The Small House at Allington/Chapter 5

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Apollo Crosbie left London for Allington on the 31st of August, intending to stay there four weeks, with the declared intention of recruiting his strength by an absence of two months from official cares, and with no fixed purpose as to his destiny for the last of those two months. Offers of hospitality had been made to him by the dozen. Lady Hartletop's doors, in Shropshire, were open to him, if he chose to enter them. He had been invited by the Countess de Courcy to join her suite at Courcy Castle. His special friend Montgomerie Dobbs had a place in Scotland, and then there was a yachting party by which he was much wanted. But Mr. Crosbie had as yet knocked himself down to none of these biddings, having before him when he left London no other fixed engagement than that which took him to Allington. On the first of October we shall also find ourselves at Allington in company with Johnny Eames; and Apollo Crosbie will still be there,—by no means to the comfort of our friend from the Income-tax Office.

Johnny Eames cannot be called unlucky in that matter of his annual holiday, seeing that he was allowed to leave London in October, a month during which few chose to own that they remain in town. For myself, I always regard May as the best month for holiday-making; but then no Londoner cares to be absent in May. Young Eames, though he lived in Burton Crescent and had as yet no connection with the West End, had already learned his lesson in this respect. "Those fellows in the big room want me to take May," he had said to his friend Cradell. "They must think I'm uncommon green."

"It's too bad," said Cradell. "A man shouldn't be asked to take his leave in May. I never did, and what's more, I never will. I'd go to the Board first."

Eames had escaped this evil without going to the Board, and had succeeded in obtaining for himself for his own holiday that month of October, which, of all months, is perhaps the most highly esteemed for holiday purposes. "I shall go down by the mail-train to-morrow night," he said to Amelia Roper, on the evening before his departure. At that moment he was sitting alone with Amelia in Mrs. Roper's back drawing-room. In the front room Cradell was talking to Mrs. Lupex; but as Miss Spruce was with them, it may be presumed that Mr. Lupex need have had no cause for jealousy.

"Yes," said Amelia; "I know how great is your haste to get down to that fascinating spot. I could not expect that you would lose one single hour in hurrying away from Burton Crescent."

Amelia Roper was a tall, well-grown young woman, with dark hair and dark eyes;—not handsome, for her nose was thick, and the lower part of her face was heavy, but yet not without some feminine attractions. Her eyes were bright; but then, also, they were mischievous. She could talk fluently enough; but then, also, she could scold. She could assume sometimes the plumage of a dove; but then again she could occasionally ruffle her feathers like an angry kite. I am quite prepared to acknowledge that John Eames should have kept himself clear of Amelia Roper; but then young men so frequently do those things which they should not do!

"After twelve months up here in London one is glad to get away to one's own friends," said Johnny.

"Your own friends, Mr. Eames! What sort of friends? Do you suppose I don't know?"

"Well, no. I don't think you do know."

"L. D.!" said Amelia, showing that Lily had been spoken of among people who should never have been allowed to hear her name. But perhaps, after all, no more than those two initials were known in Burton Crescent. From the tone which was now used in naming them, it was sufficiently manifest that Amelia considered herself to be wronged by their very existence.

"L. S. D.," said Johnny, attempting the line of a witty, gay young spendthrift. "That's my love; pounds, shillings, and pence; and a very coy mistress she is."

"Nonsense, sir. Don't talk to me in that way. As if I didn't know where your heart was. What right had you to speak to me if you had an L. D. down in the country?"

It should be here declared on behalf of poor John Eames that he had not ever spoken to Amelia—he had not spoken to her in any such phrase as her words seemed to imply. But then he had written to her a fatal note of which we will speak further before long, and that perhaps was quite as bad,—or worse.

"Ha, ha, ha!" laughed Johnny. But the laugh was assumed, and not assumed with ease.

"Yes, sir; it's a laughing matter to you, I dare say. It is very easy for a man to laugh under such circumstances;—that is to say, if he is perfectly heartless,—if he's got a stone inside his bosom instead of flesh and blood. Some men are made of stone, I know, and are troubled with no feelings."

"What is it you want me to say? You pretend to know all about it, and it wouldn't be civil in me to contradict you."

"What is it I want? You know very well what I want; or rather, I don't want anything. What is it to me? It is nothing to me about L. D. You can go down to Allington and do what you like for me. Only I hate such ways."

"What ways, Amelia?"

"What ways! Now, look here, Johnny: I'm not going to make a fool of myself for any man. When I came home here three months ago—and I wish I never had;"—she paused here a moment, waiting for a word of tenderness; but as the word of tenderness did not come, she went on—"but when I did come home, I didn't think there was a man in all London could make me care for him,—that I didn't. And now you're going away, without so much as hardly saying a word to me." And then she brought out her handkerchief.

"What am I to say, when you keep on scolding me all the time?"

"Scolding you!—And me too! No, Johnny, I ain't scolding you, and don't mean to. If it's to be all over between us, say the word, and I'll take myself away out of the house before you come back again. I've had no secrets from you. I can go back to my business in Manchester, though it is beneath my birth, and not what I've been used to. If L. D. is more to you than I am, I won't stand in your way. Only say the word."

L. D. was more to him than Amelia Roper,—ten times more to him. L. D. would have been everything to him, and Amelia Roper was worse than nothing. He felt all this at the moment, and struggled hard to collect an amount of courage that would make him free.

"Say the word," said she, rising on her feet before him, "and all between you and me shall be over. I have got your promise, but I'd scorn to take advantage. If Amelia hasn't got your heart, she'd despise to take your hand. Only I must have an answer."

It would seem that an easy way of escape was offered to him; but the lady probably knew that the way as offered by her was not easy to such an one as John Eames.

"Amelia," he said, still keeping his seat.

"Well, sir?"

"You know I love you."

"And about L. D.?"

"If you choose to believe all the nonsense that Cradell puts into your head, I can't help it. If you like to make yourself jealous about two letters, it isn't my fault."

"And you love me?" said she.

"Of course I love you." And then, upon hearing these words, Amelia threw herself into his arms.

As the folding doors between the two rooms were not closed, and as Miss Spruce was sitting in her easy chair immediately opposite to them, it was probable that she saw what passed. But Miss Spruce was a taciturn old lady, not easily excited to any show of surprise or admiration; and as she had lived with Mrs. Roper for the last twelve years, she was probably well acquainted with her daughter's ways.

"You'll be true to me?" said Amelia, during the moment of that embrace—"true to me for ever?"

"Oh, yes; that's a matter of course," said Johnny Eames. And then she liberated him; and the two strolled into the front sitting-room.

"I declare, Mr. Eames," said Mrs. Lupex, "I'm glad you've come. Here's Mr. Cradell does say such queer things."

"Queer things!" said Cradell. "Now, Miss Spruce, I appeal to you—Have I said any queer things?"

"If you did, sir, I didn't notice them," said Miss Spruce.

"I noticed them, then," said Mrs. Lupex. "An unmarried man like Mr. Cradell has no business to know whether a married lady wears a cap or her own hair—has he, Mr. Eames?"

"I don't think I ever know," said Johnny, not intending any sarcasm on Mrs. Lupex.

"I dare say not, sir," said the lady. "We all know where your attention is riveted. If you were to wear a cap, my dear,
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"And you love me!" said she.

somebody would see the difference very soon—wouldn't they, Miss Spruce?"

"I dare say they would," said Miss Spruce.

"If I could look as nice in a cap as you do, Mrs. Lupex, I'd wear one to-morrow," said Amelia, who did not wish to quarrel with the married lady at the present moment. There were occasions, however, on which Mrs. Lupex and Miss Roper were by no means so gracious to each other.

"Does Lupex like caps?" asked Cradell.

"If I wore a plumed helmet on my head, it's my belief he wouldn't know the difference; nor yet if I had got no head at all. That's what comes of getting married. If you'll take my advice, Miss Roper, you'll stay as you are; even though somebody should break his heart about it. Wouldn't you, Miss Spruce?"

"Oh, as for me, I'm an old woman, you know," said Miss Spruce, which was certainly true.

"I don't see what any woman gets by marrying," continued Mrs. Lupex. "But a man gains everything. He don't know how to live, unless he's got a woman to help him."

"But is love to go for nothing?" said Cradell.

"Oh, love! I don't believe in love. I suppose I thought I loved once, but what did it come to after all? Now, there's Mr. Eames—we all know he's in love."

"It comes natural to me, Mrs. Lupex. I was born so," said Johnny.

"And there's Miss Roper—one never ought to speak free about a lady, but perhaps she's in love too."

"Speak for yourself, Mrs. Lupex," said Amelia.

"There's no harm in saying that, is there? I'm sure, if you ain't, you're very hard-hearted; for, if ever there was a true lover, I believe you've got one of your own. My!—if there's not Lupex's step on the stair! What can bring him home at this hour? If he's been drinking, he'll come home as cross as anything." Then Mr. Lupex entered the room, and the pleasantness of the party was destroyed.

It may be said that neither Mrs. Cradell nor Mrs. Eames would have placed their sons in Burton Crescent if they had known the dangers into which the young men would fall. Each, it must be acknowledged, was imprudent; but each clearly saw the imprudence of the other. Not a week before this, Cradell had seriously warned his friend against the arts of Miss Roper. "By George, Johnny, you'll get yourself entangled with that girl."

"One always has to go through that sort of thing," said Johnny.

"Yes; but those who go through too much of it never get out again. Where would you be if she got a written promise of marriage from you?"

Poor Johnny did not answer this immediately, for in very truth Amelia Roper had such a document in her possession.

"Where should I be?" said he. "Among the breaches of promise, I suppose."

"Either that, or else among the victims of matrimony. My belief of you is, that if you gave such a promise, you'd carry it out."

"Perhaps I should," said Johnny; "but I don't know. It's a matter of doubt what a man ought to do in such a case."

"But there's been nothing of that kind yet?"

"Oh dear, no!"

"If I was you, Johnny, I'd keep away from her. It's very good fun, of course, that sort of thing; but it is so uncommon dangerous! Where would you be now with such a girl as that for your wife?"

Such had been the caution given by Cradell to his friend. And now, just as he was starting for Allington, Eames returned the compliment. They had gone together to the Great Western station at Paddington, and Johnny tendered his advice as they were walking together up and down the platform.

"I say, Caudle, old boy, you'll find yourself in trouble with that Mrs. Lupex, if you don't take care of yourself."

"But I shall take care of myself. There's nothing so safe as a little nonsense with a married woman. Of course, it means nothing, you know, between her and me."

"I don't suppose it does mean anything. But she's always talking about Lupex being jealous; and if he was to cut up rough, you wouldn't find it pleasant."

Cradell, however, seemed to think that there was no danger. His little affair with Mrs. Lupex was quite platonic and safe. As for doing any real harm, his principles, as he assured his friend, were too high. Mrs. Lupex was a woman of talent, whom no one seemed to understand, and, therefore, he had taken some pleasure in studying her character. It was merely a study of character, and nothing more. Then the friends parted, and Eames was carried away by the night mail-train down to Guestwick.

How his mother was up to receive him at four o'clock in the morning, how her maternal heart was rejoicing at seeing the improvement in his gait, and the manliness of appearance imparted to him by his whiskers I need not describe at length. Many of the attributes of a hobbledehoy had fallen from him, and even Lily Dale might now probably acknowledge that he was no longer a boy. All which might be regarded as good, if only in putting off childish things he had taken up things which were better than childish.

On the very first day of his arrival he made his way over to Allington. He did not walk on this occasion as he had used to do in the old happy days. He had an idea that it might not be well for him to go into Mrs. Dale's drawing-room with the dust of the road on his boots, and the heat of the day on his brow. So he borrowed a horse and rode over, taking some pride in a pair of spurs which he had bought in Piccadilly, and in his kid gloves, which were brought out new for the occasion. Alas, alas! I fear that those two years in London have not improved John Eames; and yet I have to acknowledge that John Eames is one of the heroes of my story.

On entering Mrs. Dale's drawing-room he found Mrs. Dale and her eldest daughter. Lily at the moment was not there, and as he shook hands with the other two, of course, he asked for her.

"She is only in the garden," said Bell. "She will be here directly."

"She has walked across to the Great House with Mr. Crosbie," said Mrs. Dale; "but she is not going to remain. She will be so glad to see you, John! We all expected you to-day."

"Did you?" said Johnny, whose heart had been plunged into cold water at the mention of Mr. Crosbie's name. He had been thinking of Lilian Dale ever since his friend had left him on the railway platform; and, as I beg to assure all ladies who may read my tale, the truth of his love for Lily had moulted no feather through that unholy liaison between him and Miss Roper. I fear that I shall be disbelieved in this; but it was so. His heart was and ever had been true to Lilian, although he had allowed himself to be talked into declarations of affection by such a creature as Amelia Roper. He had been thinking of his meeting with Lily all the night and throughout the morning, and now he heard that she was walking alone about the gardens with a strange gentleman. That Mr. Crosbie was very grand and very fashionable he had heard, but he knew no more of him. Why should Mr. Crosbie be allowed to walk with Lily Dale? And why should Mrs. Dale mention the circumstance as though it were quite a thing of course? Such mystery as there was in this was solved very quickly.

"I'm sure Lily won't object to my telling such a dear friend as you what has happened," said Mrs. Dale. "She is engaged to be married to Mr. Crosbie."

The water into which Johnny's heart had been plunged now closed over his head and left him speechless. Lily Dale was engaged to be married to Mr. Crosbie! He knew that he should have spoken when he heard the tidings. He knew that the moments of silence as they passed by told his secret to the two women before him,—that secret which it would now behove him to conceal from all the world. But yet he could not speak.

"We are all very well pleased at the match," said Mrs. Dale, wishing to spare him.

"Nothing can be nicer than Mr. Crosbie," said Bell. "We have often talked about you, and he will be so happy to know you."

"He won't know much about me," said Johnny; and even in speaking these few senseless words—words which he uttered because it was necessary that he should say something—the tone of his voice was altered. He would have given the world to have been master of himself at this moment, but he felt that he was utterly vanquished.

"There is Lily coming across the lawn," said Mrs. Dale.

"Then I'd better go," said Eames. "Don't say anything about it; pray don't." And then, without waiting for another word, he escaped out of the drawing-room.