Saville Chatteris still preserved a decent outward show of dignity, but his heart was sore within him. It is not a pleasant thing for an old man who has worshipped Mammon and Society all his life long to find that his days wax barren and joyless, and that grim death draws nearer and nearer day by day. Yet the old man was gradually confessing to himself that his life had been a mistake. He had heaped up for himself no riches of affection or honour, and the moth and rust of ennui and satiety were corrupting the sordid treasures of worldly respect that he had toiled for so long and so earnestly. The death of his firstborn weighed heavy on him. The good name of the Chatteris family had been the idol of his life; and his second son had, in his father’s eyes, disgraced that good name for ever.
Cyril Chatteris, whatever he might be to the world, was to his father a dishonest and dishonoured man. The skeleton had been hidden, it is true,—had been wrapped up and put away in a doubly-locked closet, and its ghastly bones covered with the sweet-smelling herbs of repentance and promise of amendment. But it was there nevertheless.
The accounts of his son’s doings had not been cheering. That good fellow, Dacre, who had been entrusted by Mr. Saville Chatteris with the task of steering Cyril’s bark through the shoals and quicksands of youth, wrote diligently of his protégé’s progress; but the letters were not satisfactory. They did not report any new crime, or any glaring dereliction from social virtue, but they were utterly barren of all positive good news. Cyril had not done any of the things he ought not to have done, but it seemed from Mr. Dacre’s elegantly worded epistles, that he had left undone many of those things that he ought to have done.
“Cyril seems to have become a determined misanthrope,” wrote the kind secretary. “He is seldom seen in good houses now, and though I am bound to say, my dear sir, that I have never by any chance heard of him save as a perfectly gentlemanly, and even rising and clever, young man, still you, sir, who know the world so well, cannot but feel somewhat annoyed at your son voluntarily absenting himself from that society which his father’s position, and his own abilities, so well qualify him to ornament. I have frequently urged upon him the necessity for establishing his position; but he rejects my advice, and seems, I regret to say, to lean towards that Bohemian world which destroys so many young men of promise, and which, though necessary no doubt, is scarcely the sphere in which your son should move.”
This letter, written by Mr. Dacre the morning after an “opera supper,” at which he had been the presiding genius, was but an echo of many that were read and deplored over in silence by the late chargé d’affaires at Krummelhoff. The sun of the Chatteris family threatened to set in Bohemian midnight, and the heart of its Head was heavy at the prospect.
“If Fred had only lived, this would not happen,” said the old man to himself.
Fred had been all that he could desire—handsome, honourable, debonnaire, and an ornament to society; moreover, the old man fancied that the dashing dragoon might have “ranged himself” after a year or so, and made Kate the partner in such ranging. Now Fred was gone, Cyril was disgraced, and Kate was losing her good looks.
Poor Kate! First love is a very pleasant thing for poets to write about, but it is not so utterly without alloy as they would have us imagine. The jealousies, the heartburnings, the fevers of expectation, the sickness of hope deferred, the pleasures and the pains which go to make up that bittersweet that men call love, are pleasant to look back on; but I question much if, at the time, we are so violently happy as the poets would have us. Perhaps we remember only the sweet, and forget the bitter. It may be so; but hopeless love is the only real love after all. Alas! we burn, we groan, we toss, and cry aloud; we sonnetise, and make our lives burdens to us for the love of one fair face. Fortune is kind, perchance; the soft eyes smile upon us alone, the sweet lips murmur love words for our ears only; and, lo! we find the fruit but ashes in the mouth; the violet eyes are but common grey after all the exquisite love songs but childish prattle; and we go down to our deaths with the ghost of another memory haunting us. We cannot animate the dry bones, our dead loves will not live for us again; perhaps it is better that they should not.
Kate was in love. It is a remarkable fact, and one which explains much human misery, that women have a predilection for forming passionate attachments to men who are in every way unworthy of them. In some few instances their love is so violent that it blinds their eyes for longer than the usual period of married kittenhood; in most cases, however, they speedily find that their idols are but common clay, and their “relief must be to loathe them.” A marriage such as this must be a house of bondage indeed; but the women slaves work well, and the social Pharaoh hardens his heart, and “will not let the people go.” What a curious farce it is that we are playing, and how glad some of us will be when the curtain falls, and we can wash the paint from our faces and go Home!
Kate thought she was in love with her cousin. He was in disgrace, she guessed; in trouble of some kind, she knew; he had told her that he loved her, and he was unhappy—all excellent reasons for giving her heart away. Moreover, the beloved object was far away, and this circumstance invested him with numerous qualities that were not his own, but belonged properly to Lancelot, and Sterforth, and d’Artagan, and Mr. Carlyle, and other heroes of these modern days. So Kate loved in silence, and set up a graven image for herself, and worshipped it duly; all unwitting that another young man was rapidly fashioning her own likeness into that of a goddess, and was, in his turn, bowing down before it.
This young idolator was Mr. Bob Calverly. That young Australian had commenced to economise, but had not got on with the task as well as he had expected. He had fulfilled his threat of “cutting the concern,” and had presented himself at the Hall in the character of a sportsman. There was plenty of fun at sturdy old Sir Val’s place in the winter season. The usual complement of London dandies, eager for the slaughter of game and the hunting of foxes; the usual complement of pretty girls, who dressed in the latest fashion of the Rue Bréda, and talked like a decoction of Shaftesbury and water; the usual mixture of matchmaking mothers, husband-hunting daughters, “jolly fellows,” and “funny fellows,” and “clever fellows,” and “fellows who had written books, you know,” and “fellows who travelled, and all that sort of thing;” in fact, “fellows” of all kinds and species but one. As Ponsonby often declared, “I like going to Yoicks’ place, because you never meet any ‘stuck-up fellows’ there, you know,” which was true. The Hall was a place for jollity and revelling—always within the limits of becoming mirth.
Into this genial atmosphere had the young Australian dropped, but he was not so well disposed to enjoy it as heretofore. In the first place, he was in debt; not to any great extent certainly, but enough to make him anxious concerning mails, and economical in personal expenditure. He had paid off his I.O.U’s by the assistance of Dacre and his friend Mr. Charles Ryle, but he did not quite see how Mr. Charles Ryle himself was to be paid. The expected remittances had not arrived, and Messrs. Pack and Fleece were inexorable. So Bob went down to the Hall, and hunted three times a week, and made all sorts of good resolutions touching economy, and gambling, and borrowing money. Moreover, for the first time in his life, he was in love. From the moment when Kate, queenly and benignant, had swept in from the terrace at Matcham, Mr. Robert Calverly was in love. He confessed to himself that his love was hopeless, that such a goddess as Chatteris’ cousin would never look upon a rough, uncouth fellow, like himself—a fellow who was unused to drawing-rooms, and who always “turned over” music four bars too soon. He remembered how silent he used to sit on those occasions when he was a guest at Matcham, and how Lady Loughborough snubbed him; and how the courteous host, after vainly attempting to discuss the Schleswig-Holstein question, would say, with a weary smile, “Any more wine? No? Then we will join the ladies.” He remembered how Dacre, that all-accomplished Dacre, had hinted that Miss Ffrench was éprise with her cousin Cyril, and how clever Cyril was, and how he could talk, and sing, and understood books, and music, and pictures, and a thousand things of which he, Bob, was ignorant. Remembering these things, he tormented himself, and burned to do some deed of might, which would perforce bring the eyes of his ladyelove to regard him with interest.
Kate was very fond of Bob Calverly. I use the word fond in its most innocent meaning. She liked the young fellow, who was so bright and cheerful, and never languid or peevish like some of those “finer spirits” she had met with. She liked his honest admiration, his eagerness to oblige, and his blundering good-humoured ways. She was a quick-witted girl, and saw at a glance that beneath the unpolished surface of poor Bob lay a heart of gold. But she did not love him—oh! dear, no! Her heart never beat quicker at his approach, her face never flushed scarlet at his sudden presence, she was never coquettish with him, she never sent him on absurd errands; she was never ill at ease when he was stumbling through his small talk, but nodded and smiled, and took him by the hand and helped him out of the conversational mire with good-natured indifference. She was not in love—with anyone but Cyril.
Bob, however, had come to a great determination—he was going to ask Kate to marry him. This idea which, some three months back, would have seemed to him so ridiculous, appeared now, by mere force of importunity, the most natural thing in the world. He had ridden over to Matcham twice since he had returned, his father’s intimacy with Saville Chatteris gaining him admittance to that house of mourning. He had been received by Kate on each occasion, and each visit had fed the fire which consumed him. Cyril was out of the way; his name was never mentioned between them, and Bob thought that Miss Ffrench had forgotten the cynical, effeminate young man who never wrote or gave sign of his existence.
Cheating himself into this belief, he arose one morning with a fixed idea. He would go over to Matcham that very morning and—well he would not exactly promise himself that he would ask her then and there, but if he saw an opportunity he would take it. He was shilly-shallying on the brink, you see, but a very little would turn the scale in favour of jumping in.
It was a hunting breakfast at the Hall, and when Bob appeared in ordinary costume, loud cries arose.
“Not coming, Bob!” cries Ponsonby, who had performed that hazardous but well-intentioned feat known as “tooling a fellow over in his drag” the night before—“why, what’s the matter?”
“The loveliest hunting morning this season!”
“Oh, Mr. Calverly, and you promised to look after poor little me. What shall I do?” and Mrs. Barbara Blackthorn, a timid creature of twelve stone four, languished at him from beneath the most cunning of “bell-toppers.”
“’Pon my soul, Calverly, it’s too bad,” says Colonel Brentwood, with a touch of sarcasm in his tone. “We all looked to you to show us the way.”
“Why, Bob, my boy,” roars the jovial squire, “miss the best day of the season! We draw Pakenham Wood to-day!”
Even this powerful attraction seemed powerless for Bob, for, muttering something about “business at Kirkminster,” he proceeded to breakfast gloomily.
“Our young friend has lost his heart,” whispered the gallant major to his neighbour, Mrs. Eversley, “the prettiest widow in the shire,” as her military admirers termed her.
“Indeed!” Who is the fortunate maiden? I like Mr. Calverly. He is not like you battered men of the world.”
“I am as innocent as a child, my dear madam,” said the major, with his mouth full of pie.
“You’re a dreadful man, and I hate you,” returned the lady sweetly. “Answer my question at once.”
“I believe that old Chatteris’s niece is the young lady.”
“Oh, indeed!” cried Mrs. Eversley, tossing her head—Kate had “cut down” the fair widow gallantly on two or three occasions. “You don’t say so! What fools men are, to be sure. It can’t be for her looks, and I know that she hasn’t a penny. Ham? Well, just the minutest atom.”
“I shouldn’t be at all surprised if Master Bob’s ‘business’ should take him to Matcham,” returned the major, deftly shaving at that luxury.
“You would never be surprised at anything, I know. Oh, you men—you men, you have no soul.”
With which remark the lively widow addressed herself to the ham, and spoke no more.
The major was right. No sooner had the usual bustle attendant upon mounting commenced, than Bob stole away, and was soon cantering down the country road to Matcham. As he felt the springy stride of his horse under him, his spirits rose, and the prospect didn’t seem so desolate as it had done when he plunged savagely into his icy tub two hours before.
“Old Sam, Bob’s “own groom” and sworn henchman, watched his master’s retreating figure with interest.
“I wonder whear he be agoin’ tew now at that pëace,” was his muttered reflection. “Master Bob dew ’ack wi’ an uncommon loose rein, he dew surelie.”
But when Bob saw the leafless woods of Matcham top the hill, he drew bridle, and even went some two miles out of his way to gain time. At last he reached the well-known gates, and in another ten minutes his horse’s hoofs crunched the crisp gravel under the house windows.
“Master was in the library,” the servant said; “but would Mr. Calverly walk into the drawing-room?”
Once there, Bob’s courage fell again. He tried to take interest in two heads by Greuze, and a Birket Foster, but failed utterly; and when Miss Kate appeared, he found nothing better to say in the first five minutes than a remark touching the weather, which was cold, he said, and his visit, which was early.
Kate assented to both propositions, and wondered what made the young man come over at ten o’clock in the morning.
“I thought you would have been at the meet, Mr. Calverly,” she said.
“Well, yes, I thought of—but, you see—in fact, I didn’t go to-day.”
There was a spice of mischief in Kate, and, utterly unsuspecting the real reason of his visit, she said,
“It is strange that you should absent yourself. What will Mrs. Eversley say?”
“Mrs. Eversley! I’m sure I don’t know.”
“What! You haven’t quarrelled, have you? I’m afraid you are a flirt, Mr. Calverly.”
This accusation took Bob so fairly aback that he lost his mental balance.
“You, of all people, should not think that, Ka—Miss Ffrench.”
Kate blushed, but she would not see the drift of the answer.
“Well, perhaps it is wrong of me to say so, Mr. Calverly, though Cyril is responsible for the report.”
“You are always referring to Mr. Chatteris,” said Bob, a little hotly.
Kate blushed deeper this time, but she was not driven to bay yet.
“Of course I am; we are like brother and sister, you know. How is he, Mr. Calverly? Have you heard? He never writes to us, and the only news I ever hear are from Mr. Dacre, who corresponds with Mr. Chatteris a great deal.”
“I saw Mr. Dacre in London,” says Bob, rushing at the opening. “He seems to have an easy life of it.”
“Oh dear, no,” says Kate, shaking her head wisely. “Mr. Dacre is very hard worked. I wish Cyril only worked half as much. I am afraid he is too fond of amusement.”
Bob was at a non-plus. He couldn’t discuss Cyril, so he tapped his boots with his whip, and asked how Lady Loughborough was.
“My aunt is suffering from one of her nervous headaches.”
This was not getting any nearer to the subject.
“I haven’t seen you out riding much lately, Miss Ffrench.”
“No, I have not been out at all since poor Fred’s accident.”
Bob immediately cursed himself for being such a brute as to forget, and stammered something in apology. He then gazed vacantly into space, let his whip fall, and then picked it up with great deliberation.
“I wonder what makes him so stupid this morning,” thought Kate.
She took out her watch. “You’ll stop to lunch, Mr. Calverly?”
“No, thanks,” cries Bob, starting up. “I must be back by mid-day. In fact, I just came over to—to see you, and to, in fact—”
Kate had risen alarmedly. Her instinct told her that something was coming, but she made a brave effort to appear unconcerned.
“Well then, if you can’t, good-bye.”
Bob was in for it now. He seized the outstretched band and held it tightly.
“I came over this morning to ask if you would marry me, Kate,” said he, rapidly, with his eyes fixed on the floor.
Bob had found his tongue now.
“I have loved you ever since I saw you, and will never marry anyone but you. You will not refuse me, Kate. Believe me, I do love you. I know that I cannot make fine speeches and all that, but I love you sincerely, and will do all I can to make you happy. Oh! do not refuse me, my darling—do not—I love you better than anything in this world, and will love you, please God, till I die.”
There—he had said it at last. The words came out of his lips almost without an effort. It was not a “fine speech;” but it was sincere enough.
Kate, with flaming face, tried to withdraw her hand: but Bob held it fast.
“Oh! Mr. Calverly, I never expected this. I am sorry. I did not know; believe me, I did not.”
“Answer me, my darling,” cries Bob, growing bold enough to kiss the trembling fingers he held.
Kate flashed out on him at once.
“Let go my hand, sir! I cannot marry you! I—I—Oh! please go, Mr. Calverly; and forget that you have ever spoken to me as you have done.”
This was a cool request, and Bob thought so. He dropped the hand he held and walked to the door, with mingled feelings of shame and anger, and jealousy, and a faint sense of the ludicrous, and thankfulness that no one had seen him.
“Good-bye, Miss Ffrench,” said he.
Kate bowed her head. Something in the accent of the simple words touched her, for as the door closed, she sank back on the ottoman and burst into tears.
Bob rode furiously down the park, and felt that if a fence twenty feet high was before him he could clear it. She loved Cyril! He felt sure of it, and she would never marry any one else, and his life would be miserable, and he would go back to Australia at once, and, “by Jove, the hounds were running close to him!”
In his present condition of mind he felt ready for anything. He pulled up and listened. He could hear them distinctly. Greyfriar trembled in every limb, and pricked his ears furiously. “Steady, lad, steady! By Jove, here they are! That’s old Bellow leading, and Huntsman, and Hautboy, and Cheerful and Chanter, and Laggard, and Linkman!” Away they go, three fields to the right. Crash over the hedgerow tumbles the excited Greyfriar, and Bob, cramming his hat on to his head, fixes his eyes on the leading hounds, and goes off at score.
The hounds were close to their fox, but the field were far from being close to the hounds. The first object that met Bob’s eager gaze was a horse’s hoof gesticulating wildly from behind a hedgerow immediately in front of him. There was no time for words, and almost before he could wink Greyfriar took the bit in his teeth and bounded over an ugly hedge and ditch, landing on the skirts of a red coat, and dangerously near to the prostrate form of the major’s struggling “second horse.”
“Line, sir, line!” cries the major, indignantly; and then recognising the familiar grey flanks of Bob’s favourite hack, wonders “where the dooce he can have sprung from?”
Whoo-oop! There he goes! The draggled brush sneaks under a rail but two fences ahead of the hounds, and as Bob looks back and sees nothing but his uncle’s fleabitten roan, and the fluttering skirts of Mrs. Eversley’s habit going “in and out” of a “double” on the extreme left, he picks up the curb a little tighter and feels that he is in for a good thing.
The major having recovered his saddle, is “bucketting” Sabretasche by Candied Peel out of Mountain Maid furiously, and the astute first whip, who has been riding as if he had a large assortment of spare necks in the wide pocket of his weatherbeaten “bit-o’-pink,” comes alongside from between a stiff fence and a low bough in that crumpled-up condition necessary for the preservation of his head under such circumstances.
“Maarnin’, sir! Maarnin’!” cries he, in answer to Bob’s wildly flourished hat, and in another ten seconds the game little fox is held high in air in the centre of the baying and leaping pack.
The major appearing with a broken stirrup-leather and a muddy coat, is greeted by the delighted Bob, and before the rest of the field can arrive by highway and byway, the rejected lover is presenting a very dirty brush to Mrs. Eversley, who has reined up, cool and radiant, by the side of Sir Val’s snorting and exhausted roan.
“The best run of this year,” cries the master, delightedly rubbing his horse’s nose. “Mrs. Eversley, you went like a bird—never saw such riding in my life!”
“Ah! Ponsonby, this is pretty well for the ‘Clays’.” An hour and five minutes, and as straight as a railroad! Bob, my boy, where did you spring from? Sly dog, creeping through gates.”
Bob disclaimed all such proceedings warmly, and remarked that he was just coming home when he heard the hounds running, and happened to be in time for the finish.
The fair widow shook her dainty finger at him rogueishly.
“I know where you have been, you naughty boy. Poor Mrs. Blackthorn was left to the tender guidance of Colonel Brentwood, who was thrown out at the brook in consequence. You shameful young Lothario!”
Poor Brentwood! That hard-riding gentleman was indeed bemoaning his hard fate as he cantered savagely down a dirty lane in company with Mrs. Barbara.
If Brentwood hated one thing more than another, it was the task of “leading” a lady through “a quick thing,” and when that lady was twelve stone, under mounted, not pretty, and married to a stupid husband, of whom she always talked, he may be forgiven if he was somewhat wroth at the issue of his day’s sport.
“What the dooce does the woman want to hunt for?” he murmured, as his fidgetty thoroughbred plunged and curvetted under the influence of a succession of handrails, which always caught the too redundant habit of Blackthorn’s better-half. “Why can’t she stop at home and look after that lout of a husband? Thank goodness, here are the squire and the rest, and I can get a ‘weed’ with Jack.”
But when the happy few that had been “in it” were reached, the widow, who found Bob very dull and disconsolate, attacked the beau sabreur at once; and, notwithstanding that she gave him permission to smoke, irritated him beyond measure by a spirited account of the “splendid run,” and crocodile consolations touching his hard fate at being thrown out “so very early.”
Bob rode on alone; his heart was heavy. He was in no humour for chitchat and flirtation. Kate had refused him, and his life was barren. He wanted to be alone, and think it over. Should he go back to Australia? He had not answered the question satisfactorily when he had given Greyfriar over to Sam, with instructions concerning a bran mash and bandages, nor even when he reached his room, and almost mechanically opened a note which lay on the table.
Crutched Friars, 15th December.|
SIR—We beg to inform you that your note-of-hand for £1500, payable at Messrs. Coutts and Co., has been returned to us dishonoured, and we have to request that you will take up the same without delay.
We are, sir, your obedient servants,
Mr. Robert Calverly, The Hall, Loamshire.
GULCH AND SWINDELMANN.
“Confound it!” cried Bob, “it’s Ryle’s bill. I had forgotten all about the date. Hang it, this’ll never do.”
There was yet another letter, which, short as it was, relieved Bob’s feelings much.
DEAR BOB—Got a letter from C. R., complaining about that confounded acceptance. He says it’s out of his hands, and that, if you don’t pay, the holders will prosecute. If you haven’t got the money, you had better look me up, and we’ll see what can be done.|
In haste, yours,
“What a good fellow he is!” said Bob. “I’ll go up tomorrow.”