Littell's Living Age/Volume 128/Issue 1658/The Dilemma - Part XXI
From Blackwood's Magazine.
Next morning Yorke, as an early man, was up before any of the family; and Miss Lucy, who was the first to come down, found him already in the dining-room reading the paper. Was it that some spirit of inner sympathy she had divined his thoughts of last night, or was it merely his fancy that he could detect, over and above her shyness, a certain consciousness of affinity, betrayed in a becoming little blush? But as they stood before the fire, hardly speaking, while the servants brought in breakfast, the children entered to create a diversion, soon to be followed by the others; and Mr. Peevor, who was evidently uneasy about something, began to make the conversational running, divided between particular inquiries after the amount of rest enjoyed by his guest, and the subject which oppressed him. "Don't you feel how chilly it is, Charlotte, my dear?" he said to his wife, as she took her place at the table a little later than the rest: "thermometer only fifty-five in the hall; it is really too bad of Johnson;" — and then it was explained to the guest that Johnson was the engineer engaged to look after the heating-apparatus, with a good salary, and strict orders to keep the temperature of the house exactly at sixty degrees. What was to become of them through the winter Mr. Peevor was sure he could not tell, if these mistakes were made before the frost began. But there was worse news behind. One of the gardener's children, it was reported, had a bad sore throat; the doctor had been sent for; and until he should pronounce whether or not it was scarlet fever, the family were enjoined on no account to visit the gardens. "You cannot be too careful," said Mr. Peevor, "about taking precautions against infection;" and perceiving some grapes on the table, he hastily ordered them to be removed. They had been picked by the gardener himself; and Mr. Peevor went on to relate a story he had heard, how the children of one of the noblest families in the land, whose country house was fully a mile from any other building, and drained regardless of expense, had caught a fever from eating grapes which had been gathered by a gardener whose children were ill of the complaint. "Truly we live in the midst of dangers," said Mr. Peevor in conclusion, and this pious sentiment was the nearest approach to family prayers manifest in the household. "Now be sure, Maria," he continued, turning to his eldest daughter, "that you give up your walk on the terrace for this morning; the drive in front of the house is quite dry and pleasant;" — and then he went on to explain to the guest that his eldest daughter used to be a district visitor in the parish, but that after the younger children were born he was obliged to ask her to give it up; there was always something or other going on in the cottages down in the village; and it really was not right to run the risk of bringing infection into the house. "Of course," he added, "I made it a point of increasing my subscriptions to the local charities, so no one can say 1 don't do my duty by the parish; but we must not neglect our duty to our own household."
Meanwhile, breakfast being ended, although but a small reduction had been made in the solid dishes and delicacies which covered the broad table, it was pronounced to be time to set out for the meet; and the ladies being all ready for starting, Miss Catherine attired in well-fitting riding-habit, which showed off her neat little figure to much advantage, with hair carefully braided up under a jaunty little hat, while the others had sat down in their walking-dresses, it only remained to put on gloves and wraps and to make a start. Yorke was invited to take a place beside Miss Lucy in the pony-carriage, while, Miss Cathy accompanied Mrs. Peevor and the two children in the close carriage. Miss Maria was to take her walk in front of the house; Mr. Peevor also did not accompany them. He would wait to see the doctor and hear his report. Driving in cold weather did not agree with him; and, besides, he should not be able to look at his luncheon if he did not take a good walk first. So after helping them to mount he took leave of them on the door-steps, giving his wife a parting injunction to keep the rugs well over the children, and to be sure to pull up the carriage windows as they passed by that bad drain in the village. Then, just as Lucy had told the groom to let go the ponies' heads, he called to her to stop, while he ran into the house to fetch a cigar-case for Yorke, which he insisted on his taking with him, lighting a fusee as he said so, although the latter protested that he had a case of his own; and when Yorke looked doubtfully at the young lady, her father said that Lucy would like the smell of his cigar above everything. The young lady smiled, as much as to say, "You see how amiable I am," and raised her whip, the groom jumped up behind; and the quick-trotting ponies soon shot ahead of the heavy landau.
Yorke sat silent for a minute or two, puffing his cigar, admiring the neatness with which his fair driver handled the reins; while the latter, having something to occupy her attention, seemed for the first time to be at ease in his company. Come now, he thought, there is one thing at any rate she can do well; and indeed the accomplishment, as he learnt afterwards from her father incidentally, was due to some driving-lesson's received from Mr. Skid, the celebrated professional whip who drove the Brighton coach.
The country they drove through was thickly sprinkled with neat-looking country houses, in well-kept grounds. Yorke asked who lived in one of these — the next, in fact, to "The Beeches." "Those are the Chattertons," said Miss Lucy; "very nice people, I believe," she continued in answer to another query, "but we don't know them;" — and when Yorke artlessly put the same question again, as they drove by another handsome estate, "The Rashleighs live there," she said, "but we don't know them either;" and any doubts which Yorke might have had whether Mr. Peevor was disposed to exclusiveness on the score of his riches, were disposed of by the saucy little look of mingled vexation and fun the young lady gave to her companion, as much as to say, "We don't know the people about here, and it is no good to try and conceal the fact; but it isn't our fault." After this Yorke put no more questions of the kind to the fair driver, though still puzzled to account for the evident social difficulty; and turned the conversation to other topics, praising the action of the well-bred, light-stepping ponies, and observing, as was natural, that it must be very pleasant driving such a nice turn-out about that pretty country and over such good roads. The young lady replied that she liked driving, but that one got very tired of driving about the country. She liked driving at Brighton better — there was always something to see. And something to be seen too, thought Yorke, casting a glance at the pretty charioteer, whose bright complexion looked all the better in the fresh morning air, albeit the rosy tint so becoming to the cheeks might with advantage have abstained from alighting on the tip of the little nose.
The place of meeting was soon reached, a public-house facing a small common, where the huntsmen and hounds and a dozen or so of horsemen had already arrived. There, too, was Miss Catherine's hunter in waiting, led by a groom in Mr. Peevor's very smart livery, mounted himself on a heavy cob, and beside them was a shabby-looking fellow from the Castleroyal stables, with the horse which had been sent out for Yorke, — a rather small, wire-drawn, but well-bred-looking animal, with very palpable scars about the knees, and not over clean saddle and bridle. On seeing his hunter, Yorke again repented of the idea of making his first appearance in such guise; but he was now committed to the thing, and having helped Miss Catherine on her arrival to mount, who, placing her little foot on his offered hand, sprang lightly into the saddle, he mounted in turn, and accompanied his partner after the hounds across the common to the nearest cover, for by this time a large field had collected, and the business of the day was beginning.
"I hope I shall be able to keep up with you," said Yorke to the young lady, but this little horse hardly looks like going;" and indeed the animal walked stiffly, with an action indicative of past work, and made one or two undeniable stumbles in their passage over the heath. "It is to be hoped I sha'n't meet any acquaintances here," he thought to himself; "certainly this is hardly the style of thing for a colonel of cavalry."
"Oh, that is Jumping Joseph," replied Miss Cathy; "he has been going with the Southbywestershires for the last four seasons. My brother Fred used to ride him when he was at home last year. He is a bit of a screw, of course, but he is a capital hunter, as you will find when he warms up a bit. Bytheday keeps none but goers, for the officers at Castleroyal are his chief customers, and must have something that will go, whatever the looks may be."
"He is a little small for the work, though, isn't he?" asked Yorke, oppressed with an introspective sense of the ridiculous, and still feeling a little nervous about his first appearance in public.
"Small horses are best for this country," replied Miss Cathy; "it is all in-and-out work, you know — two fields and a lane, and then two fields and another lane, and so on all day. Papa got me a big horse from Leicestershire when I began hunting, but I did not find him answer, and so I changed him for this little fellow, which suits me to a nicety." Miss Cathy's horse was a very handsome little bay, with both blood and power, but not much over fifteen hands high.
"But your groom's horse can hardly be suited even for this country," said Yorke, turning round to look at it; "he does not look much like going in and out of anything."
"Oh no," she replied; "papa likes William to come out with me, because he is so steady and never gets tipsy. William sticks to the lanes, and a good many of these gentlemen do the same," pointing with a wave of her hand towards the assembled field. "Besides, every field has a gate, you know, a providential circumstance in fox-hunting. Papa believes, I think, that I always keep close by William, and go through the gates too. If he had an idea what the thing is really like, he would never let me go out again, I am sure. Papa makes himself so anxious about things, you know.
The riders were now most of them assembled on the brow of a slight hill, while the hounds were working a copse on lower ground to the right, of which, from their position, they commanded a good view. The field was a large one, and Yorke could not help noticing that the young lady seemed to have scarcely any acquaintances amongst them. A few gentlemen had taken off their hats to her, but only one or two had come up to speak, and there seemed an absence of that cordiality and freemasonry which he had supposed to obtain among fox-hunting people. He had noticed the same thing while they were waiting on the road by the common before mounting. A good many ladies had come to the meet in their carriages, which however all drew up at a distance from the spot occupied by Mrs. Peevor's landau and Lucy's phaeton, so that the latter were thus isolated from the rest of the company; and although there was a constant movement of dismounted cavaliers to and fro between the little inn and the common, and exchange of greetings among the company generally, no one approached the spot where they were standing. Yorke thought how grim Braddon's dark face would have looked if he had been present to witness this treatment of his sister; and felt within himself a rising indignation against the company, mingled with sympathy for his companions, while wondering what crime Mr. Peevor could have committed to cause this social ostracism.
One person had indeed come up to speak, a stout man on a stout serviceable-looking horse, who took off his hat to Miss Cathy, saying, "Morning, miss; I hope I see you well, and your good family too. A pretty large meet to-day ain't there, and a good going morning, I think. Morning, sir; you have got a good nag there, I see; an old friend is Jumping Joe; there ain't a better little 'orse in the 'ole 'unt, for a light-weighted gent like you, and I don't care which is second. Just you try him at water, sir, if you get the chance, and then you'll see what he can do. Bytheday always keeps good 'orses, but Joseph's his best; he might have been a three-figure 'orse hover and hover again if it wasn't for them little marks. This is your first day out, is it, sir? Well, I hope we shall see you pretty often, now you've begun. I don't come out very often myself, 'aving my little business to attend to, but I always take a day whenever I can get it. Morning, miss, and 'oping they are well at 'ome;" and as the stranger, lifting his hat, moved away, the young lady explained to her companion, that he was a sporting tradesman of Castleroyal, who supplied "The Beeches" with groceries.
Presently the twang of the horn was heard in the wood below, and one or two hounds raisins their voices could be seen breaking through the covert, and making across up the opposite grass slope, soon to be followed by the whole pack. At this joyful signal, there was a general commotion amongst the cavalry. Several made for a conspicuous gap towards the left; a large number converged towards a gate on the right, and the remainder, including Miss Cathy, went straight down the hill towards the fence in front.
"They have found," she cried; "come along," and sticking her eye-glass into her eye, galloped off. At these stirring signs Jumping Joseph, who hitherto had been standing quietly with his head stuck out in front of him like a donkey's, as if hunting was the last thing in his thoughts, gave a sudden kick up behind, expressive of delight, and followed down the slope. Starting off in this way, Yorke was puzzled at first to know what was the etiquette of hunting with a lady. Ought he to give her the lead? Or should he ride side by side? Or should he let her go first and follow politely behind? While in doubt, however, on this point, Miss Cathy had settled it by having got the lead, and he had just time to notice how prettily she took the first fence in a fly — a small hedge with double ditch — when Joseph came up to it and cleared it in a business-like way which showed that he evidently knew what he was about, and satisfied his rider at once that there would be no need to look foolish on his back.
"The fences are awfully blind still," said Miss Cathy, turning round as he came up to her; "but it is a capital scenting-day, and the fox has taken a famous line. We are in for a good thing"
And truly there might have been a worse introduction to the sport; a short distance to cover, a fine day, a speedy find, and a good mount, for the ease with which the little horse went up the slope showed him to be in good wind; and the judicious way in which he took his second fence, at the top, a bank and ditch, indicated the experienced hunter.
The country was just as Miss Cathy had described it, made up of small fields intersected by lanes and roads in every direction; so that although only a moderate proportion of the field took a straight line after the hounds, they were constantly being overtaken by equestrians who stuck to the lanes. Thus although the hunting might not be first-rate from a Leicestershire point of view, there was plenty of life and bustle, and for those who went straight, plenty of riding. Although the fields were small, they were mostly grass; no heavy rain had fallen to make the ground heavy ; and Joseph continued to prove quite equal to the occasion. He had not much of a mouth, which was to be accounted for by the fact that he carried a variety of riders during the season; but he understood his work thoroughly, picking his way so judiciously as to leave his rider little to do; and Yorke, satisfied now that he might have done worse than make his début in a strange country on a hack-hunter, felt all the delight of a first introduction to the sport of kings. They were not quite in the first flight, although well up; for the young lady rode coolly and without pressing forward, and Yorke could not deny himself the pleasure of watching his companion take her fences, and so rode a few paces behind her and on one side. He had never seen a lady leaping before. She was certainly made for a cavalry officer's wife, he said to himself more than once, as he watched his fair partner now flying a fence, now cleverly topping a bank, and now, with equal address, jumping in and out of a lane, her pale face showing an unwonted bloom from the exercise and excitement, while honest Joseph executed his share of the task with unswerving adroitness.
It was a splendid day for the majority of those out, and a capital specimen of what the thing was like for a man who had never hunted before. The scent, without being strong enough to make a speedy finish, was held without a check for some miles, and the large field which had managed to keep up gave unusual animation to the scene. But now a new phase came over the landscape, which became wilder and less enclosed. They were going down the slope of a large stretch of coarse pasture land, which rose again opposite to them. Yorke noticed that several of the riders ahead were streaming away to the right or left, only some three or four keeping the straight line just in front of them; nor did it need the straggling line of pollards along the foot of the incline to indicate the presence of water there must of course be a stream of some sort at the meeting of these two long grassy slopes, probably something big. He looked at his companion to see whether she would go on; but either she did not see the obstacle, for she was very short-sighted, and her eye-glass was now flying about behind her neck, or she intended to charge it, for the young lady held her course. It was evidently a stiff thing, for one of the three riders still ahead went in, and another refused, although the practicability of the jump was proved by the third horseman clearing it. For a moment Yorke hesitated for the young lady's sake; but excitement overcame the spirit of self-denial, and as it was evidently a time for discarding etiquette, putting on pace he pressed Joseph past his companion, and crammed him at the jump. The brook or watercourse was not so very wide after all, but the water ran deep, and judging from the appearance of the fallen rider just emerging, there must be a still further depth of muddy slush beneath the sluggish current; and the banks being rotten, and the take-off bad, the little horse did not do more than clear it, and Yorke turned round in some anxiety to see how his companion would fare.
Miss Cathy had pulled up at the brink.
"Horse refused?" said Yorke, pulling up, and coming back to the edge.
"Partly the horse, partly the rider," said she, looking in consternation at the obstacle.
"I think he would clear it all right," said Yorke, who, in all the excitement of the run was anxious to push on, "if you send him at it well." And the young lady thus hidden, taking a short canter round, galloped her horse up again to the brook, but again stopped short at the margin.
"I can't do it," she said, piteously, and looking quite pale; "pray go on, Colonel Yorke, and never mind me; you will be thrown out altogether if you stop here any longer."
But Yorke could not do this. William, the groom, had of course long ago lost sight of them; and all the field behind them had disappeared, having turned aside to find a bridge. The rider whose horse refused had galloped off to a place higher up. The man who went in, having got his horse out and mounted again, was riding slowly up the slopes, refreshing himself as he went with the contents of his flask; the hounds had become lost to view over the top of the hill; they two were left alone on opposite sides of the stream, and Yorke, still hot and excited, was fain to jump back again and rejoin the young lady, a much more ticklish proceeding than the first jump, since Joseph showed manifest disinclination to this retrograde movement.
He then proposed that they should try to find a better place where he might give her a lead over, but she had evidently lost heart.
"I can't think what has come over me," she said. "I feel as if nothing could make me face that ditch; but you will get thrown out of the hunt; please go on, Colonel Yorke, please do, and never mind me." But this of course was not to be thought of. Then Miss Cathy thought that by going round a certain line that she knew, they might manage to cut in to the run again, and accordingly they set off, following the example of the solitary horseman who had refused at first, along the line of the brook, till they came to a bridge nearly half a mile higher up; and thence they got into a lane and made for some cross-roads where Miss Cathy said they would be sure to get news. But when this point was reached no one there had seen the hounds. Thus the cast had proved a failure. In fact, Miss Cathy, although a huntress, had not really a much better eye for country than young ladies usually possess; and Yorke knew all the time they must be taking a bad line, but was too polite to say so. There was now nothing for it but to turn their horses' heads towards home, now about twelve miles off.
The young lady was full of regrets for having lost Yorke his run, and reproaches of herself for her want of nerve; but something in her manner caused Yorke to ask himself suddenly whether this refusal of the brook was not a mere artifice. True, he had no reason to be vain of his success with women; still Mr. Peevor had been so extraordinarily outspoken in his hints the previous evening, that it really seemed as if he wanted to give him one of his daughters on any terms; and if so, what more natural than that the bold horsewoman should be told off for the soldier? And as this suspicion crossed his mind, Yorke became silent and reserved. But whatever might have been her designs, no one could be less of a coquette in her manner than the young lady; and as they plodded homeward, occasionally changing their walk for a slow trot, he learned a good deal more about the family from her unaffected conversation than her father had told him already. Mr. Peevor, it appeared, bought "The Beeches" about three years ago; before that he had a house in Kent, which he had purchased after selling a house at Harrow Weald. That was something like a hunting-country, observed Miss Cathy with enthusiasm, but he was too young to ride to hounds in those days. Yorke inferred from this account that Mr. Peevor must have business in London which involved his living in the neighbourhood; and indeed the young lady implied as much, although she said her father now seldom went up to town. This comfortable kind of life then had lasted for some years; and this easy buying and selling of houses, although involving a nomad sort of life, indicated the reckless mercantile adventurer as little as did Mr. Peevor's own fussy, kindly manner, and his fidgetiness about trifles. In fact, this frequent change of residence was perhaps another manifestation of the fidgets. The financial-impostor hypothesis might evidently be discarded. Still, what was the mysterious cause for this apparent social ostracism?
It was nearly four o'clock before they reached home. On riding up to the front door, Yorke was about to jump off and ring the bell, when Miss Cathy with some hesitation asked if he would mind coming round to the stables, the footman might perhaps not like to hold the horses; and accordingly they turned off in that direction. As they passed along the side of the house, the sound of childish laughter could be heard from the upper windows. "Lucy is playing with the children in the nursery," said Miss Cathy; "it is just their tea-time." Dismounting at the stables, they entered the house by the garden door, and finding no one in the hall, the young lady proposed that they should go to the dining-room where luncheon would be waiting for them; but Yorke, observing that it was too late for that meal, asked if they might not join the children at tea; and, following his companion up-stairs they surprised Miss Lucy in the children's play-room (a roomy and very comfortable apartment), giving Lottie a ride on her back, her dishevelled locks doing duty as reins, while Minnie, whip in hand, was driving them round the room. The young lady displayed some confusion at being thus discovered, and looked very pretty in her blushes; while the gentleman, noticing with satisfaction that the long tresses falling over her shoulders derived no aid from artificial adjuncts, thought her toilet had never appeared more becoming. Such an unfortunate ending they had had to a promising day, explained Miss Cathy in answer to her sister's inquiries about the run; Colonel Yorke's sport had been quite spoilt by her timidity; she was so vexed with herself about it; and Yorke, by way of consolation under her evident distress, declared they had had a capital run as it was, and that if they had gone on to the finish they might have had another half-dozen miles further to ride home. "I am sure I can feel for you, Cathy," said her sister. "How you can ride as you do is a perfect wonder. I should throw myself off in an agony of fright as soon as I came to the first hedge." Then the tea was brought, and Miss Lucy having first retired to make her hair neat, they sat down to do justice to the meal, there being still nearly four hours to wait for dinner, the children in great glee at having it in company. Yorke had not enjoyed any part of his visit so much before; the long ride had put him on confidential terms with Miss Cathy; her sister, having the children to talk and attend to, was less shy than she had hitherto appeared to the visitor; and when, somewhat later, Mrs. Peevor joined the party assembled round the cosy little table, she found them all in high spirits. And Mr. Peevor coining up-stairs afterwards, while naturally exercised in spirit at the guest having been brought into that humble apartment for the meal, could not repress his satisfaction at the pleasant footing in which he found him, and partook of tea and muffin placidly, sitting in the easy-chair which Lucy placed for him by the fire, and offering from time to time more or less desultory and inconsequential remarks about hunting.
That evening there was a large dinner-party at "The Beeches," and the luxurious meal of the previous day was quite a frugal repast in contrast with the profusion of luxuries which now succeeded each other in apparently interminable courses. The table was loaded with plate and glass; the gorgeously embossed bills of fare had evidently been printed for the occasion; the ample staff of servants was supplemented by various portly gentlemen, evidently hired waiters, and this time five decanters graced each end of the table with the dessert; but Yorke noticed that, except the vicar of the parish and his wife, none of the guests appeared to be neighbours. Some had come from town and were to sleep at "The Beeches;" the rest had driven from long distances. Yorke's part in the long repast was a dull one; being himself the principal guest, none of the young ladies fell to his share, but he took into dinner a stout lady gorgeously set out with jewels, with a low dress and ample bust, who did not talk much, but eat steadily through the bill of fare from beginning to end; while her husband, who sat nearly opposite, and also did his best to qualify for the gout, observing, after the ladies had left, that Yorke drank sherry, recommended him to try the claret, winking his eye knowingly as if by way of certificate of the goodness of the vintage. Conversation, indeed, was not the strong point of the evening, there being apparently a sort of general understanding that nobody was to talk about anything on which he or she felt the smallest interest; and Yorke could now appreciate the dismal forebodings which the young ladies while at tea in the nursery had expressed about the coming entertainment. The general company, however, seemed to regard the occasion with satisfaction as a sort of an alderman's feast, an opportunity not to be thrown away, the result being generally suggestive of doctor's bills and premature decease to come, while Mr. Peevor hospitably pressed his wines on his guests, supporting his recommendations of the different kinds by more or less direct allusions to their price, and little anecdotic stories of the mode in which various select parcels had come into his possession. Nevertheless, when the gentlemen rose there remained a considerable residuum in the ten decanters; and the honest fellows who waited on them evidently appreciated good wine, for a certain unsteadiness of gait was very noticeable when they handed the tea round afterwards in the drawing-room. The conversation in that apartment was not of a more lively character than that which passed at dinner, most of the guests being in that happy state of repletion which is not conducive to the play of wit or humour. It was a case, in short, of high living and plain thinking; but the two young ladies — the only unmarried ones present, for Miss Maria on this occasion kept her room — each went through their little performance of playing and singing. "I know it bores you tremendously," said Miss Lucy to Yorke, when he thanked her after the song; "but papa likes us to do it, and nobody listens, so there is no harm done, is there?" Mr. Peevor meanwhile introduced all the male guests in turn to Yorke, as "our friend Colonel Yorke, the distinguished cavalry officer, you know; of course you have heard how he won his Victoria Cross. We feel quite proud to have him as our guest; we hope he is going to honour us with a long visit," and so on, till Yorke became quite sulky with shame and vexation, although sufficiently impressed with the absurdity of the position.
Next day Mr. Peevor was bustling about all the morning, attending at their departure on the guests, who drove away at various times between breakfast and lunch, some in their own carriages, others in their host's. The two younger ladies also went off after breakfast to spend the day with a relative, and do an afternoon's shopping in town. Miss Maria was unwell and still keeping her room; so after the house was clear Mr. Peevor took Yorke round the grounds, which he had not had an opportunity of doing before, and which he was very desirous to do the honours of in person, walking with a short shuffling step, a long staff in his hand, as if for an Alpine ascent. Everything outside the place was in keeping with the interior arrangements. The garden, although not a small one, was crowded with hothouses, added by the present proprietor; acres of glass were exhibited, miles of pipes, battalions of pumps and garden apparatus — everything, in fact, that art could do to pervert the working of nature and make fruits and flowers grow in the wrong season — with a perfect army of gardeners, mainly employed, it seemed, in getting in each other's way. It was not a good strawberry country, said Mr. Peevor; but they had strawberries that year in February, a good week earlier than anyhody else; and they had grapes on the table in January. Early strawberries were such a nice thing, observed Mr. Peevor, especially if anybody in the house should be unwell.
Of course there was a farm on the estate, with about twice as many hands as could possibly be employed, and a perfect museum of agricultural implements. Wonderfully economical these things were, said the owner, after you had worked off the first cost; and by growing your own oats you kept down stable expenses: he was not above saving money by careful farming. Then they visited the kennel, where numerous dogs were chained up; setters and retrievers which never were shot with, a coach-dog that did not run with the carriage, greyhounds unaccustomed to coursing, watch-dogs too lazy in such company to bark. "I am a bit of a dog-fancier," said Mr. Peevor, looking round the yard; "and all these are the best breed of their kind. I never spare expense to get the right sort, and I like to have plenty of them;" but he did not go up to any to pet them, and the poor beasts were evidently too little accustomed to notice or to liberty to show any excitement at the appearance of the visitors. The girls sometimes took one or two of them out for a walk, Mr. Peevor observed in reply to his guest's question — indeed, that pretty little spaniel in the corner belonged to Lucy; but he had felt obliged to make a rule that the dogs should not come into the house. Lucy was quite in a state about it at first, for it was a present from a friend of theirs, Mr. Hanckes; but dogs in a house knocked things about so; and besides, it was not safe where there were children, dogs were so uncertain in their tempers.
The stables were in keeping with the other appointments, and the stall accommodation much in excess of the owner's own wants, the only present tenant of the guests' range being Jumping Joseph, which Yorke had retained for further use; and the grooms seemed to be mainly employed in looking after the helpers.
On return to the house Mr. Peevor withdrew to his study, to write letters as he said, but as Yorke suspected, from a certain drowsiness of manner, to take an afternoon nap; and the latter found Mrs. Peevor in the blue drawing-room — the only occupant, Miss Peevor being still up-stairs — and the children engaged in one of their numerous meals in the nursery. No callers arrived to break the conversation which followed, the first he had had the opportunity of holding with the sister of his old friend. It was now more than twenty years since Mrs. Peevor had seen her brother, and more than ten since any correspondence passed between them; and as she was little more than a child when he went to India, her recollection of him was but a shadowy one, and her knowledge of his character and career of the vaguest. She knew that he had distinguished himself as a soldier; but in the absence of any specific acquaintance with the course of recent events in India, and holding but the most shadowy conceptions of the geography of that distant country, it would have been a hopeless task to attempt a detailed account of his life which would convey any distinct impression. With the sister it was evidently a pleasing duty to show attention to the friend of her brother, round whose memory there might rest a halo of affectionate sentiment; but when the conversation after a time turned to the surroundings of her present life, Mrs. Peevor's manner became much more animated. Silent, and perhaps shy, in general company, or when others would do the talking for her, he found that she had plenty to say on an occasion of this sort; and without any exhibition of curiosity on his part, Yorke was placed in possession of a considerable instalment of the family history, Mrs. Peevor being apparently only too pleased to meet with a listener, and at once perfectly confidential. Mr. Peevor, it appeared, had been married three times before; and in one of the numerous pictures on the walls of the blue drawing-room now pointed out, of an uninteresting- looking young woman, there could be discerned a likeness to the eldest Miss Peevor. Mr. Peevor's cousin, explained the step-mother, and his first wife, whom he married when quite a young man. The pale young lady with light hair, whose portrait graced the opposite wall, was mother to Cathy and Fred; while the pretty little girlish face which hung over the mantelpiece was unmistakably that of Lucy's mother, whose span of wedded life had been even shorter than that of her predecessors. Mr. Peevor was a man of deeply affectionate nature, observed the latest partner of his couch; and these successive losses had greatly affected his spirits, and made him more nervous and particular about trifles than he used to be. The poor widower did not marry again for several years after he lost Lucy's mother, who died when she was a baby; and Mrs. Peevor hoped he might now be granted a fair measure of happiness after his long, lonely widowhood: although, she added, relapsing into melancholy, there was no saying how long she herself might be spared to be a companion to him; her own health had been very feeble ever since Lottie's birth.
Yorke hereon observed, by way of diverting her mind from the gloomy prospect of following her three predecessors, that he was sorry to see Miss Maria seemed to be in delicate health; to which Mrs. Peevor replied that she took after her poor mother in that respect, but had been much worse since her disappointment: and then, without waiting to be asked any questions, but evidently only too happy to find a listener, she proceeded to relate the story of poor Miss Maria's wrongs, and the shameful conduct of the affianced lover, who broke off the engagement almost at the last moment, after the wedding-dress had come home, and even the wedding-breakfast was ordered. It was all a question of money, although Mr. Peevor had behaved most generously; indeed he was liberal to a fault. Mr. Peevor, of course, was furious, and even declared he would pursue the perjured wretch with an action for breach of promise, but he was prevailed on to desist: this was before Mrs. Peevor was married to him. He sold his house at Harrow Weald, however, and left the neighbourhood; and poor Maria had never got over the affair.
From this conversation Yorke came to understand the relations which the different members of the family held towards each other. They were all good-tempered and kindly, and seemed to get on very well together; but no one cared particularly for anybody else, which was only natural under the circumstances. Mr. Peevor having at different times bestowed portions of his heart in so many different quarters, there was only a remnant available for his present wife; while the lady, although quite prepared to do her duty by her husband and step-children, was still able to regard them dispassionately as from an external point of view, and to describe their little foibles with kindly gusto to any available listener. Surely, thought Yorke, recalling to mind his friend Braddon's grim humour and reticence of manner, there are no people so unlike as blood-relations. Not, however, that Mrs. Peevor was disposed to disparage her step-children. Fred was evidently a great hero in her eyes; Miss Peevor was always "poor dear Maria." Cathy was of a thoroughly domestic nature, she said, though admirably fitted for a life of adventure; and Lucy was a dear affectionate girl — the children quite doted on her — and her cheerful disposition was such a comfort in that delicate household.
This revelation sufficed to dispel any lingering doubts remaining as to Mr. Peevor's solvency. He had evidently nothing of the reckless speculator about him. But as to what he was, and whence came the wealth so lavishly scattered, Yorke still knew nothing.
That evening there was another heavy dinner — the parish doctor and his wife being the only neighbours — but of people not quite of so much account as on the previous day, since none were invited for the night; and those who did not drive from their own homes came by train from London, being conveyed to and from the station in Mr. Peevor's carriages. Again there was the same interminable succession of courses, and the same strenuous efforts to qualify for the gout on the part of the stout ladies and their middle-aged partners — gentlemen of uncertain accentuation — who composed the company; the same lavish supply of costly wine, and the same unsteadiness of gait apparent in the servants afterwards. But the two young ladies, who had returned home just in time to dress for dinner, were in unusual spirits; for Miss Cathy had received a letter by the evening post to say her brother had got a few days' leave from his regiment, and would be with them next day. Fred was evidently the most important person in the family, and Lucy's bright eyes were brighter than usual at the prospect of his visit.
"What a coxcomb I am, to be sure!" said Yorke to himself afterwards in the retirement of his room. "I was beginning to fancy the little girl was ready to join in the family plot and make eyes at me; while from the way in which she brightens up because, forsooth, a brother is coming home, she was evidently bored all the time with my company. But it is always my folly to be fancying that one woman or another is in love with me."