Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 5/Lilian's perplexities - Part 2
A TALE IN TWELVE CHAPTERS.
CHAPTER III. THE IDOL TOPPLES.
Rumbling alone in the rotonde, the landscape hidden in a white fog of dust, there was no occupation for Charles Westby but thought. And at the outset it was satisfactory enough for him to think, because conscience told him he had acted well. In a moment of peril an avowal of love had escaped from a young girl’s lips. It had caused great embarrassment to him,—love and marriage were so wholly out of his province that he had never once so much as thought of love in his intercourse with Lilian. There ought to be no equivocation in the matter; it was right he should know at once, and clearly, the state of his feelings and position. Nothing could be more annoying than that she should continue to cherish any absurd ideas. As soon as possible, though with a trepidation he could scarcely conceal, he had resolutely addressed her on the subject. The result had proved the wisdom of his course,—it had appeared from her own confession that she must have talked quite unconsciously on the mountain, and she had, moreover, positively appealed to him not to hold her to her random words; and so there was a good ending to a ridiculous affair.
Not a bit of it! The legal mind then came into action, and he must needs doubt and question which of Lilian’s two contradictory declarations was the right one. The more he sifted the matter the more his opinion turned to a belief that words uttered at a period of danger were more likely to be true than words which maidenly modesty would speak in a quiet interview,—cold words, which his own manner might have evoked. Ay, even the slightest evidence must be brought to bear on this important question. Had not Fred Temple told him that Lilian, starting in her fitful sleep after the accident, had constantly called to Karlo Magno to save her? Surely this went to prove a strong animus in the affair. Thus, after duly weighing the whole matter, Charles Westby came to the conclusion that Lilian Temple had really loved him. And then it came to pass that pride grew mightily flattered with the idea, and toyed with it all the way till the diligence stopped at Berne.
A grand sunset ended the day. Ah, me! many were the diners at the Faucon, and they hurried up from the scarcely finished table-d’hôte—stout diners and all—martyrs to the picturesque, scorners of indigestion, and so out on the church terrace, to see the mantle wrought in a glorious hue, which the departing sun had cast upon the mountain-tops. But Charles Westby only cared to seek out the rosy Jungfrau, and use it as a landmark to Interlachen and the human interest that it held.
Charles Westby was getting stupid!
Stars burnt with double fire, over the banquette, that night long in the ride to Basle; and the sun, beginning to stir beneath the horizon, felt its way with long pink rays thrust upwards into the darkness, and then slowly climbed the heavens on glowing red cloud-steps. It was neither Law nor Equity which closed these sights from Charles Westby’s eyes.
“Est-il possible?” he exclaimed, thrusting his face into the little glass of a little room in the great hotel at Basle. Dust of a day and night journey was on his face, he was absurdly like a miller. Then head and face were plunged into the little basin, the little towel was half rubbed away with energy, and he brushed his hair double-handed till his strong arms began to glow.
“Est-il possible?” and the looking-glass showed dashes of grey among the dark hair, and his face, homely English at best, was hacked about with work and thought, and parchment-coloured, notwithstanding all the clear Swiss air.
“Est-il possible?” this outward man against the best men she has seen in London!
Then duty began to look mean in contrast with blue eyes and golden hair. Alas! for the foolish pass to which wise and solid men are brought. Old ambition grew pale before this new fascination. Why not space and time for enjoyment of the heart? Why constant labour with the chance of scanty laurels for thin grey hair? Cui bono, these after riches? Can we play Romeo with crowsfeet, and wrinkles, and a wig? So in that upper chamber Charles Westby ground his teeth at destiny, and, gazing fixedly on the swift green Rhine below, fell into strange new musings touching the affairs of life.
Fiddlesticks! destiny puts us into the groove, and for all our bluster we must stick there. Habit and association soon brought back Charles Westby’s alacrity for his accustomed work, and Lilian’s image was blurred by professional thoughts that held his mind; besides, he was of the energetic order, looking forward not back, and thus he came to a sort of grim settlement of the matter. Long before he would be rich enough to marry, Lilian Temple would have married, and had a family grown up perhaps; he might never chance to meet her again, but that little Swiss tour would remain the romantic idea of his life. All men, densely practical men even, who in the end marry their cooks, have had some sort of romance in the course of their lives of which the world never dreams, and oftentimes have held some token of the fact to their dying day. Well, back in London, Charles Westby, in process of disgorging his travelling coat pocket, found the handkerchief Lilian had dropped during the accident. It was torn, and parts lost, but the initials L. T. were preserved. He carefully folded it up in a piece of brief paper, endorsed with the year and date of the event, and tying the packet with red tape, placed it in his desk, beneath a mass of law papers.
“Well, Newton, and what are you to get for your money?” inquired Charles Westby.
“Ten per cent!”
“Too much! you’ll get nothing.”
Newton (George Newton, Esquire, of Burford House) was an old friend of Westby, and the young squire of his late father’s parish. Their friendship dated from Westby’s bird’s-nesting period, and it had held on, notwithstanding the divergence in their modes of life, and notwithstanding the soft bits of Newton’s character, which regularly provoked Westby’s chaff. Newton always made a point of seeking out Westby in his occasional visits to London, and of being attentive in game presents and the like to Westby’s mother in the country.
“You are always against anything but three per cents, Westby.”
“I tell you what, Newton. Nature gifted you with all the organs necessary to a country gentleman, but she never intended you to dabble in joint-stock bank shares.”
“We can’t be good at everything. Be content with what nature’s done; she’s made you a good rider across country, a decent shot, a sufficient lawyer to convict a poacher;—by the bye, were you lucky with the pheasants this season?”
“First rate! Come and have a touch at them.”
“I only wish I could, old fellow.”
“But I say, Westby, it’s as safe as the bank, that ten per cent.”
“If that’s your fixed opinion, Mr. George Newton, permit me to remark that I am happily too busy for fruitless conversation——”
“I’m off then! Mind you, seven for dinner at the club.”
“Say half-past; they are bothering me so to get this business finished. Good bye!” And Westby doubled himself to his work again.
“By Jove!” exclaimed Newton, lingering in the room. “Where did you get that engraving from?”
“What engraving?” replied Westby, greatly bored. “I thought you’d gone!”
“This engraving of a girl—the Honourable Mary Blackburn.”
“Wretched man! to bother me about stupid prints. I bought a lot of them cheap years ago.”
“I wonder if I can get one in the Burlington Arcade?”
“George Newton, if you stop another moment in this room, I’ll postpone the dinner to nine o’clock!”
Punctually at half-past seven, Westby rendered himself at the club, but it was past eight before Newton made his appearance.
“Pitch into me well for keeping you waiting, Charles.”
“I’ll do that to the dinner!” grumbled Westby. “But how on earth is it you lazy men are never exact?”
“Lazy, indeed! I’ve been over half London since I saw you.”
“To get a copy of that engraving.”
“Bless my soul! I wish I’d given you mine, I should have gained half an hour by the gift.”
“They were all sold out——”
“George Newton, take notice I’ve had no luncheon, and help the soup.”
“I saw a girl the very image of that engraving yesterday.”
“Did you? Impulsive youth! How good this sherry is!”
“Somehow I can’t get that face out of my head, Westby.”
“The subject is beginning to be a bore, George. Their tartare sauce is always capital here.”
“You’ll promise to give me that engraving, old boy?”
“Bless the man! I thought I’d promised it five minutes ago—what’s her name?”
“I could not find out, but I know something of the people she was with.”
“After all, what’s in a name? Here, I’ll devote a bumper of this pleasant Moselle to the happiness of George Newton and the fair unknown!”
“What shall we do, Westby? It’s too late for ‘half-price!’ Will you have a quiet cigar in the smoking-room? I know you have given up billiards.”
“Let’s drift down the Strand to my chambers, and have a rude pipe and some self-made coffee.”
Westby lighted his lamp, and addressed himself to the coffee-pot. Newton eagerly took down the engraving from the dark corner of the room in which it had hung, and cleaned the glass with some blotting-paper.
“Tell us what she’s like,” said Westby, very busy at reviving the fire. “Large dark eyes, and chesnut hair, and that sort of thing?”
“Just the contrary, light hair and complexion, blue eyes.”
“And the features?”
“Hang it! I’m so bad at description—I should call it one of your tantalising faces.”
Westby started up, and gazed earnestly on the engraving, holding it to the full light of the lamp.
“What’s her name?”
“I told you I could not find out.”
“Not, not——?” muttered Westby, and he suddenly held his voice.
“Who were you going to say?”
“You can’t have that engraving, Newton; I did not recollect at the time which you had asked for.”
“Why, I should prize it so much; I’ll give you any large engraving you would like to have.”
“I don’t want engravings!”
“But, I say, old fellow, you did promise it me.”
“There, then, take it! take it!” replied Westby, ramming a great wedge of tobacco into his pipe.
George Newton was very fluent—he was always very fluent after goodly “’34”—nor did he speak as he was wont of horses and dogs, but with great confidence of his plans of life; in fact, he did all the talking, while Westby hid his face in big clouds of smoke.
“By Jove, Westby! I’m sick of this bachelor sort of life; and, by Jove! I’ve been wanting a nice girl to look after that big house of mine—I get done right and left. I fancy I could make a woman comfortable. I should not mind a couple of months or so of London during the season. Confound it! my tin is worth any woman’s while.”
And, ringing changes on these ideas, Newton rattled away, till he ended the chime by inquiring,—
“Why, on earth, Westby had not married all this time?”
“Because I can’t!” growled Westby, behind his cloud. “It’s past two, Newton, and I must turn you out.”
Newton carefully placed the portrait under his great-coat.
“Thank you again, old boy!”
But Westby made no reply beyond a grasp of the hand; and standing on the landing he lighted Newton to the door. Bang went the door, and Westby returned to his room with a shiver that caused him to stir the fire violently.
“Confound the fellow!” he muttered, “that engraving is the very image of Lilian. Fool and ass! it’s been hanging here all this time, and I never chanced to look at it! Ten to one, but Lilian is the girl he’s been struck with; blockhead as he is, with his money he’s like enough to marry her.”
And Westby filled his pipe again, and puffed more smoke clouds, and the romantic idea surged up from the depths of his heart, and moved to and fro with old teeth-grinding at destiny. Nevertheless, next morning by eight o’clock, Westby was hard and fast, with undivided mind, on that knotty conveyancing matter which strewed his table with dusty parchments.
CHAPTER IV. “AS MAD AS A MARCH HARE.”
“One second, Salisbury!” said Charles Westby, in his proper turn at the pigeon-hole, Waterloo station.
It was a quarter to eight on a dismally cold, damp, foggy, early March morning.
The passengers in Westby’s carriage consisted of a good-natured burly person of the agricultural cattle-dealing type, armed against the raw morning with a “pocket-pistol,” a surly person of the type aforesaid, a woman with a parti-coloured face, the result of cold and sorrow, and a lean, hungry man with long pale face, restive eyes, and a nose acutely accented with cold.
Whistle! pull! puff! The fog was transparent to the distance of about fifty yards either side of the windows, discovering a limited roof-view of Lambeth, damp through to the rafters. But, clear of London, the fog changed to cold, white mist, which the sun gradually broke into masses of pearl light, and the east wind blew away in wreaths that caught awhile in hedgerows and low woodlands, till at last sun and east wind together made the whole landscape clear and bright to the horizon.
During the latter part of February one topic had warmed London through and through—the smash of the Anglian Bank. Such mercantile depravity! Why, the very thought of it circulated the blood to the tips of your fingers; consequently, no matter afforded conversation more comfortable for a cold morning.
Conversation commenced thus: good-natured agriculturist to surly ditto:
“Know Jack Sprot?”
“That bank did it!”
“Beg your pardon!” exclaimed the lean man, breaking into the conversation; “depositor or shareholder?”
“Depositor, I think.”
“Shareholder!” grunted the surly man.
“So he is!” cried the lean man, consulting a list in a newspaper. ‘James Sprot, farmer.’ Not one shall escape!” he added, his eyes gleaming fiercely.
“Oh, Smithers! it’s carnal to talk so,” sobbed the woman.
“I say not one shall escape!” retorted the lean man, savage with his wife’s rebuke. “Look’ee here, gentlemen, last week I’d a snug little shop doing a brisk trade in coals.”
“And the green line!” cried the woman.
“And milk!” added the man, his eyes growing still fiereer.
“Wood and eggs!” sobbed the woman.
“I’d put in a new shop-front!”
“And Smithers used to preach at the Duck Chapel, and they’d come to me, this ‘ooman’ and that ‘ooman,’ it was so blessed to hear the pure gospel, and one would buy an egg, and another a ‘ha’porth’ of milk—it all helped.”
And the woman’s voice sunk in a flood of tears.
“Have a drop of ‘summut,’ mother,” said the good-natured agriculturist passing the “pocket-pistol.”
“I’d have them all punished, I would, directors and shareholders and all!” thundered the lean man, after taking the “pistol” from his wife, and indulging in a long sip.
“And what did you lose by the bank?” inquired Westby.
“Oh, sir! all our credit,” said the woman, gradually reviving.
“But your balance?”
“It was our credit we cared for!” exclaimed the man, bridling up.
“Why, sir, what with that shop-front and all, they’d been accommodating us a little. I will speak out, Smithers!”
“I feared you’d lost a deal of money,” said the good-natured agriculturist, laughing.
“So I have, sir!” retorted the lean man, firing up. “Credit is money—every child knows that.”
And the lean man, being touched to the quick, proved with that fervid eloquence which had excited the Duck congregation, that credit, and not capital, was the true basis of mercantile transactions.
“Jack Sprot,” grunted the surly man to his neighbour, “you don’t chance to know his whereabouts, do you?”
“No, I don’t,” was the dry reply, “and if I did I should not tell.”
“Oh! it’s no consequence, only I knows a party as wants to pay him a rather heavy balance on a corn account—that’s all.”
“Any luggage?” inquired the porter of the surly man at the Salisbury station.
Then why did the surly man hang about so while Westby was engaging his fly?
“Ouze ’ouse at Wishford?” inquired the flyman, turning round on his box. “I’ze zard a’ yearing.”
A gleam of satisfaction lighted up the surly man’s face.
“Confound that fellow!” muttered Westby; “there’s a queer mosaic look in his face, and his wanting to know the whereabouts of that man Sprot—it’s rather suspicious.”
The district of Salisbury Plain is on this wise bleak down, intersected with valleys; bleak down, but not barren, corn-land here and there on the; highest ground; green valleys, with trout-streams and water-meadows, and in these valleys a succession of villages where dwell the tillers of the bleak down, the shepherds, and their masters, the owners of the many thousand sheep which feed on the steep down slopes.
Westby’s route lay along one of these valleys through Wilton. The day was so gloriously sunny that it needed the eat wind to record the season of the year. To the left of the turnpike-road, somewhat less than two miles distant, lay the high down line of Salisbury race-course, and on a lower road running parallel with the turnpike, with a goodly cultivation between the two roads, was a straggling line of cottages—George Herbert’s Bemerton, and Quidhampton—with simmering smoke amid the leafless trees, and sparkling water-gleams from the winding river and the water-meadows in the rear. Then on, beneath the shadow of Wilton Park wall, and skirting the town of Wilton, into the open valley again, with a glimpse of the white Byzantine tower of Wilton church across the water-meadows, and so along the valley with a trout-stream hard by the road, fascinating to fishermen’s eyes, and Grovely Woods crowning the high down ridge to the left, and on the right, Salisbury Plain proper, shelving from the high land gently to the road.
Westby arrived at his destination.
“No, Mrs. Wilson was not at home.”
“And Mr. Newton?”
“Out with the barriers,” replied the man, to Westby’s anxious inquiry.
“Where did they meet?”
“Druid’s Head, sir.”
“Is there anything at home that I can ride?”
“Only old Ironsides, sir; but Mr. Newton says he wouldn’t ride him for a hundred pounds.”
“Hum,” muttered Westby, “my ride’s worth more than that. Tell the groom to clap on the saddle. I know the old horse has got some stuff in him yet. By the bye, I expect somebody will be calling presently to see Mr. Newton on particular business; you will say that Mr. Newton is certain to return here directly after the hunting is over. I shall save time if I go round to the stables and get on the downs by the back way. Send me out a mouthful of bread and cheese.”
Up a steep chalk cut from the valley, on to the high ground—it made the old horse blow again! and then a vast surface spreading out for miles in the bright sunshine, a perfectly open country without hedge or ditch, undulated by the deluge waters of pre-Adamite time, covered with turf, and here and there ploughed land, and young corn-crops of emerald green, and dull green patches of swedes, and thinly scattered plantations of dark fir. But overhead! the crowning glory of the land,—a grand hemisphere of sky closing to a low horizon marked by down lines of exquisite curve, or darkly fringed by far distant trees,—masses of dazzling white cloud grandly marching across the bright ether—those cumuli which walk upon the wings of the wind.
I do not say that it is a land for poets to sing, but it is a clean, wholesome land, delicious to London eyes,—a land for drawing a long breath deep down into the lungs,—a glorious draught free from carbon sediment, opening the senses to that feeling of abundant health which pervades every object far and near.
But I cry a truce to all elaborate descriptions of this scene. Your horse begins to feel the fascinating turf, the curb tightens insensibly in the hand, and you are off into a glorious canter long before you have had time for a minute view.
Nevertheless Westby had to pursue a very conservative policy with regard to the old horse.
“Stand still, old gentleman, can’t you? Allow me to look for the hounds.” Westby’s eyes sweep over the country. “There they are!—they’re ‘drawing’ those swedes by the Druid’s Head.” The huntsman’s horse is knee-deep in that green sea which swallows up the hounds. Straining your eyes hard, you can just perceive glancing tips of white which hurry to and fro. Ah! there’s that furthest man waving his cap, the! huntsman gallops up, the white tips suddenly converge, and dash on to the turf in an indefinite white mass. It’s too far to hear couplet and chorus. “Steady, old man, steady!” The keen east wind is pouring new life into the old horse. “They’re coming right to us!” What a pretty sight! hounds and horsemen growing nearer life-size every moment, speckling the turf dips with excitement. “Whoa, boy, whoa!” The old horse frets against the curb. “Ah! they’ve lost her in that furze!” Westby will be up with them in a minute or two. It’s too far to distinguish faces, but that’s George Newton, by his big black horse. Strange he should be so far in the rear!
“Hold hard, sir, pray!” shouts the huntsman to Westby, who was making straight for his friend.
Westby, in his eagerness to reach Newton, did not perceive that he had almost ridden over the hunted hare.
Whir! whir! whir! go a large covey from the furze.
By Jove! that lady’s horse, the chesnut, has bolted. No! how well she rides!
Hark! the hounds are singing to their work again.
“I’ll take the fidgets out of you!” cries Westby, giving the old horse his head.
Away they go! down the turf slope, across the Devizes read, up the turf on the other side, right ahead. Newton well up this time—Westby pushing along the old horse at his best speed, in hopes of overtaking his friend.
The east wind rattles against the face, and whips up a tremendous glow, and cuts tears out of the eyes.
“Very pretty!” exclaims Westby, as the lady with the spirited chesnut skims a line of hurdles. “At it, old man!” and he rams his heels, for lack of spurs, into the old horse. “Over! All right!” The old horse recollects his work. But, alas! it won’t do—a deal of fuss and pulling for the first three minutes, and then the old horse begins to sing a hollow tune.
“It’s no use my scampering on at this rate,” thinks Westby, “I shall knock all the wind out of the old fellow;” so he pulls up the old horse into a walk, and watches with disgust the whole “field” sweep away.
By dint of some clever short cuts, and thanks to divers checks and doublings, Westby managed to keep pretty well in sight, but “puss” did not cry “enough” till she had got, with many a twist and turn, to Stonehenge.
In among the old grey stones, as Westby trots up, were steaming horses, and men with hot, contented faces, and eager panting hounds, clustered round the master, who held gallant “puss,” worthy of her fate, in “his red right hand.”
“Here, Gaylass! Gaylass! Beauty!”
“There’s George Newton!” through the interval in the stones, on the other side of the circle. Westby urges forward his horse—he curbs him in the next moment—there’s a lady at Newton’s side. One glance, as she half turns her face—Lilian Temple!
But the old horse was minded to push on, and the reins had fallen loose in Westby’s hands.
“Who’d have thought of seeing you?” exclaimed Newton.
“Karlo Magno!” broke involuntarily from Lilian’s lips.
Ah! the east wind and long gallop had steeped her fair face in rosy tints, and ruffled her golden hair beneath the shadow of the dark The reins hung loose in her small gauntlet wax gloved hands. The chestnut did not want the curb.
“Lilian! an old friend of mine, Mr. Westby,” exclaimed Newton.
“An old friend of mine too, George.”
How that word “George” stung Westby.
“He’s known me ever since I was a bit of a child,” continued Lilian.
“That’s strange enough!” and a slight shadow passed over Newton’s glowing face.
“I want a word with you, Newton: Miss Temple will excuse us for a minute.” Westby turned his horse aside, and Newton followed him.
“I’m engaged to her, Westby—”
“I congratulate you;” but the words grated in Westby’s throat.
“I’m very sorry at such a time to break upon you with bad news. Why on earth haven’t you answered our letters?”
“That cursed bank, hey?”
“I never found out where you were till last night. We’ve written continually to your house.”
“I’ve been staying at Mrs. Wilson’s for the last few days,” replied Newton.
“Seeker could not come himself, but he begged me to come, as an old friend;—the truth is, you must leave the country immediately.”
Newton’s hot face grew very pale.
“They’ll be down upon you for every penny you possess—you are known to be one of the richest shareholders on the list.”
“I can’t go now, Charles.”
“You must either go or be ruined! Why, I’m all but certain there’s a fellow on your track now; below in the valley there—”
“But that girl! that girl!” murmured Newton, looking back on Lilian. “Did you see how she rides, Westby? Such a light hand. By Jove, my man can hardly handle the chesnut. I’ll risk it!”
“Don’t be a fool!” exclaimed Westby, losing patience.
“Cruse that infernal sanctimonious scoundrel, with his ten per cent.”
“We haven’t time for regrets now, George.”
Newton reflected for a moment.
“Westby, we’ll go straight to Brighton, to her father’s, be married there, and then go to the continent. What do you think?”
“It is for you to think,” replied Westby, gravely.
“I know she’d do it. No, no! I could not in honour marry a girl with my affairs in such a state. There, I’ll take her back to Mrs. Wilson’s and be off.” “It is not safe for you to return to Mrs. Wilson’s.”
“But, Westby, I can’t say good-bye to her here,” replied Newton, piteously; “do help me, for heaven’s sake.”
Westby considered what could be done for the best.
“You know my mother’s cottage at Shrewton: go straight there, it will throw them off your scent. I’m sure Mrs. Wilson will manage to take Miss Temple over this evening to see you; you can then make your way to Devizes and get the railway.”
“Thank you, old boy.”
Newton rode up to Lilian—they turned their horses towards the “Druid’s Head.” Westby, as he followed, kept muttering Newton’s words: “He can’t marry with his affairs in such a state.” There was a strange conflict at work in his heart.
Near the “Druid’s Head” the lovers waited for Westby to come up.
“I leave this lady in your charge, Westby,” said Newton, in a broken voice, and after pressing Lilian’s hand to his lips, he put his horse into a center. The chesnut would have followed, but Lilian reined him in with some difficulty, and then, shading her eyes against the golden distance, she watched her lover’s dark receding figure.
“Which is our way?”
“Right for that ‘folly’ yonder.”
They rode along the ups and downs of the turf in silence. A solitary horseman came up with them; it was the surly agriculturist of the morning mounted on the strangest of old screws. He glared curiously at Westby.
“Seen the ’ounds?”
“No more hunting to-day; there’s no scent,” replied Westby, with emphasis.
“Oh, haint there!” replied the man, grinning as he rode on.
Down the chalk cut again into the valley, which was filled with warm light and lengthened shadows. The water meadows, green enamel in the afternoon sun, inlaid with glittering bars of gold—and so on to Mrs. Wilson’s house.
“George Newton ruined!”—and Lilian locked the door of her room, and was alone. Then for the first time she beheld in clearest definition her real motives for accepting George Newton. Love, alas! in the slenderest proportion—pique at Westby’s low estimation of her character and rejection of her love—that one thought tinctured all her conduct, rendering her utterly careless as to whom she married, provided the wooer possessed the disposition and means which might ensure a pleasant worldly existence. Had she not learnt from Westby’s words that she was unfit for any condition higher than that? So she had allowed George Newton to love her, which was all he asked—perhaps she had even preferred him to most men she had met—and she was to have the use and enjoyment of his wealth in return.
I repeat, she beheld all this now for the first time; her actions had been spontaneous and the motives indefinite: it was only the thought of poverty which forced her to make an exact estimate of her love for George Newton.
So Lilian had her punishment for giving her hand without her heart. A feeling of pique to rest upon in a life of straitened means and struggle! Riches and poverty, it was a strange contrast. Many a time in those Swiss excursions she had walked silently at Westby’s side, picturing in her foolish mind the idea of poverty as his wife; she had striven to realise all the hardships that need be endured, and her affections had always deepened towards him with these thoughts. But George Newton poor, it was a desperate struggle with duty, and tears, and remorse.
“I have left her in her room, poor girl,” said Mrs. Wilson to Westby, as she entered the library. “I can afford her no comfort.”
“She does love him, then,” muttered Westby to himself.
“Lilian has told me about the arrangement for Now, only to think he should have been so foolish as to meddle with that wretched bank.”
“Foolish fellow! there was no stopping him; —but tell me about this love affair of his, I met the Temples in Switzerland last autumn.”
“Well, I happened to fall in with them at Paris: we were staying at the same hotel, and I became very intimate; they made me remain at their house in London for a few days on our return from the continent. George Newton saw Lilian at the theatre, and was immensely struck with her; he found that I was staying with the family, and he made me introduce him—in the shortest possible time he made her an offer, and was accepted. Before this occurred Lilian had promised to stay a short time with me while my son was away; I would not forego the promise the result is that George Newton has insisted upon taking up his abode here, he says it’s such a bore to get across the hill at night. I find you’re an old friend of the Temples.”
“I used to be very intimate with Frederick Temple; I suppose he’s in India by this time; he was intending to get down to Marseilles soon after I left Interlachen.”
“Poor George! it will be a sad blow to him to leave the country—I never saw a man more deeply in love.”
“But he’ll have to go for all that,” replied Westby.
Westby and Lilian did not meet till it was nearly time to start for the night ride to bid adieu to her lover. She entered the room veiled for warmth against the night air. Mrs. Wilson who had been conversing with Westby, arose to prepare herself for the journey. Lilian would evidently have accompanied Mrs. Wilson out of the room, had that lady not begged her to stay in order that Mr. Westby might explain some particulars about Newton’s affairs.
“I suppose we must try to get to the down road,” said Mrs. Wilson.
“It would be less risk for Newton,” replied Westby; “I have been talking to the coachman, he thinks he can manage it.”
There was a dead silence when Mrs. Wilson had left the room. Lilian drew back her veil, her face was very pale and her eyes red with crying.
“Have you heard from your brother lately?”
“Yes, he’s quite well, he had joined his regiment at Meerut.—Dear Fred, I wish he were here now,” and Lilian broke into tears. “I’ve no one to speak to, to advise me—”
“She’s Mr. Newton’s friend!”
“This interview, this interview, it’s terrible.”
“This bank affair is indeed a sad misfortune.”
“I can’t go—dare not go,” she covered her face with her hands.
“But you promised—”
“Oh, Karlo Magno, despise me, tell me I’m heartless—wicked—I never ought to have accepted George Newton—I’ve learnt that now—but things were so different when he made me an offer.”
Westby trembled with strange sensation at her words.
There was a terrible pause.
Oh, what power was in Westby’s hands! what temptation in his burning heart!—he felt he held Newton’s fate—but the man was his friend, had fairly wooed and won the girl, in the hour of misfortune had left her in his charge; nevertheless he recollected that day at Interlachen, when he might have called Lilian his own, and now there was one last opportunity thrust in his very fingers—one firm grasp.
She started at his voice, and stood up, gazing earnestly on him with her tearful eyes. Words of folly, and far worse than folly, were on his lips, but this movement of hers arrested their utterance.
“Karlo Magno! listen to me,” she spoke in a low firm voice. “You are Fred’s oldest friend. Chance, I know not, it may be God’s ordering, has placed you near me now. You know my brother well, you do know him because your nature is true and good as his.” Westby shuddered, and instinctively shrank back. “I want to speak to you as I should have spoken to him, it would strengthen and comfort me to hear your answer, knowing that that answer would be his. George Newton was introduced to us by Mrs. Wilson; he sought the introduction, he was greatly struck with me, she said. Well, in a short time he made me an offer. I was urged by my father and mother, by all, to accept him; his wealth and position, good nature, good heart, were strongly insisted on—I did accept him! Mind, I take the full burden of that act on myself. I loved him, as hundreds love, who marry in a good position. I do honestly believe as a rich man I could have made him a good wife—but ruined! there are all sorts of hardships, need of deepest love to endure them, and this, alas!—folly! I feel all this is idle talk; while I speak, I know Fred’s answer, yet I should like to hear some one pronounce the words. Am I still bound to George Newton?”
Called upon to be a counsellor, confided in as a father confessor, stung to the quick by a sense of his utter unworthiness for such a position, shamed at his own base weakness—yes, and the very words which he ought to speak placed in his month by the strength of her who was asking support of him—worst of all, to have to play the impostor, assuming a moral authority to which he had forfeited all claim—
“Am I bound, Karlo Magno?” she thought in his silence he was wisely pondering her words.
“You are bound, Lilian,” he replied, affecting as much decision as lay in his power.
“Enough,” she replied with great calmness. “I can go and see him now. Karlo Magno! you have helped me to do what is right—I must have failed but for you.”
Ah! the bitter mockery of her words, to wear the star of honour on a heart conscious of shame.
Westby sought to change the current of the conversation.
“You talk about being ruined,” said he. “I hope things are not as bad as that!”
“Mr. Newton told me so!”
“Well, I’ve every hope when Newton gets away that we shall be able to make some compromise, so that after all his loss may not be very serious.”
“Why did he try me in that manner?” ex claimed Lilian vehemently; “it was cruel, very cruel.”
“Pardon me, it was only honourable to state the worst.”
“Well, well, he might have had my answer at once, this afternoon as we rode along—the words of assurance were on my lips, but he stopped me, he would hear nothing till I had thought the matter over—he left me, and then came thought and horrid doubt.”
“Lilian, he acted well!”
“Not ruined! Oh I thank God for that. Why then this is but a temporary affair, he may come back shortly.”
“He may! Nay, Lilian, I promise that he shall,” exclaimed Westby, earnestly. “I assure you, on my honour, that I will work for him in this business, as I would work for a brother, to set him right.”
Work was Westby’s ointment for remorse.
“Karlo Magno, you are my good genius—you always appear at the right moment—”
But she would clasp his hand, and her face bore the same expression he remembered so well that evening at Brienz. He had not begun to love then, and he had ceased to love now—his foolish, morbid love was utterly quenched in a deep sense of shame. She was no other to him now than Fred Temple’s sister, engaged to his oldest friend—fairy Lilian, if you will, the playmate of early years.
And he in her eyes still bore that same greatness which had fascinated her heart in Switzerland—a being too great and grand for her poor trivial nature—an idol to be admired, or rather worshipped at the heart’s shrine. Ah, Lilian, Lilian, our finest idols are only made of clay!
“Not ruined!” exclaimed Lilian to Mrs. Wilson, as that lady entered the room. “Not ruined! Mr. Westby tells me so. Mr. Newton will doubtless get over this misfortune without great loss.”
“If you please, ma’am,” said the butler, entering the room, “there’s a man at the door inquiring for Mr. Newton. He wants to see him on particular business.”
“Detain him in conversation as long as you can,” replied Mrs. Wilson. “I know I can trust to your discretion, Simmons: mind, not a word in the house that we are gone. We will go through the French window in the library, instead of going out at the hall, and then by the garden to the stable-yard.”
Mrs. Wilson’s brougham was ready at the stable door—the man was at the horse’s head.
“Beg your pardon, sir,” said the man to Westby, “you’ll want a thick coat on the downs.”
“All right; jump up!” cried Westby, catching off the horsecloth, and throwing it over his shoulders.
The horse felt the cold wind, plunged, kicked, and then went a head.
“Frost, sir!” said the man.
“Is it?” rejoined Westby. He felt burning hot.
The wide sky was thick with stars at their brightest in the frosty air; the clear open plain was filled with a low undertone of light.
Pretty work for the “whip”—two wheels in a cart-rut all the way up-hill, and the other two wheels wherever they could manage to pitch, the horse remarkably fresh.
“Look out!” cried Westby, “that dip ahead!”
The man turned the horse, the brougham swerved to one side with a violent jerk, but at the speed they were going was caught up by a rise in the ground. All safe. Swish! swish! swish! they were driving right through a field of swedes. One deepish drop, and they got safe on to the Devizes road.
“Which way, sir?”
You could see the white chalk line of the road right ahead in the dim light.
“I can hardly hold him, sir.”
“Give him his head then!”
Up and down the sharp dippy hills in the chalk road, the frosty wind fanning Westby’s cheeks.
“Turn on to the turf now—to the left. That’s the track! We must leave that plantation to the right.”
“Now then, foolish!” The horse started and swerved at a white mass in front. “Whohooo! it’s only a sheep,” cried the man, flicking at it with his whip. Crish! crish! crish! went the wheels against the frosted furrows. “Whoa! they’ve been ploughing it up here. Back! back! That’s right! Now away to the left! We shall get to the road directly.”
“Any breath left, ladies?” said Westby, as he opened the door.
“Let me hope the best for the springs,” replied Mrs. Wilson, goodhumouredly. “I trust we shall be allowed to go home in peace by the road.”
“Lilian,” said a voice behind. It was George Newton: he led her into the house.