arrangements of the cottages, that I am always glad to hear of a new eye having come to bear on any village."
"I know you are very good," said Zoe, "and wish all the poor people about you to be as healthy and as happy as possible."
"I really do," said, warmly. "I often think of the strange inequality in the lot of men. Living in the country, I see around me hundreds of men who are by nature as worthy as I am, or thereabouts. Yet they must toil and labor, and indeed fight, for bare food and clothing, all their lives, and worse off at the close of their long labor. That is what grieves me to the heart. All this time I revel in plenty and luxuries—not forgetting the luxury of luxuries, the delight of giving to those who need and deserve. What have I done for all this? I have been born of the right parents. My merit, then, is the accident of an accident. But having done nothing meritorious before I was born, surely I ought to begin afterward. I think a man born to wealth ought to doubt his moral title to it, and ought to set to work to prove it—ought to set himself to repair the injustice of fortune by which he profits. Yes, such a man should be a sort of human sunshine, and diffuse blessings all round him. The poor man that encounters him ought to bless the accident. But there, I am not eloquent. You know how much more I mean than I can say."
"Indeed I do," said Zoe, "and I honor you."
"Ah, Miss Vizard," said Uxmoor, "that is more than I can ever deserve."
"You are praising me at your own expense," said Zoe. "Well, then," said she, sweetly, "please accept my sympathy. It is so rare to find a gentleman of your age thinking so little of himself and so much of poor people. Yet that is a Divine command. But somehow we forget our religion out of church—most of us. I am sure I do, for one."
This conversation brought them to the village, and there they met Vizard, and Zoe repeated old Sally's discourse to him word for word. He shook his head solemnly, and said he shared her misgivings. "We have caught a Tartar."
On arriving at Vizard Court, they found Miss Gale had called and left two cards.
Open rivalry having now commenced between Uxmoor and Severne, his lordship was adroit enough to contrive that the drag should be in request next day.
Then Severne got Fanny to convey a note to Zoe, imploring her to open her bedroom window and say good-night to him the last. "For," said he, "I have no coach and four, and I am very unhappy."
This and his staying sullenly at home spoiled Zoe's ride, and she was cool to Uxmoor, and spoiled his drive.
At night Zoe peeped through the curtain and saw Severne standing in the moonlight. She drank him in for some time in silence, then softly opened her window and looked out. He took a step nearer.
She said, very softly and tenderly, "You are very naughty, and very foolish. Go to bed di-rectly." And she closed her window with a valiant slam; then sat down and sighed.
Same game next day. Uxmoor driving, Zoe wonderfully polite, but chill, because he was separating her and Severne. At night, Severne on the wet grass, and Zoe remonstrating severely, but not sincerely, and closing the window peremptorily she would have liked to keep open half the night.
It has often been remarked that great things arise out of small things, and sometimes, when in full motion, depend on small things. History offers brilliant examples upon its large stage. Fiction has imitated history in un verre d'eau and other compositions. To these examples, real or feigned, I am now about to add one; and the curious reader may, if he thinks it worth while, note the various ramifications at home and abroad of a seemingly trivial incident.
They were all seated at luncheon, when a servant came in with a salver, and said, "A gentleman to see you, sir." He presented his salver with a card upon it. Severne clutched the card, and jumped up, reddening.
"Show him in here," said the hospitable Vizard.
"No, no," cried Severne, rather nervously; "it is my lawyer on a little private business."
Vizard told the servant to show the visitor into the library, and take in the Madeira and some biscuits.
"It is about a lease," said Ned Severne, and went out rather hurriedly.
"La!" said Fanny, "what a curious name—Poikilus. And what does S. I. mean, I wonder?"
"This is enigmatical discourse," said Vizard, dryly. "Please explain."
"Why, the card had Poikilus on it."
"You are very inquisitive," said Zoe, coloring.
"No more than my neighbors. But the man put his salver right between our noses, and how could I help seeing Poikilus in large letters, and S. I. in little ones up in the corner?"
Said Vizard, "The female eye is naturally swift. She couldn't help seeing all that in half a minute of time; for Ned Severne snatched up the card with vast expedition."
"I saw that too," said Fanny, defiantly.
Uxmoor put in his word. "Poikilus! That is a name one sees in the papers."
"Of course you do. He is one of the humbugs of the day. Pretends to find things out; advertises mysterious disappearances; offers a magnificent reward—with perfect safety, because he has invented the lost girl's features and dress, and her disappearance into the bargain; and I hold with the schoolmen that she who does not exist cannot disappear. Poikilus, a puffing detective. S. I., Secret Inquiry. I spell Enquiry with an E—but Poikilus is a man of the day. What the deuce can Ned Severne want of him? I suppose I ought not to object. I have established a female detective at Hillstoke. So Ned sets one up at Islip. I shall make my own secret arrangements. If Poikilus settles here, he will be drawn through the horse-pond by small-minded rustics once a week."
While he was going on like this, Zoe felt uncomfortable, and almost irritated by his volubility, and it was a relief to her when Severne returned. He had confided a most delicate case to the detective, given him written instructions, and stipulated for his leaving the house without a word to any one, and, indeed, seen him off—all in seven minutes. Yet he returned to our party cool as a cucumber, to throw dust in everybody's eyes.
"I must apologize for this intrusion," he said to Vizard; "but my lawyer wanted to consult me about the lease of one of my farms, and, finding himself in the neighborhood, he called instead of writing."
"Your lawyer, eh?" said Vizard, slyly. "What is your lawyer's name?"
"Jackson," said Ned, without a moment's hesitation.
Fanny giggled in her own despite.
Instead of stopping here, Severne must go on; it was his unlucky day.
"Not quite a gentleman, you know, or I would have inflicted his society on you."
"Not quite—eh?" said Harrington, so dryly that Fanny Dover burst into a fit of uncontrollable laughter.
But Zoe turned hot and cold to see him blundering thus, and telling lie upon lie.
Severne saw there was something wrong, and buried his nose in pigeon pie. He devoured it with an excellent appetite, while every eye rested on him; Zoe's with shame and misery, Uxmoor's with open contempt, Vizard's with good humored satire.
The situation became intolerable to Zoe Vizard. Indignant and deeply shocked herself, she still could not bear to see him the butt of others' ridicule and contempt. She rose haughtily and marched to the door. He raised his head for a moment as she went out. She turned, and their eyes met. She gave him such a glance of pity and disdain as suspended the meat upon his fork, and froze him into comprehending that something very serious indeed had happened.
He resolved to learn from Fanny what it was, and act accordingly. But Zoe's maid came in and whispered Fanny. She went out, and neither of the young ladies was seen till dinner-time. It was conveyed to Uxmoor that there would be no excursion of any kind this afternoon; and therefore he took his hat, and went off to pay a visit. He called on Rhoda Gale. She was at home. He intended merely to offer her his respects, and to side with her generally against these foolish rustics; but she was pleased with him for coming, and made herself so agreeable that he spent the whole afternoon comparing notes with her upon village life, and the amelioration it was capable of. Each could give the other valuable ideas; and he said he hoped she would visit his part of the country ere long; she would find many defects, but also a great desire to amend them.
This flattered her, naturally; and she began to take an interest in him. That interest soon took the form of curiosity. She must know whether he was seriously courting Zoe Vizard or not. The natural reserve of a well-bred man withstood this at first; but that armor could not resist for two mortal hours such a daughter of Eve as this, with her insidious questions, her artful statements, her cat-like retreats and cat-like returns. She learned—though he did not see how far he had committed himself—that he admired Zoe Vizard and would marry her to-morrow if she would have him; his hesitation to ask her, because he had a rival, whose power he could not exactly measure; but a formidable and permitted rival.
They parted almost friends; and Rhoda settled quietly in her mind he should have Zoe Vizard, since he was so fond of her.
Here again it was Severne's unlucky day, and Uxmoor's lucky. To carry this same day to a close, Severne tried more than once to get near Zoe and ask if he had offended her, and in what. But no opportunity occurred. So then he sat and gazed at her, and looked unhappy. She saw, and was not unmoved, but would not do more than glance at him. He resigned himself to wait till night.
Night came. He went on the grass. There was a light in Zoe's room. It was eleven o'clock. He waited, shivering, till twelve. Then the light was put out; but no window opened. There was a moon; and her windows glared black on him, dark and bright as the eyes she now averted from him. He was in disgrace.
The present incident I have recorded did not end here; and I must now follow Poikilus on his mission to Homburg; and if the reader has a sense of justice, methinks he will not complain of the journey, for see how long I have neglected the noblest figure in this story, and the most to be pitied. To desert her longer would be too unjust, and derange entirely the balance of this complicated story.
A CRUEL mental stroke, like a heavy blow upon the body, sometimes benumbs and sickens at first, but does not torture; yet that is to follow.
It was so with Ina Klosking. The day she just missed Edward Severne, and he seemed to melt away from her very grasp into the wide world again, she could drag herself to the theater and sing angelically, with a dull and aching heart. But next day her heart entered on sharper suffering. She was irritated, exasperated; chained to the theater, to Homburg, yet wild to follow Severne to England without delay. She told Ashmead she must and would go. He opposed it stoutly, and gave good reasons. She could not break faith with the management. England was a large place. They had, as yet, no clew but a name. By waiting, the clew would come. The sure course was to give publicity in England to her winnings, and so draw Severne to her. But for once she was too excited to listen to reason. She was tempest-tossed. "I will go—I will go," she repeated, as she walked the room wildly, and flung her arms aloft with reckless abandon, and yet with a terrible majesty, an instinctive grace, and all the poetry of a great soul wronged and driven wild.
She overpowered Ashmead and drove him to the director. He went most unwillingly; but once there, was true to her, and begged off the engagement eagerly. The director refused this plump. Then Ashmead, still true to his commission, offered him (most reluctantly) a considerable sum down to annul the contract, and backed this with a quiet hint that she would certainly fall ill if refused. The director knew by experience what this meant, and how easily these ladies can command the human body to death's door pro re nata, and how readily a doctor's certificate can be had to say or swear that the great creature cannot sing or act without peril to life, though really both these arts are grand medicines, and far less likely to injure the bona fide sick than are the certifying doctor's draughts and drugs. The director knew all this; but he was furious at the disappointment threatened him. "No," said he; "this is always the way; a poor devil of a manager is never to have a success. It is treacherous, it is ungrateful: I'll close. You tell her if she is determined to cut all our throats and kick her own good fortune down, she can; but, by ——, I'll make her smart for it! Mind, now; she closes the theater and pays the expenses, if she plays me false."
"But if she is ill?"
"Let her die and be ——, and then I'll believe her. She is the healthiest woman in Germany. I'll go and take steps to have her arrested if she offers to leave the town."
Ashmead reported the manager's threats, and the Klosking received them as a lioness the barking of a cur. She drew herself swiftly up, and her great eye gleamed imperial disdain at all his menaces but one.
"He will not really close the theater," said she, loftily; but uneasiness lurked in her manner.
"He will," said Ashmead. "He is desperate: and you know it is hard to go on losing and losing, and then the moment luck turns to be done out of it, in spite of a written bargain. I've been a manager myself."
"So many poor people!" said Ina, with a sigh; and her defiant head sunk a little.
"Oh, bother them!" said Ashmead, craftily. "Let 'em starve."
"God forbid!" said Ina. Then she sighed again, and her queenly head sunk lower. Then she faltered out, "I have the will to break faith and ruin poor people, but I have not the courage."
Then a tear or two began to trickle, carrying with them all the egotistical resolution Ina Klosking possessed at that time. Perhaps we shall see her harden: nothing stands still.
This time the poor conquered.
But every now and then for many days there were returns of torment and agitation and wild desire to escape to England.
Ashmead made head against these with his simple arts. For one thing, he showed her a dozen paragraphs in MS. he was sending to as many English weekly papers, describing her heavy gains at the table. "With these stones," said he, "I kill two birds: extend your fame, and entice your idol back to you." Here a growl, which I suspect was an inarticulate curse. Joseph, fi!
The pen of Joseph on such occasions was like his predecessor's coat, polychromatic. The Klosking read him, and wondered. "Alas!" said she, "with what versatile skill do you descant on a single circumstance not very creditable."
"Creditable!" said Ashmead; "it was very naughty, but it is very nice." And the creature actually winked, forgetting, of course, whom he was winking at, and wasting his vulgarity on the desert air; for the Klosking's eye might just manage to blink—at the meridian sun, or so forth; but it never winked once in all its life.
One of the paragraphs ran thus, with a heading in small capitals:
"A PRIMA DONNA AT THE GAMBLING TABLE.
"Mademoiselle Klosking, the great contralto, whose success has been already recorded in all the journals, strolled, on one of her off nights, into the Kursaal at Homburg, and sat down to trente et quarante. Her melodious voice was soon heard betting heavily, with the most engaging sweetness of manner; and doubling seven times upon the red, she broke the bank, and retired with a charming courtesy and eight thousand pounds in gold and notes."
Another dealt with the matter thus:
"ROUGE ET NOIR.
"The latest coup at Homburg has been made by a cantatrice whose praises all Germany are now ringing. Mademoiselle Klosking, successor and rival of Alboni, went to the Kursaal, pour passer le temps; and she passed it so well that in half an hour the bank was broken, and there was a pile of notes and gold before La Klosking amounting to ten thousand pounds and more. The lady waved these over to her agent, Mr. Joseph Ashmead, with a hand which, par parenthe'se, is believed to be the whitest in Europe, and retired gracefully."
On perusing this, La Klosking held two white hands up to heaven in amazement at the skill and good taste which had dragged this feature into the incident.
"A DRAMATIC SITUATION.
"A circumstance has lately occurred here which will infallibly be seized on by the novelists in search of an incident. Mademoiselle Klosking, the new contralto, whose triumphant progress through Europe will probably be the next event in music, walked into the Kursaal the other night, broke the bank, and walked out again with twelve thousand pounds, and that charming composure which is said to distinguish her in private life.
"What makes it more remarkable is that the lady is not a gamester, has never played before, and is said to have declared that she shall never play again. It is certain that, with such a face, figure, and voice as hers, she need never seek for wealth at the gambling-table. Mademoiselle Klosking is now in negotiation with all the principal cities of the Continent. But the English managers, we apprehend, will prove awkward competitors."
Were I to reproduce the nine other paragraphs, it would be a very curious, instructive, and tedious specimen of literature; and, who knows? I might corrupt some immaculate soul, inspire some actor or actress, singer or songstress, with an itch for public self-laudation, a foible from which they are all at present so free. Witness the Era, the Hornet, and Figaro.
Ina Klosking spotted what she conceived to be a defect in these histories. "My friend," said she meekly, "the sum I won was under five thousand pounds."
"Was it? Yes, to be sure. But, you see, these are English advertisements. Now England is so rich that if you keep down to any Continental sum, you give a false impression in England of the importance on the spot."
"And so we are to falsify figures? In the first of these legends it was double the truth; and, as I read, it enlarges—oh, but it enlarges," said Ina, with a Gallicism we shall have to forgive in a lady who spoke five languages.
"Madam," said Ashmead, dryly, "you must expect your capital to increase rapidly, so long as I conduct it."
Not being herself swift to shed jokes, Ina did not take them rapidly. She stared at him. He never moved a muscle. She gave a slight shrug of her grand shoulders, and resigned that attempt to reason with the creature.
She had a pill in store for him, though. She told him that, as she had sacrificed the longings of her heart to the poor of the theater, so she should sacrifice a portion of her ill-gotten gains to the poor of the town.
He made a hideously wry face at that, asked what poor-rates were for, and assured her that "pauper" meant "drunkard."
"It is not written so in Scripture," said Ina; "and I need their prayers, for I am very unhappy."
In short, Ashmead was driven out from the presence chamber with a thousand thalers to distribute among the poor of Homburg; and, once in the street, his face did not shine like an angel of mercy's, but was very pinched and morose; hardly recognizable—poor Joe!
By-and-by he scratched his head. Now it is unaccountable, but certain heads often yield an idea in return for that. Joseph's did, and his countenance brightened.
Three days after this Ina was surprised by a note from the burgomaster, saying that he and certain of the town council would have the honor of calling on her at noon.
What might this mean?
She sent to ask for Mr. Ashmead; he was not to be found; he had hidden himself too carefully.
The deputation came and thanked her for her munificent act of charity.
She looked puzzled at first, then blushed to the temples. "Munificent act, gentlemen! Alas! I did but direct my agent to distribute a small sum among the deserving poor. He has done very ill to court your attention. My little contribution should have been as private as it is insignificant."
"Nay, madam," said the clerk of the council, who was a recognized orator, "your agent did well to consult our worthy burgomaster, who knows the persons most in need and most deserving. We do not doubt that you love to do good in secret. Nevertheless, we have also our sense of duty, and we think it right that so benevolent an act should be published, as an example to others. In the same view, we claim to comment publicly on your goodness." Then he looked to the burgomaster, who took him up.
"And we comment thus: Madam, since the Middle Ages the freedom of this town has not been possessed by any female. There is, however, no law forbidding it, and therefore, madam, the civic authorities, whom I represent, do hereby present to you the freedom of this burgh."
He then handed her an emblazoned vellum giving her citizenship, with the reasons written plainly in golden letters.
Ina Klosking, who had remained quite quiet during the speeches, waited a moment or two, and then replied, with seemly grace and dignity:
"Mr. Burgomaster and gentlemen, you have paid me a great and unexpected compliment, and I thank you for it. But one thing makes me uneasy: it is that I have done so little to deserve this. I console myself, however, by reflecting that I am still young, and may have opportunities to show myself grateful, and even to deserve, in the future, this honor, which at present overpays me, and almost oppresses me. On that understanding, gentlemen, be pleased to bestow, and let me receive, the rare compliment you have paid me by admitting me to citizenship in your delightful town." (To herself:) "I'll scold him well for this."
Low courtesy; profound bows; exit deputation enchanted with her; manet Klosking with the freedom of the city in her hand and ingratitude in her heart; for her one idea was to get hold of Mr. Joseph Ashmead directly and reproach him severely for all this, which she justly ascribed to his machinations.
The cunning Ashmead divined her project, and kept persistently out of her way. That did not suit her neither. She was lonely. She gave the waiter a friendly line to bring him to her.
Now, mind you, she was too honest to pretend she was not going to scold him. So this is what she wrote:
"MY FRIEND—Have you deserted me? Come to me, and be remonstrated. What have you to fear? You know so well how to defend yourself.
Arrived in a very few minutes Mr. Ashamed, jaunty, cheerful, and defensive.
Ina, with a countenance from which all discontent was artfully extracted, laid before him, in the friendliest way you can imagine, an English Bible. It was her father's, and she always carried it with her. "I wish," said she, insidiously, "to consult you on a passage or two of this book. How do you understand this:
"'When thou doest thine alms, do not send a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do.'
"'When thou doest thine alms, let not thy right hand know what thy left hand doeth, that thine alms may be in secret; and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly.'"
Having pointed out these sentences with her finger, she looked to him for his interpretation. Joseph, thus erected into a Scripture commentator, looked at the passages first near, and then afar off, as if the true interpretation depended on perspective. Having thus gained a little time, he said, "Well, I think the meaning is clear enough. We are to hide our own light under a bushel. But it don't say an agent is to hide his employer's.'
"Be serious, sir. This is a great authority."
"Oh, of course, of course. Still—if you won't be offended, ma'am—times are changed since then. It was a very small place, where news spread of itself; and all that cannot be written for theatrical agents, because there wasn't one in creation."
"And so now their little customs, lately invented, like themselves, are to prevail against God's im-mor-tal law!" It was something half way between Handel and mellowed thunder the way her grand contralto suddenly rolled out these three words. Joseph was cunning. He put on a crushed appearance, deceived by which the firm but gentle Klosking began to soften her tone directly.
"It has given me pain," said she, sorrowfully. "And I am afraid God will be angry with us both for our ostentation."
"Not He," said Joseph, consolingly. "Bless your heart, He is not half so irritable as the parsons fancy; they confound Him with themselves."
Ina ignored this suggestion with perfect dignity and flowed on: "All I stipulate now is that I may not see this pitiable parade in print."
"That is past praying for, then," said Ashmead, resolutely. "You might as well try to stop the waves as check publicity—in our day. Your munificence to the poor—confound the lazy lot!—and the gratitude of those pompous prigs, the deputation—the presentation—your admirable reply—"
"You never heard it, now—"
"Which, as you say, I was not so fortunate as to hear, and so must content myself with describing it—all this is flying north, south, east, and west."
"Oh no, no, no! You have not advertised it?"
"Not advertised it! For what do you take me? Wait till you see the bill I am running up against you. Madam, you must take people as they are. Don't try to un-Ashmead me; it is impossible. Catch up that knife and kill me. I'll not resist; on the contrary, I'll sit down and prepare an obituary notice for the weeklies, and say I did it. BUT WHILE I BREATHE I ADVERTISE."
And Joseph was defiant; and the Klosking shrugged her noble shoulders, and said, "You best of creatures, you are incurable."
To follow this incident to its conclusion, not a week after this scene, Ina Klosking detected, in an English paper,
"A CHARITABLE ACT.
"Mademoiselle Klosking, the great contralto, having won a large sum of money at the Kursaal, has given a thousand pounds to the poor of the place. The civic authorities hearing of this, and desirous to mark their sense of so noble a donation, have presented her with the freedom of the burgh, written on vellum and gold. Mademoiselle Klosking received the compliment with charming grace and courtesy; but her modesty is said to have been much distressed at the publicity hereby given to an act she wished to be known only to the persons relieved by her charity."
Ina caught the culprit and showed him this. "A thousand pounds!" said she. "Are you not ashamed? Was ever a niggardly act so embellished and exaggerated? I feel my face very red, sir."
"Oh, I'll explain that in a moment," said Joseph, amicably. "Each nation has a coin it is always quoting. France counts in francs, Germany in thalers, America in dollars, England in pounds. When a thing costs a million francs in France, or a million dollars in the States, that is always called a million pounds in the English journals: otherwise it would convey no distinct idea at all to an Englishman. Turning thalers and francs into pounds—that is not exaggeration; it is only translation."
Ina gave him such a look. He replied with an unabashed smile.
She shrugged her shoulders in silence this time, and, to the best of my belief, made no more serious attempts to un-Ashmead her Ashmead.
A month had now passed, and that was a little more than half the dreary time she had to wade through. She began to count the days, and that made her pine all the more. Time is like a kettle. Be blind to him, he flies; watch him, he lags. Her sweet temper was a little affected, and she even reproached Ashmead for holding her out false hopes that his advertisements of her gains would induce Severne to come to her, or even write. "No," said she; "there must be some greater attraction. Karl says that Miss Vizard, who called upon me, was a beauty, and dark. Perhaps she was the lovely girl I saw at the opera. She has never been there since: and he is gone to England with people of that name."
"Well, but that Miss Vizard called on you. She can't intend to steal him from you."
"But she may not know; a woman may injure another without intending. He may deceive her; he has betrayed me. Her extraordinary beauty terrifies me. It enchanted me; and how much more a man?"
Joseph said he thought this was all fancy; and as for his advertisements, it was too early yet to pronounce on their effect.
The very day after this conversation he bounced into her room in great dudgeon. "There, madam! the advertisements have produced an effect; and not a pleasant one. Here's a detective on to us. He is feeling his way with Karl. I knew the man in a moment; calls himself Poikilus in print, and Smith to talk to; but he is Aaron at the bottom of it all, and can speak several languages. Confound their impudence! putting a detective on to us, when it is they that are keeping dark."
"Who do you think has sent him?" asked Ina, intently.
"The party interested, I suppose."
"Interested in what?"
"Why, in the money you won; for he was drawing Karl about that."
"Then he sent the man!" And Ina began to pant and change color.
"Well, now you put it to me, I think so. Come to look at it, it is certain. Who else could it be? Here is a brace of sweeps. They wouldn't be the worse for a good kicking. You say the word, and Smith shall have one, at all events."
"Alas! my friend," said Ina, "for once you are slow. What! a messenger comes here direct from him; and are we so dull we can learn nothing from him who comes to question us? Let me think."
She leaned her forehead on her white hand, and her face seemed slowly to fill with intellectual power.
"That man," said she at last, "is the only link between him and me. I must speak to him."
Then she thought again.
"No, not yet. He must be detained in the house. Letters may come to him, and their postmarks may give us some clew."
"I'll recommend the house to him."
"Oh, that is not necessary. He will lodge here of his own accord. Does he know you?"
"I think not."
"Do not give him the least suspicion that you know he is a detective."
"All right, I won't."
"If he sounds you about the money, say nobody knows much about it, except Mademoiselle Klosking. If you can get the matter so far, come and tell me. But be you very reserved, for you are not clear."
Ashmead received these instructions meekly, and went into the salle 'a manger and ordered dinner. Smith was there, and had evidently got some information from Karl, for he opened an easy conversation with Ashmead, and it ended in their dining together.
Smith played the open-handed country man to the life—stood champagne. Ashmead chattered, and seemed quite off his guard. Smith approached the subject cautiously. "Gamble here as much as ever?"
"All day, some of them."
"Ladies and all?"
"Why, the ladies are the worst."
"No; are they now? Ah, that reminds me. I heard there was a lady in this very house won a pot o' money."
"It is true. I am her agent."
"I suppose she lost it all next day?"
"Well, not all, for she gave a thousand pounds to the poor."
"The dressmakers collared the rest?"
"I cannot say. I have nothing to do except with her theatrical business. She will make more by that than she ever made at play."
"What, is she tip-top?"
"The most rising singer in Europe."
"I should like to see her."
"That you can easily do. She sings tonight. I'll pass you in."
"You are a good fellow. Have a bit of supper with me afterward. Bottle of fizz."
These two might be compared to a couple of spiders, each taking the other for a fly. Smith was enchanted with Ina's singing, or pretended. Ashmead was delighted with him, or pretended.
"Introduce me to her," said Smith.
"I dare not do that. You are not professional, are you?"
"No, but you can say I am, for a lark."
Ashmead said he should like to; but it would not do, unless he was very wary.
"Oh, I'm fly," said the other. "She won't get anything out of me. I've been behind the scenes often enough."
Then Ashmead said he would go and ask her if he might present a London manager to her.
He soon brought back the answer. "She is too tired to-night: but I pressed her, and she says she will be charmed if you will breakfast with her to-morrow at eleven." He did not say that he was to be with her at half-past ten for special instructions. They were very simple. "My friend," said she, "I mean to tell this man something which he will think it his duty to telegraph or write to him immediately. It was for this I would not have the man to supper, being after post-time. This morning he shall either write or telegraph, and then, if you are as clever in this as you are in some things, you will watch him, and find out the address he sends to."
Ashmead listened very attentively, and fell into a brown study.
"Madam," said he at last, "this is a first-rate combination. You make him communicate with England, and I will do the rest. If he telegraphs, I'll be at his heels. If he goes to the post, I know a way. If he posts in the house, he makes it too easy."
At eleven Ashmead introduced his friend "Sharpus, manager of Drury Lane Theater," and watched the fencing match with some anxiety, Ina being little versed in guile. But she had tact and self-possession; and she was not an angel, after all, but a woman whose wits were sharpened by love and suffering.
Sharpus, alias Smith, played his assumed character to perfection. He gave the Klosking many incidents of business and professional anecdotes, and was excellent company. The Klosking was gracious, and more bonne enfant than Ashmead had ever seen her. It was a fine match between her and the detective. At last he made his approaches.
"And I hear we are to congratulate you on success at rouge et noir as well as opera. Is it true that you broke the bank?"
"Perfectly," was the frank reply.
"And won a million?"
"More or less," said the Klosking, with an open smile.
"I hope it was a good lump, for our countrymen leave hundreds of thousands here every season."
"It was four thousand nine hundred pounds, sir."
"Phew! Well, I wish it had been double. You are not so close as our friend here, madam."
"No, sir; and shall I tell you why?"
"If you like, madam," said Smith, with assumed indifference.
"Mr. Ashmead is a model agent; he never allows himself to see anybody's interests but mine. Now the truth is, another person has an interest in my famous winnings. A gentleman handed 25 pounds to Mr. Ashmead to play with. He did not do so; but I came in and joined 25 pounds of my own to that 25 pounds, and won an enormous sum. Of course, if the gentleman chooses to be chivalrous and abandon his claim, he can; but that is not the way of the world, you know. I feel sure he will come to me for his share some day; and the sooner the better, for money burns the pocket."
Sharpus, alias Smith, said this was really a curious story. "Now suppose," said he, "some fine day a letter was to come asking you to remit that gentleman his half, what should you do?"
"I should decline; it might be an escroc. No. Mr. Ashmead here knows the gentleman. Do you not?"
"I'll swear to him anywhere."
"Then to receive his money he must face the eye of Ashmead. Ha! ha!"
The detective turned the conversation, and never came back to the subject; but shortly he pleaded an engagement, and took his leave.
Ashmead lingered behind, but Ina hurried him off, with an emphatic command not to leave this man out of his sight a moment.
He violated this order, for in five minutes he ran back to tell her, in an agitated whisper, that Smith was, at that moment, writing a letter in the salle 'a manger.
"Oh, pray don't come here!" cried Ina, in despair. "Do not lose sight of him for a moment."
"Give me that letter to post, then," said Ashmead, and snatched one up Ina had directed overnight.
He went to the hotel door, and lighted a cigar; out came Smith with a letter in his very hand. Ashmead peered with all his eyes; but Smith held the letter vertically in his hand and the address inward. The letter was sealed.
Ashmead watched him, and saw he was going to the General Post. He knew a shorter cut, ran, and took it, and lay in wait. As Smith approached the box, letter in hand, he bustled up in a furious hurry, and posted his own letter so as to stop Smith's hand at the very aperture before he could insert his letter. He saw, apologized, and drew back. Smith laughed, and said, "All right, old man. That is to your sweetheart, or you wouldn't be in such a hurry."
"No; it was to my grandmother," said Ashmead.
"Go on," said Smith, and poked the ribs of Joseph. They went home jocular; but the detective was no sooner out of the way than Ashmead stole up to Ina Klosking, and put his finger to his lips; for Karl was clearing away, and in no hurry.
They sat on tenter-hooks and thought he never would go. He did go at last, and then the Klosking and Ashmead came together like two magnets.
"All right! Letter to post. Saw address quite plain—Edward Severne, Esq."
Ina, who was standing all on fire, now sat down and interlaced her hands. "Vizard!" said she, gloomily.
"Yes; Vizard Court," said Ashmead, triumphantly; "that means he is a large landed proprietor, and you will easily find him if he is there in a month."
"He will be there," said Ina. "She is very beautiful. She is dark, too, and he loves change. Oh, if to all I have suffered he adds that—"
"Then you will forgive him that," said Ashmead, shaking his head.
"Never. Look at me, Joseph Ashmead."
He looked at her with some awe, for she seemed transformed, and her Danish eye gleamed strangely.
"You who have seen my torments and my fidelity, mark what I say: If he is false to me with another woman, I shall kill him—or else I shall hate him."
She took her desk and wrote, at Ashmead's dictation,
"Vizard Court, Taddington, Barfordshire."
THE next morning Vizard carried Lord Uxmoor away to a magistrates' meeting, and left the road clear to Severne; but Zoe gave him no opportunity until just before luncheon, and then she put on her bonnet and came downstairs; but Fanny was with her.
Severne, who was seated patiently in his bedroom with the door ajar, came out to join them, feeling sure Fanny would openly side with him, or slip away and give him his opportunity.
But, as the young ladies stood on the broad flight of steps at the hall door, an antique figure drew nigh—an old lady, the shape of an egg, so short and stout was she. On her head she wore a black silk bonnet constructed many years ago, with a droll design, viz., to keep off sun, rain, and wind; it was like an iron coal scuttle, slightly shortened; yet have I seen some very pretty faces very prettily framed in such a bonnet. She had an old black silk gown that only reached to her ankle, and over it a scarlet cloak of superfine cloth, fine as any colonel or queen's outrider ever wore, and looking splendid, though she had used it forty years, at odd times. This dame had escaped the village ill, rheumatics, and could toddle along without a staff at a great, and indeed a fearful, pace; for, owing to her build, she yawed so from side to side at every step that, to them who knew her not, a capsize appeared inevitable.
"Mrs. Judge, I declare," cried Zoe.
"Ay, Miss Hannah Judge it is. Your sarvant, ma'am;" and she dropped two courtesies, one for each lady.
Mrs. Judge was Harrington's old nurse. Zoe often paid a visit to her cottage, but she never came to Vizard Court except on Harrington's birthday, when the servants entertained all the old pensioners and retainers at supper. Her sudden appearance, therefore, and in gala costume, astonished Zoe. Probably her face betrayed this, for the old lady began, "You wonder to see me here, now, doan't ye?"
"Well, Mrs. Judge," said Zoe, diplomatically, "nobody has a better right to come."
"You be very good, miss. I don't doubt my welcome nohow."
"But," said Zoe, playfully, "you seldom do us the honor; so I am a little surprised. What can I do for you?"
"You does enough for me, miss, you and young squire. I bain't come to ask no favors. I ain't one o' that sort. I'll tell ye why I be come. 'Tis to warn you all up here."
"This is alarming," said Zoe to Fanny.
"That is as may be," said Mrs. Judge; "forwarned, forearmed, the by-word sayeth. There is a young 'oman a-prowling about this here parish as don't belong to hus."
"La," said Fanny, "mustn't we visit your parish if we were not born there?"
"Don't you take me up before I be down, miss," said the old nurse, a little severely. "'Tain't for the likes of you I speak, which you are a lady, and visits the Court by permission of squire; but what I objects to is—hinterlopers." She paused to see the effect of so big a word, and then resumed, graciously, "You see, most of our hills comes from that there Hillstoke. If there's a poacher, or a thief, he is Hillstoke; they harbors the gypsies as ravage the whole country, mostly; and now they have let loose this here young 'oman on to us. She is a POLL PRY: goes about the town a-sarching: pries into their housen and their vittels, and their very beds. Old Marks have got a muck-heap at his door for his garden, ye know. Well, miss, she sticks her parasole into this here, and turns it about, as if she was agoing to spread it: says she, 'I must know the de-com-po-si-tion of this 'ere, as you keeps under the noses of your young folk.' Well, I seed her agoing her rounds, and the folk had told me her ways; so I did set me down to my knitting and wait for her, and when she came to me I offered her a seat; so she sat down, and says she 'This is the one clean house in the village,' says she: 'you might eat your dinner off the floor, let alone the chairs and tables.' 'You are very good, miss,' says I. Says she, 'I wonder whether upstairs is as nice as this?' 'Well,' says I, 'them as keep it downstairs keeps it hup; I don't drop cleanliness on the stairs, you may be sure.' 'I suppose not,' says she, 'but I should like to see.' That was what I was a-waiting for, you know, so I said to her, 'Curiosity do breed curiosity,' says I. 'Afore you sarches this here house from top to bottom I should like to see the warrant.' 'What warrant?' says she. 'I've no warrant. Don't take me for an enemy,' says she. 'I'm your best friend,' says she. 'I'm the new doctor.' I told her I had heard a whisper of that too; but we had got a parish doctor already, and one was enough. 'Not when he never comes anigh you,' says she, 'and lets you go half way to meet your diseases.' 'I don't know for that,' says I, and indeed I haan't a notion what she meant, for my part; but says I, 'I don't want no women folk to come here a-doctoring o' me, that's sartin.' So she said, 'But suppose you were very ill, and the he-doctor three miles off, and fifty others to visit afore you?' 'That is no odds,' says I; 'I would not be doctored by a woman.' Then she says to me, says she, 'Now you look me in the face.' 'I can do that,' says I; 'you, or anybody else. I'm an honest woman, I am;' so I up and looked her in the face as bold as brass. 'Then,' says she, 'am I to understand that, if you was to be ill to-morrow, you would rather die than be doctored by a woman?' She thought to daant me, you see, so I says, 'Well, I don't know as I oodn't.' You do laugh, miss. Well, that is what she did. 'All right,' says she. 'Make haste and die, my good soul,' says she, 'for, while you live, you'll be a hobelisk to reform.' So she went off, but I made to the door, and called after her I should die when God pleased, and I had seen a good many young folk laid out, that looked as like to make old bones as ever she does—chalk-faced— skinny—-to-a-d! And I called after her she was no lady. No more she ain't, to come into my own house and call a decent woman 'a hobelisk!' Oh! oh! Which I never was, not even in my giddy days, but did work hard in my youth, and am respect for my old age."
"Yes, nurse, yes; who doubts it?"
"And nursed young squire, and, Lord bless your heart, a was a poor puny child when I took him to my breast, and in six months the finest, chubbiest boy in all the parish; and his dry-nurse for years arter, and always at his heels a-keeping him out of the stable and the ponds, and consorting with the village boys; and a proper resolute child he was, and hard to manage: and my own man that is gone, and my son 'that's not so clever as some,'* I always done justice by them both, and arter all to be called a hobelisk—oh! oh! oh!"
* Paraphrase for the noun substantive "idiot." It is also a specimen of the Greek figure "litotes."
Then behold the gentle Zoe with her arm round nurse's neck, and her handkerchief to nurse's eyes, murmuring, "There—there—don't cry, nurse; everybody esteems you, and that lady did not mean to affront you; she did not say 'obelisk;' she said 'obstacle.' That only means that you stand in the way of her improvements; there was not much harm in that, you know. And, nurse, please give that lady her way, to oblige me; for it is by my brother's invitation she is here."
"Ye doan't say so! What, does he hold with female she-doctoresses?"
"He wishes to try one. She has his authority."
"Ye doan't say so!"
"Indeed I do."
"Con—sarn the wench! why couldn't she says so, 'stead o' hargefying?"
"She is a stranger, and means well; so she did not think it necessary. You must take my word for it."
"La, miss, I'll take your'n before hers, you may be sure," said Mrs. Judge, with a decided remnant of hostility.
And now a proverbial incident happened. Miss Rhoda Gale came in sight, and walked rapidly into the group.
After greeting the ladies, and ignoring Severne, who took off his hat to her, with deep respect, in the background, she turned to Mrs. Judge. "Well, old lady," said she cheerfully, "and how do you do?"
Mrs. Judge replied, in fawning accents, "Thank you, miss, I be well enough to get about. I was a-telling 'em about you— and, to be sure, it is uncommon good of a lady like you to trouble so much about poor folk."
"Don't mention it; it is my duty and my inclination. You see, my good woman, it is not so easy to cure diseases as people think; therefore it is a part of medicine to prevent them: and to prevent them you must remove the predisposing causes, and to find out all those causes you must have eyes, and use them."
"You are right, miss," said La Judge, obsequiously. "Prevention is better nor cure, and they say 'a stitch in time saves nine.'"
"That is capital good sense, Mrs. Judge; and pray tell the villagers that, and make them as full of 'the wisdom of nations' as you seem to be, and their houses as clean—if you can."
"I'll do my best, miss," said Mrs. Judge, obsequiously; "it is the least we can all do for a young lady like you that leaves the pomps and vanities, and gives her mind to bettering the condishing of poor folk."
Having once taken this cue and entered upon a vein of flattery, she would have been extremely voluble—for villages can vie with cities in adulation as well as in detraction—but she was interrupted by a footman announcing luncheon.
Zoe handed Mrs. Judge over to the man with a request that he would be kind to her, and have her to dine with the servants.
Yellowplush saw the gentlefolks away, and then, parting his legs, and putting his thumbs into his waistcoat pockets, delivered himself thus: "Well, old girl, am I to give you my harm round to the kitchen, or do you know the way by yourself?"
"Young chap," said Mrs. Judge, and turned a glittering eye, "I did know the way afore you was born, and I should know it all one if so be you was to be hung, or sent to Botany Bay—to larn manners."
Having delivered this shot, she rolled away in the direction of Roast Beef.
The little party had hardly settled at the table when they were joined by Vizard and Uxmoor: both gentlemen welcomed Miss Gale more heartily than the ladies had done, and before luncheon ended Vizard asked her if her report was ready. She said it was.
"Have you got it with you?"
"Then please hand it to me."
"Oh! it is in my head. I don't write much down; that weakens the memory. If you would give me half an hour after luncheon—" She hesitated a little.
Zoe jealoused a te'te-'a-te'te, and parried it skillfully. "Oh," said she, "but we are all much interested: are not you, Lord Uxmoor?"
"Indeed I am," said Uxmoor.
"So am I," said Fanny, who didn't care a button.
"Yes, but," said Rhoda, "truths are not always agreeable, and there are some that I don't like—" She hesitated again, and this time actually blushed a little.
The acute Mr. Severne, who had been watching her slyly, came to her assistance.
"Look here, old fellow," said he to Vizard, "don't you see that Miss Gale has discovered some spots in your paradise? but, out of delicacy, does not want to publish them, but to confide them to your own ear. Then you can mend them or not."
Miss Gale turned her eyes full on Severne. "You are very keen at reading people, sir," said she, dryly.
"Of course he is," said Vizard. "He has given great attention to your sex. Well, if that is all, Miss Gale, pray speak out and gratify their curiosity. You and I shall never quarrel over the truth."
"I'm not so sure of that," said Miss Gale. "However, I suppose I must risk it. I never do get my own way; that's a fact."
After this little ebullition of spleen, she opened her budget. "First of all, I find that these villages all belong to one person; so does the soil. Nobody can build cottages on a better model, nor make any other improvement. You are an absolute monarch. This is a piece of Russia, not England. They are all serfs, and you are the czar."
"It is true," said Vizard, "and it sounds horrid, but it works benignly. Every snob who can grind the poor does grind them; but a gentleman never, and he hinders others. Now, for instance, an English farmer is generally a tyrant; but my power limits his tyranny. He may discharge his laborer, but he can't drive him out of the village, nor rob him of parish relief, for poor Hodge is my tenant, not a snob's. Nobody can build a beershop in Islip. That is true. But if they could, they would sell bad beer, give credit in the ardor of competition, poison the villagers, and demoralize them. Believe me, republican institutions are beautiful on paper; but they would not work well in Barfordshire villages. However, you profess to go by experience in everything. There are open villages within five miles. I'll give you a list. Visit them. You will find that liberty can be the father of tyranny. Petty tradesmen have come in and built cottages, and ground the poor down with rents unknown in Islip; farmers have built cottages, and turned their laborers into slaves. Drunkenness, dissipation, poverty, disaffection, and misery—that is what you will find in the open villages. Now, in Islip you have an omnipotent squire, and that is an abomination in theory, a mediaeval monster, a blot on modern civilization; but practically the poor monster is a softener of poverty, an incarnate buffer between the poor and tyranny, the poor and misery."
"I'll inspect the open villages, and suspend my opinion till then," said Miss Gale, heartily; "but, in the meantime, you must admit that where there is great power there is great responsibility."
"Oh, of course."
"Well, then, your little outlying province of Hillstoke is full of rheumatic adults and putty-faced children. The two phenomena arise from one cause—the water. No lime in it, and too many reptiles. It was the children gave me the clew. I suspected the cherry stones at first: but when I came to look into it, I found they eat just as many cherry stones in the valley, and are as rosy as apples; but, then, there is well water in the valleys. So I put this and that together, and I examined the water they drink at Hillstoke. Sir, it is full of animalcula. Some of these cannot withstand the heat of the human stomach; but others can, for I tried them in mud artificially heated. [A giggle from Fanny Dover.] Thanks to your microscope, I have made sketches of several amphibia who live in those boys' stomachs, and irritate their membranes, and share their scanty nourishment, besides other injuries." Thereupon she produced some drawings.
They were handed round, and struck terror in gentle bosoms. "Oh, gracious!" cried Fanny, "one ought to drink nothing but champagne." Uxmoor looked grave. Vizard affected to doubt their authenticity. He said, "You may not know it, but I am a zoologist, and these are antediluvian eccentricities that have long ceased to embellish the world we live in. Fie! Miss Gale. Down with anachronisms."
Miss Gale smiled, and admitted that one or two of the prodigies resembled antediluvian monsters, but said oracularly that nature was fond of producing the same thing on a large scale and a small scale, and it was quite possible the small type of antediluvian monster might have survived the large.
"That is most ingenious," said Vizard; "but it does not account for this fellow. He is not an antediluvian; he is a barefaced modern, for he is A STEAM ENGINE."
This caused a laugh, for the creature had a perpendicular neck, like a funnel, that rose out of a body like a horizontal cylinder.
"At any rate," said Miss Gale, "the little monster was in the world first; so he is not an imitation of man's work."
"Well," said Vizard, "after all, we have had enough of the monsters of the deep. Now we can vary the monotony, and say the monsters of the shallow. But I don't see how they can cause rheumatism."
"I never said they did," retorted Miss Gale, sharply: "but the water which contains them is soft water. There is no lime in it, and that is bad for the bones in every way. Only the children drink it as it is: the wives boil it, and so drink soft water and dead reptiles in their tea. The men instinctively avoid it and drink nothing but beer. Thus, for want of a pure diluent with lime in solution, an acid is created in the blood which produces gout in the rich, and rheumatism in the poor, thanks to their meager food and exposure to the weather."
"Poor things!" said womanly Zoe. "What is to be done?"
"La!" said Fanny, "throw lime into the ponds. That will kill the monsters, and cure the old people's bones into the bargain."
This compendious scheme struck the imagination, but did not satisfy the judgment of the assembly.
"Fanny!" said Zoe, reproachfully.
"That would be killing two birds with one stone," suggested Uxmoor, satirically.
"The tender mercies of the wicked are cruel," explained Vizard, composedly.
Zoe reiterated her question, What was to be done?
Miss Gale turned to her with a smile. "We have got nothing to do but to point out these abominations. The person to act is the Russian autocrat, the paternal dictator, the monarch of all he surveys, and advocate of monarchial institutions. He is the buffer between the poor and all their ills, especially poison: he must dig a well."
Every eye being turned on Vizard to see how he took this, he said, a little satirically, "What! does Science bid me bore for water at the top of a hill?"
"She does so," said the virago. "Now look here, good people."
And although they were not all good people, yet they all did look there, she shone so with intelligence, being now quite on her mettle.
"Half-civilized man makes blunders that both the savage and the civilized avoid. The savage builds his hut by a running stream. The civilized man draws good water to his door, though he must lay down pipes from a highland lake to a lowland city. It is only half-civilized man that builds a village on a hill, and drinks worms, and snakes, and efts, and antediluvian monsters in limeless water. Then I say, if great but half civilized monarchs would consult Science before they built their serf huts, Science would say, 'Don't you go and put down human habitations far from pure water—the universal diluent, the only cheap diluent, and the only liquid which does not require digestion, and therefore must always assist, and never chemically resist, the digestion of solids.' But when the mischief is done, and the cottages are built on a hill three miles from water, then all that Science can do is to show the remedy, and the remedy is—boring."
"Then the remedy is like the discussion," said Fanny Dover, very pertly.
Zoe was amused, but shocked. Miss Gale turned her head on the offender as sharp as a bird. "Of course it is, to children," said she; "and that is why I wished to confine it to mature minds. It is to you I speak, sir. Are your subjects to drink poison, or will you bore me a well?—Oh, please!"
"Do you hear that?" said Vizard, piteously, to Uxmoor. "Threatened and cajoled in one breath. Who can resist this fatal sex?—Miss Gale, I will bore a well on Hillstoke common. Any idea how deep we must go—to the antipodes, or only to the center?"
"Three hundred and thirty feet, or thereabouts."
"No more? Any idea what it will cost?"
"Of course I have. The well, the double windlass, the iron chain, the two buckets, a cupola over the well, and twenty-three keys—one for every head of a house in the hamlet—will cost you about 315 pounds."
"Why, this is Detail made woman. How do you know all this?"
"From Tom Wilder."
"Who is he?"
"What, don't you know? He is the eldest son of the Islip blacksmith, and a man that will make his mark. He casts every Thursday night. He is the only village blacksmith in all the county who casts. You know that, I suppose."
"No, I had not the honor."
"Well, he is, then: and I thought you would consent, because you are so good: and so I thought there could be no harm in sounding Tom Wilder. He offers to take the whole contract, if squire's agreeable; bore the well; brick it fifty yards down: he says that ought to be done, if she is to have justice. 'She' is the well: and he will also construct the gear; he says there must be two iron chains and two buckets going together; so then the empty bucket descending will help the man or woman at the windlass to draw the full bucket up. 315 pounds: one week's income, your Majesty."
"She has inspected our rent-roll, now," said Vizard, pathetically: "and knows nothing about the matter."
"Except that it is a mere flea-bite to you to bore through a hill for water. For all that, I hope you will leave me to battle it with Tom Wilder. Then you won't be cheated, for once. You always are, and it is abominable. It would have been five hundred if you had opened the business."
"I am sure that is true," said Zoe. She added this would please Mrs. Judge: she was full of the superiority of Islip to Hillstoke.
"Stop a bit," said Vizard. "Miss Gale has not reported on Islip yet."
"No, dear; but she has looked into everything, for Mrs. Judge told me. You have been into the cottages?"
"Yes, I have been into Marks's."
She did not seem inclined to be very communicative; so Fanny, out of mischief, said, pertly, "And what did you see there, with your Argus eye?"
"I saw—three generations."
"Ha! ha! La! did you now? And what were they all doing?"
"They were all living together, night and day, in one room."
This conveyed no very distinct idea to the ladies; but Vizard, for the first time, turned red at this revelation before Uxmoor, improver of cottage life. "Confound the brutes!" said he. "Why, I built them a new room; a larger one: didn't you see it?"
"Yes. They stack their potatoes in it."
"Just like my people," said Uxmoor. "That is the worst of it: they resist their own improvement."
"Yes, but," said the doctress, "with monarchial power we can trample on them for their good. Outside Marks's door at the back there is a muck-heap, as he calls it; all the refuse of the house is thrown there; it is a horrible melange of organic matter and decaying vegetables, a hot-bed of fever and malaria. Suffocated and poisoned with the breath of a dozen persons, they open the window for fresh air, and in rushes typhoid from the stronghold its victims have built. Two children were buried from that house last year. They were both killed by the domestic arrangements as certainly as if they had been shot with a double-barreled pistol. The outside roses you admire so are as delusive as flattery; their sweetness covers a foul, unwholesome den."
"Marks's cottage! The show place of the village!" Zoe Vizard flushed with indignation at the bold hand of truth so rudely applied to a pleasant and cherished illusion.
Vizard, more candid and open to new truths, shrugged his shoulders, and said, "What can I do more than I have done?"
"Oh, it is not your fault," said the doctress, graciously. "It is theirs. Only, as you are their superior in intelligence and power, you might do something to put down indecency, immorality, and disease."
"May I ask what?"
"Well, you might build a granary for the poor people's potatoes. No room can keep them dry; but you build your granary upon four pillars: then that is like a room over a cellar."
"Well, I'll build it so—if I build it at all," said Vizard, dryly. "What next?"
"Then you could make them stack their potatoes in the granary, and use the spare room, and so divide their families, and give morality a chance. The muck-heap you should disperse at once with the strong hand of power."
At this last proposal, Squire Vizard—the truth must be told—delivered a long, plowman's whistle at the head of his own table.
"Pheugh!" said he; "for a lady that is more than half republican, you seem to be taking very kindly to monarchial tyranny."
"Well, now, I'll tell you the truth," said she. "You have converted me. Ever since you promised me the well, I have discovered that the best form of government is a good-hearted tyrant."
"With a female viceroy over him, eh?"
"Only in these little domestic matters," said Rhoda, deprecatingly. "Women are good advisers in such things. The male physician relies on drugs. Medical women are wanted to moderate that delusion; to prevent disease by domestic vigilance, and cure it by selected esculents and pure air. These will cure fifty for one that medicine can; besides drugs kill ever so many: these never killed a creature. You will give me the granary, won't you? Oh, and there's a black pond in the center of the village. Your tenant Pickett, who is a fool—begging his pardon—lets all his liquid manure run out of his yard into the village till it accumulates in a pond right opposite the five cottages they call New Town, and its exhalations taint the air. There are as many fevers in Islip as in the back slums of a town. You might fill the pond up with chalk, and compel Pickett to sink a tank in his yard, and cover it; then an agricultural treasure would be preserved for its proper use, instead of being perverted into a source of infection."
Vizard listened civilly, and, as she stopped, requested her to go on.
"I think we have had enough," said Zoe, bitterly.
Rhoda, who was in love with Zoe, hung her head, and said, "Yes; I have been very bold."
"Fiddlestick!" said Vizard. "Never mind those girls. You speak out like a man: a stranger's eye always discovers things that escape the natives. Proceed."
"No; I won't proceed till I have explained to Miss Vizard."
"You may spare yourself the trouble. Miss Vizard thought Islip was a paradise. You have dispelled the illusion, and she will never forgive you. Miss Dover will; because she is like Gallio—she careth for none of these things."
"Not a pin," said Fanny, with admirable frankness.
"Well, but," said Rhoda, naively, "I can't bear Miss Vizard to be angry with me; I admire her so. Please let me explain. Islip is no paradise—quite the reverse; but the faults of Islip are not your faults. The children are ignorant; but you pay for a school. The people are poor from insufficient wages; but you are not paymaster. Your gardeners, your hinds, and all your outdoor people have enough. You give them houses. You let cottages and gardens to the rest at half their value; and very often they don't pay that, but make excuses; and you accept them, though they are all stories; for they can pay everybody but you, and their one good bargain is with you. Miss Vizard has carried a basket all her life with things from your table for the poor."
Miss Vizard blushed crimson at this sudden revelation.
"If a man or a woman has served your house long, there's a pension for life. You are easy, kind, and charitable. It is the faults of others I ask you to cure, because you have such power. Now, for instance, if the boys at Hillstoke are putty-faced, the boys at Islip have no calves to their legs. That is a sure sign of deteriorating species. The lower type of savage has next to no calf. The calf is a sign of civilization and due nourishment. This single phenomenon was my clew, and led me to others; and I have examined the mothers and the people of all ages, and I tell you it is a village of starvelings. Here a child begins life a starveling, and ends as he began. The nursing mother has not food enough for one, far less for two. The man's wages are insufficient, and the diet is not only insufficient, but injudicious. The race has declined. There are only five really big, strong men—Josh Grace, Will Hudson, David Wilder, Absalom Green, and Jack Greenaway; and they are all over fifty—men of another generation. I have questioned these men how they were bred, and they all say milk was common when they were boys. Many poor people kept a cow; squire doled it; the farmers gave it or sold it cheap; but nowadays it is scarcely to be had. Now, that is not your fault, but you are the man who can mend it. New milk is meat and drink especially to young and growing people. You have a large meadow at the back of the village. If you could be persuaded to start four or five cows, and let somebody sell the new milk to the poor at cost price—say, five farthings the quart. You must not give it, or they will water their muckheaps with it. With those cows alone you will get rid, in the next generation, of the half-grown, slouching men, the hollow-eyed, narrow-chested, round-backed women, and the calfless boys one sees all over Islip, and restore the stalwart race that filled the little village under your sires and have left proofs of their wholesome food on the tombstones: for I have read every inscription, and far more people reached eighty-five between 1750 and 1800 than between 1820 and 1870. Ah, how I envy you to be able to do such great things so easily! Water to poisoned Hillstoke with one hand; milk to starved Islip with the other. This is to be indeed a king!"
The enthusiast rose from the table in her excitement, and her face was transfigured; she looked beautiful for the moment.
"I'll do it," shouted Vizard; "and you are a trump."
Miss Gale sat down, and the color left her cheek entirely.
Fanny Dover, who had a very quick eye for passing events, cried out, "Oh dear! she is going to faint now." The tone implied, what a plague she is!
Thereupon Severne rushed to her, and was going to sprinkle her face; but she faltered, "No! no! a glass of wine." He gave her one with all the hurry and empressement in the world. She fixed him with a strange look as she took it from him: she sipped it; one tear ran into it. She said she had excited herself; but she was all right now. Elastic Rhoda!
"I am very glad of it," said Vizard. "You are quite strong enough without fainting. For Heaven's sake, don't add woman's weakness to your artillery, or you will be irresistible; and I shall have to divide Vizard Court among the villagers. At present I get off cheap, and Science on the Rampage: let me see—only a granary, a well, and six cows."
"They'll give as much milk as twelve cows without the well," said Fanny. It was her day for wit.
This time she was rewarded with a general laugh.
It subsided, as such things will, and then Vizard said, solemnly, "New ideas are suggested to me by this charming interview; and permit me to give them a form, which will doubtless be new to these accomplished ladies:
"'Gin there's a hole in a' your coats, I rede ye tent it; A chiel's amang ye takin' notes, And, faith, he'll prent it.'"
Zoe looked puzzled, and Fanny inquired what language that was.
"Very good language."
"Then perhaps you will translate it into language one can understand."
"The English of the day, eh?"
"You think that would improve it, do you? Well, then:
'If there is a defect in any one of your habilimeats, Let me earnestly impress on you the expediency of repairing it; An individual is among you with singular powers of observation, Which will infallibly result in printing and publication.'
Zoe, you are an affectionate sister; take this too observant lady into the garden, poison her with raw fruit, and bury her under a pear tree."
Zoe said she would carry out part of the programme, if Miss Gale would come.
Then the ladies rose and rustled away, and the rivals would have followed, but Vizard detained them on the pretense of consulting them about the well; but, when the ladies had gone, he owned he had done it out of his hatred to the sex. He said he was sure both girls disliked his virago in their hearts, so he had compelled them to spend an hour together, without any man to soften their asperity.
This malicious experiment was tolerably successful. The three ladies strolled together, dismal as souls in purgatory. One or two little attempts at conversation were made, but died out for want of sympathy. Then Fanny tried personalities, the natural topic of the sex in general.
"Miss Gale, which do you admire most, Lord Uxmoor or Mr. Severne?"
"For their looks?"
"Oh, of course."
"You don't admire beards, then?"
"That depends. Where the mouth is well shaped and expressive, the beard spoils it. Where it is commonplace, the beard hides its defect, and gives a manly character. As a general rule, I think the male bird looks well with his crest and feathers."
"And so do I," said Fanny, warmly; "and yet I should not like Mr. Severne to have a beard. Don't you think he is very handsome?"