A Shocking Mesalliance
A SHOCKING MÉSALLIANCE.
By E. PHILLIPS OPPENHEIM.
TWO men sat smoking their after-dinner cigars, in the long, low dining-room of Houghton Grange, in most masculine silence—a silence, however, which proceeded in each case from a very different cause. The elder of he two—the master of Houghton Grange, a man of about thirty-five years of age, was lounging comfortably before the fire, complacently enjoying his Cabana, and his silence was the silence of repletion and satisfaction with things in general. It was easy to see that neither his digestion nor his worldly affairs were out of gear. His guest, however, who appeared to be a much younger man, did not bear in his face the signs of a like complacency. He still remained seated at the table, and, with his head resting in his hands and a moody frown on his brow, was apparently engaged in studying the pattern of the tablecloth. He was the first to speak.
"Is there any chance of Miss Smith being at Lady Malvern's to-night?" he inquired suddenly, as if the idea had only just occurred to him.
Mr. Coulson, his host, shook his head.
"Not the ghost of a chance, my dear fellow. The county people don't even tolerate old Smith; he's such a beastly cad."
"No bad language about my future father-in-law, please," said the young man, with a grim smile.
"Future father-in-law! What rubbish! Why, you've never spoken a word to the girl in your life, and never saw her before this morning. You're a pretty cool hand, I must say, Escott, if you're not joking."
"I was never more serious in my life," declared the other doggedly. "I don't care a fig what her father's like. I've fallen in love with the girl, and I'll swear she's a lady; and, what's more, I'm going to marry her!"
His friend turned round and stared at him in half-amused, half-vexed astonishment.
"What nonsense you talk, Dick!" he said. "Marry her on nothing a year, and something pretty considerable to the bad in the shape of a cartload of debts! I don't suppose your pay more than squares the interest of them. You must be mad to talk about marrying!"
"Her father is a Crœsus. He can give the girl money."
"He can, but he won't if you're the husband. You'd better get rid of that idea as soon as possible. Old Smith is different from most of the retired City men. He doesn't care a fig for society or the aristocracy. Snaps his fingers at us and says he ain't going to have any fine gentleman dangling after his daughter's money-bags.' He means to marry her to a man named Gryce, who took his business in the City. I've heard him say so myself. If she married you, he'd simply cut her off with a shilling. And, besides, you're not likely to meet her, old chap. You won't see anything of them in our set, and she doesn't look the sort of girl you'd scrape acquaintance with anyhow."
Captain Escott smiled. A boyish-looking face his, but wonderfully handsome. Women had done their best to spoil him by praising his clear-cut features, his blue eyes and smooth skin; but he had survived the spoiling, and was at heart what every man called him—a thoroughly good fellow.
"I don't often make up my mind about anything, Coulson," he said deliberately, "but I have done this time. I daresay you think I'm in a pretty mess to start love-making. Heigho! I don't care. Duns and writs may take care of themselves—worrying about them won't pay them, will it? and I must get to know that girl."
"Well, I wish you luck," said his friend, rising. "If you're quite sure that you won't come to Lady Malvern's—they're awfully hard up for men, and would be charmed to see you—I must go, for the brougham's round, and my wife hates being kept waiting. I'll come round to your room and smoke a cigar with you when I get back, if you like."
About two o'clock in the morning, Mr. Coulson returned from Lady Malvern's dance, and, exchanging his dress-coat for a shooting-jacket, made his way into his guest's room.
Captain Escott welcomed him with a nod and kicked a chair towards him.
"Had a good dance?"
"Very fair. Dances are not much in my line now, though," replied Mr. Coulson, dropping into the chair and carefully selecting a cigar from the open box on the table.
"Astonishing how differently you regard these sort of things when you're a married man, Dick, my boy. What have you been doing with yourself all the evening?"
"I've been to Saddington Hall—to Smith's," said Captain Escott quietly.
"Been to Saddington!" exclaimed Mr. Coulson incredulously. "Nonsense!"
"It's perfectly true. I recognised Miss Smith's man this morning at the meet. He used to be head-groom at The Towers, so I thought I should like to look him up, you know, and have a chat about home."
Mr. Coulson laughed. "Well, you didn't see your divinity, I suppose?"
Captain Escott took a long draw at his cigar.
"No, I did not see Miss Smith," he assented. "After my interview with Burditt, I took particularly good care to keep out of the way. I found out something rather interesting about her, though."
"Ah! Is she engaged?"
"Not that I'm aware of. But she inherits three thousand pounds a year from her mother, independent of old Smith. I found that out. He's kept it from her, and Burditt only came to know of it by accident, through having a nephew in Somerset House. Of course, she's bound to know when she comes of age, next month; so I haven't much time to lose. I must be engaged to her before then."
Mr. Coulson's interest in his friend's infatuation increased wonderfully when he had digested this piece of news.
"It wouldn't be at all a bad thing for you, Dick, my boy," he acknowledged; "you must marry money, and soon. But how the deuce are we to get at these Smiths? The old man is a Tartar, and the girl isn't the sort you could scrape an acquaintance with unceremoniously in the hunting-field. I ought to be able to help you here, but I can't. You see, my wife never dreamt of calling. I'd have made her if I'd known about this before; but it's too late now."
"I've laid my own plans, thank you," said Captain Escott quietly. "Now listen to me carefully. There isn't the slightest chance of getting even an introduction by ordinary means, so I'm going to try extraordinary ones. Old Smith wants a groom. I intend—in fact, I've already made sure of the situation. You needn't look at me like that; I'm quite serious. I don't know any of your friends yet, thank goodness! and I don't know a soul in this part of the country; so I shall be perfectly safe. Burditt is in the secret, and is red-hot for me. Everything's arranged. I'm to have a little cottage to myself away from the stables. All I want from you is a character."
Mr. Coulson dropped his cigar and looked at his friend aghast.
"You're joking, Escott!"
"I was never more serious in my life."
"But—but I don't see what good this mad freak of yours will do, even if you carry it out. If your divinity is anything like what she appears to be, she isn't the sort of girl to let her groom make love to her."
Captain Dick smiled. "You leave Miss Smith alone and give me that character."
Mr. Coulson suddenly took in the humour of the situation and burst into a roar of laughter.
"Well, here goes," he said, moving to the table; "you've got some paper ready for me, I see. What am I to say?"
"I don't want you to say anything that isn't true. Just write that you've known Richard Escott for—let's see, what year were we at Eton together? Say, ten years."
"And can certify that he is honest, sober——"
Mr. Coulson flung down his pen and burst out laughing again.
"Hang it all, Dick! I can't say that, you know. How about that night at the club when you floored the waiter and put old——?"
"Honest, sober, and trustworthy. Go on, and don't be a fool!" interrupted Dick.
"It's all very well, you know," protested Mr. Coulson, taking up his pen again. "Well, I've put it. Anything else?"
"You'd better say that I can ride."
"That's about the truest part of the character," remarked Mr. Coulson. "I'll put that in with pleasure."
"That'll do. Hand it over. You see that parcel in the corner there? That's a suit of livery, and I'm going to put it on and clear out from here at five o'clock. You'll be so good as to make my excuses to your wife, and let the servants think that I've been obliged to run up to town by the early morning train. And just have my traps put together and sent to Burditt at Saddington Hall by someone whom you can trust."
"All right, old man—and good luck!"
The new groom was duly installed at Saddington Hall and gave great satisfaction. Fortune favours the rash sometimes, and it favoured Dick Escott in this mad escapade. On the first evening of his arrival. Miss Smith's favourite hunter, Lizette, had a fit in the stable. A veterinary from Harborough pronounced the case hopeless, and word was sent in to Miss Smith that her favourite must be shot. She spent a miserable evening and a sleepless night, fretting; but early in the morning her maid knocked at her door with some joyful news. Burditt had sent in word that Lizette was better, and would she come to the stables? In half an hour her arm was round Lizette's neck.
"She'll do now," remarked Burditt, with considerable satisfaction. "Muster Hamson, the veterinary, he was for shooting her last night; but the new groom, who had just turned up opportune like, a rare nice young chap he is, he laughed at 'im, and got some drugs from the village to make a mash, and sat up all night a-giving them to her. I never see'd anyone take to 'oss so. He sat all the mortal night with her head in his lap, and he's just brought her round again—that's what he's done."
Miss Smith jumped up with a radiant smile.
"Where is he?" she asked, "and what's his name? I shall go straight and thank him."
"He's got t'old cottage Miles used to have, but——"
Miss Smith was already gone, and Burditt gave vent to a delighted chuckle.
That visit very nearly spoilt the whole game. Dick had taken off his groom's coat and donned a shooting-jacket, and when Miss Smith lifted the latch and entered the cottage he was lolling in an easy-chair with a cigar in his mouth and something suspiciously like a brandy-and-seltzer by his side. Neither his position nor his immediate surroundings were exactly in accord with his new calling.
He was astonished, but he was equal to the occasion. In a moment the cigar was pitched into the grate, the Sporting Life fell over a silver cigar-case, and a clumsy salutation took the place of the bow and courteous inquiry which had almost escaped him.
Miss Smith—a tall, handsome girl—stood with her hand on the latch and looked at him with a gracious smile.
"You are the new groom, I believe—Escott? I have come to thank you very much for your kindness to my poor Lizette. Burditt tells me that you saved her life."
Dick had quite recovered himself by this time.
"I'm very glad to have been of any use, miss," he said quietly. "It would have been such a pity if she'd been shot, a fine animal like that, and such a favourite of yours, too, they tell me."
"I am very fond of her. Are you married, Escott?" she continued, glancing round the room.
"I am not, miss."
"Then who looks after you?" It appeared to her that the new groom was a man of taste.
He laughed, and made a slip—the first.
"I am no sybarite, and I need very little looking after. I cook my meals there, miss," he continued, pointing to a gas-stove. "Mrs. Burditt does the cleaning for me and such little things as I don't understand. I've roughed it worse than this when I was a youngster in Zululand."
She stared at him curiously. He was a novelty in the way of grooms.
"Ah, well. Thank you once more, Escott, for nursing Lizette so nicely for me. Good-morning."
"Good-morning, miss," and he sprang forward and opened the door for her.
Later on in the morning Burditt sought his young mistress with a request. The rheumatics were troubling him, and Prince Charles was fractious, and took a lot of holding at the gate. Might the new groom attend her to the meets?"
Miss Smith had not the slightest objection.
"Where did he come from, this new groom?" she asked carelessly.
Burditt heaved a sigh, the old humbug!
"Well, miss, I'm afraid he's had a lot of trouble, that young gentleman—come down in the world, you know. He came here with a splendid character from Mr. Coulson, of Houghton Grange, but he ain't been a groom allus, I'll wager. It's my private belief, miss," he added confidentially, "that he was born a gentleman."
Miss Smith laughed incredulously and walked away, but secretly she thought it not at all unlikely.
Several days passed without event. The new groom turned out to be civil, intelligent, respectful, and withal a magnificent horseman. Several tempting offers of service were made to him on the hunting-field, but these he steadily declined. His young mistress, feeling herself in somewhat of an anomalous position, bore herself at the meets in so independent a manner as to be universally considered proud; but her pride was merely reserve, and she was never above exchanging remarks with her groom whenever the exigencies of the run placed them side by side, and even occasionally on their way home. His ready and often amusing answers interested her, and generally, without her perceiving it, a conversation sprang up. He appeared to have travelled and seen much of life, and he told his young mistress much that it interested her to know. Then his opportune rescue of Lizette, who had now quite recovered, had won her gratitude and engendered a kindly interest in him, which Burditt's remark and his own bearing and conversation had increased.
Yet, notwithstanding her favour, he never lost his head, and really displayed an admirable amount of tact. He never presumed too far, but kept forcing the limits of their conversation further and further away. If he feared having overstepped the line, he was at once extra civil and respectful until her momentary uneasiness passed away. Thus it came to pass that their homeward rides were generally made side by side, and, although Miss Smith altogether failed to realise it, were by no means the least enjoyable part of the day to her. One morning she had a companion to the meet. Her proposed suitor from London—a vulgar, overdressed man, bearing in every movement and action the unmistakable impress of the City cad—was spending a few days at Saddington Hall. Captain Dick had scarcely reckoned upon him, and the fellow's vulgar compliments and leers as he rode by Miss Smith's side very nearly secured him a severe castigation from her groom, who rode behind, boiling over with rage.
There was one consolation, however—Miss Smith gave very evident signs of disgust at her forced companionship, and once, when during a short run he had been left a few fields behind, she made a slight detour and turned homewards, with the evident purpose of ridding herself of him. He detected the manœuvre, however, and was by her side again in a moment.
Dick mattered an oath, but a regretful glance from his young mistress, involuntary though it was, almost reconciled him.
After all, the climax came that morning. A sudden storm overtook them on the way home, and Mr. Grryce and Miss Smith dismounted and entered a large barn. The latter beckoned her groom to follow suit.
"Oh, hang it! there's no room for that fellow!" exclaimed Mr. Gryce roughly; "a wetting won't hurt him. Here, my man, here's half-a-crown for you. Go on to the village and wait for us. Don't get drunk, mind."
Dick hesitated; then an appealing glance from his young mistress decided him. He rode up to Mr. Gryce, solemnly pocketed the half-crown, and, turning round, rode away. He did not go quite as far as the village, though; in fact, he remained within half a dozen yards of the barn, although unseen.
Soon the sound of an angry voice and an oath reached him, and he drew nearer still.
"By Heaven! Miss Mabel, you shall marry me, whether you will or not; so you'd better make up your mind to it at once. Your father has promised, and he shall make you!" exclaimed a thick, passionate voice.
"He will do nothing of, the sort," was the firm reply. "Release my hand at once, sir!"
"Never, until you give me a kiss and promise to marry me. Come!"
A scuffle, a shriek, and, before he well realised what was happening, Mr. Gryce felt himself lifted from his feet by a strong grasp and flung heavily to the ground. He looked up, and Miss Smith's groom was standing over him with a passionate fury in his keen blue eyes.
"You hound! You dirty beast of a groom!" he spluttered out as he staggered to his feet. "I'll make you pay for this! How dare you lay your dirty hands on a gentleman!"
The passion died out of Dick's eyes as he surveyed the mean-looking object who stood before him shaking with impotent rage, and he smiled.
"A what?" he inquired.
Mr. Gryce stamped his foot in a paroxysm of blind rage.
"If you were only my equal," he burst out, "instead of a low blackguard of a groom——"
"I should be very sorry to be your equal, Mr. er-Gryce," said Dick coolly. "I am a gentleman, however, and shall be happy to pass over our inequality and give you any satisfaction you desire. There is my card—Captain Escott, 4th Dragoons; and a note to the Army and Navy Club, or care of my brother, Sir Herbert Escott, of Stretton Hall, Leicestershire, will be sure to find me. And now let me tell you this, sir, unless you mount that horse of yours and make yourself scarce in three minutes, I shall give you the sound horsewhipping that you deserve. Be off!"
Mr. Gryce laughed a forced, uneasy laugh.
"Gammon!" he exclaimed roughly, moving a pace or two towards his horse, however. "You don't suppose I believe that rubbish! Miss Smith, this groom of yours is drunk. Allow me to escort you home."
She darted an indignant glance at him and moved a little further away.
"If you presume to come near or even speak to me again," she exclaimed contemptuously, "I—I hope that he will horsewhip you."
Dick clenched his whip firmly, and his blue eyes flashed fire.
"You hear that, sir," he said. "Be off!"
Mr. Gryce climbed into his saddle and rode away without another word. There was a silence. Then Miss Smith turned to her groom.
"Perhaps, sir, you will now be good enough to explain what this masquerading means," she said haughtily. But, in spite of her efforts, she could not altogether keep the gratitude from, her eyes.
"I was about to do so," he said quietly, nerving himself for the crisis. "I am, as I told that fellow a captain in the 4th Dragoons and a gentleman—by birth, at any rate. I am a sham groom. Let me confess how it has happened. I came down here to stop with a friend of mine, Mr. Coulson, at Houghton Grange, and I saw you at the meet."
He hesitated and glanced at her face. It was inscrutable.
"I don't know if you'll ever forgive me," he went on desperately, "but it wasn't exactly my fault. I fell in love with you; I couldn't help that, you know. I asked Coulson if I couldn't be introduced, but he told me that it was impossible. From him I learnt your father's strong aversion to—to us, and his intention of making you marry that fellow Gryce. Everything seemed against me, but I swore to know you somehow, and, you see, I have succeeded so far, at any rate. Burditt was my sister's groom years ago, and I confided in him. I got him to engage me as a groom, and—and here I am. Don't turn away from me, Mabel," he pleaded. "I know it was a mean thing to do, but I could think of no other way, and I felt that I must get to know you; you know why. Tell me that there is a little, just a little, hope for me."
She kept her eyes fixed upon the ground, and he felt that every moment of silence was golden. Pride was struggling with anger in her features, while she was framing some stern rebuke.
She looked up with a heavy frown and opened her lips, but as her eyes met his, full of an eager, hopeful light, they drooped, and the rebuke melted away.
"I don't believe you really care for me," she said in a low voice.
"But I do, Mabel," he said earnestly. "Do you think I should have gone through what I have unless I did? You forgive me?" and his hand touched hers and gently took possession of it.
"It was very wrong of you," she muttered demurely, "but——"
Some men are woefully misrepresented. Old Smith was no Tartar, after all. That same afternoon, having resumed his ordinary dress. Captain Escott called upon him, and in a frank, straightforward manner told him the whole truth.
To his unspeakable amazement, his prospective father-in-law, after listening to his recital in solemn silence, burst into a roar of hearty laughter.
"You shall have her, my boy, for your pluck!" he said, slapping the young officer on the back. "I like your face, and I like the way you've made a clean breast of it all. Gryce can go to the deuce! Mabel's a lot too good for him. Stay and dine."
And he did.