The Small House at Allington/Chapter 52
THE FIRST VISIT TO THE GUESTWICK BRIDGE.
When John Eames arrived at Guestwick Manor, he was first welcomed by Lady Julia. "My dear Mr. Eames," she said, "I cannot tell you how glad we are to see you." After that she always called him John, and treated him throughout his visit with wonderful kindness. No doubt that affair of the bull had in some measure produced this feeling; no doubt, also, she was well disposed to the man who she hoped might be accepted as a lover by Lily Dale. But I am inclined to think that the fact of his having beaten Crosbie had been the most potential cause of this affection for our hero on the part of Lady Julia. Ladies,—especially discreet old ladies, such as Lady Julia de Guest,—are bound to entertain pacific theories, and to condemn all manner of violence. Lady Julia would have blamed any one who might have advised Eames to commit an assault upon Crosbie. But, nevertheless, deeds of prowess are still dear to the female heart, and a woman, be she ever so old and discreet, understands and appreciates the summary justice which may be done by means of a thrashing. Lady Julia, had she been called upon to talk of it, would undoubtedly have told Eames that he had committed a fault in striking Mr. Crosbie; but the deed had been done, and Lady Julia became very fond of John Eames.
"Vickers shall show you your room, if you like to go upstairs; but you'll find my brother close about the house if you choose to go out; I saw him not half an hour since." But John seemed to be well satisfied to sit in the arm-chair over the fire, and talk to his hostess; so neither of them moved.
"And now that you're a private secretary, how do you like it?"
"I like the work well enough; only I don't like the man, Lady Julia. But I shouldn't say so, because he is such an intimate friend of your brother's."
"An intimate friend of Theodore's!—Sir Raffle Buffle!" Lady Julia stiffened her back and put on a serious face, not being exactly pleased at being told that the Earl de Guest had any such intimate friend.
"At any rate he tells me so about four times a day, Lady Julia. And he particularly wants to come down here next September."
"Did he tell you that, too?"
"Indeed he did. You can't believe what a goose he is! Then his voice sounds like a cracked bell; it's the most disagreeable voice you ever heard in your life. And one has always to be on one's guard lest he should make one do something that is—is—that isn't quite the thing for a gentleman. You understand;—what the messenger ought to do."
"You shouldn't be too much afraid of your own dignity."
"No, I'm not. If Lord de Guest were to ask me to fetch him his shoes, I'd run to Guestwick and back for them and think nothing of it,—just because I know he's my friend. He'd have a right to send me. But I'm not going to do such things as that for Sir Raffle Buffle."
"Fetch him his shoes!"
"That's what FitzHoward had to do, and he didn't like it."
"Isn't Mr. FitzHoward nephew to the Duchess of St. Bungay?"
"Nephew, or cousin, or something."
"Dear me!" said Lady Julia, "what a horrible man!" And in this way John Eames and her ladyship became very intimate.
There was no one at dinner at the Manor that day but the earl and his sister and their single guest. The earl when he came in was very warm in his welcome, slapping his young friend on the back, and poking jokes at him with a good-humoured if not brilliant pleasantry.
"Thrashed anybody lately, John?"
"Nobody to speak of," said Johnny.
"Brought your nightcap down for your out-o'-doors nap?"
"No; but I've got a grand stick for the bull," said Johnny.
"Ah! that's no joke now, I can tell you," said the earl. "We had to sell him, and it half broke my heart. We don't know what had come to him, but he became quite unruly after that;—knocked Darvell down in the straw-yard! It was a very bad business,—a very bad business, indeed! Come, go and dress. Do you remember how you came down to dinner that day? I shall never forget how Crofts stared at you. Come, you've only got twenty minutes, and you London fellows always want an hour."
"He's entitled to some consideration now he's a private secretary," said Lady Julia.
"Bless us all! yes; I forgot that. Come, Mr. Private Secretary, don't stand on the grandeur of your neck-tie to-day, as there's nobody here but ourselves. You shall have an opportunity tomorrow."
Then Johnny was handed over to the groom of the chambers, and exactly in twenty minutes he re-appeared in the drawing-room.
As soon as Lady Julia had left them after dinner, the earl began to explain his plan for the coming campaign. "I'll tell you now what I have arranged," said he. "The squire is to be here tomorrow with his eldest niece,—your Miss Lily's sister, you know."
"Yes, with Bell, if her name is Bell. She's a very pretty girl, too. I don't know whether she's not the prettiest of the two, after all."
"That's a matter of opinion."
"Just so, Johnny; and do you stick to your own. They're coming here for three or four days. Lady Julia did ask Mrs. Dale and Lily. I wonder whether you'll let me call her Lily?"
"Oh, dear! I wish I might have the power of letting you."
"That's just the battle that you've got to fight. But the mother and the younger sister wouldn't come. Lady Julia says it's all right;—that, as a matter of course, she wouldn't come when she heard you were to be here. I don't quite understand it. In my days the young girls were ready enough to go where they knew they'd meet their lovers, and I never thought any the worse of them for it."
"It wasn't because of that," said Eames.
"That's what Lady Julia says, and I always find her to be right in things of that sort. And she says you'll have a better chance in going over there than you would here, if she were in the same house with you. If I was going to make love to a girl, of course I'd sooner have her close to me,—staying in the same house. I should think it the best fun in the world. And we might have had a dance, and all that kind of thing. But I couldn't make her come, you know."
"Oh, no; of course not."
"And Lady Julia thinks that it's best as it is. You must go over, you know, and get the mother on your side, if you can. I take it, the truth is this;—you mustn't be angry with me, you know, for saying it."
"You may be sure of that."
"I suppose she was fond of that fellow, Crosbie. She can't be very fond of him now, I should think, after the way he has treated her; but she'll find a difficulty in making her confession that she really likes you better than she ever liked him. Of course that's what you'll want her to say."
"I want her to say that she'll be my wife,—some day."
"And when she has agreed to the some day, then you'll begin to press her to agree to your day;—eh, sir? My belief is you'll bring her round. Poor girl! why should she break her heart when a decent fellow like you will only be too glad to make her a happy woman?" And in this way the earl talked to Eames till the latter almost believed that the difficulties were vanishing from out of his path. "Could it be possible," he asked himself, as he went to bed, "that in a fortnight's time Lily Dale should have accepted him as her future husband?" Then he remembered that day on which Crosbie, with the two girls, had called at his mother's house, when, in the bitterness of his heart, he had sworn to himself that he would always regard Crosbie as his enemy. Since then the world had gone well with him; and he had no longer any very bitter feeling against Crosbie. That matter had been arranged on the platform of the Paddington Station. He felt that if Lily would now accept him he could almost shake hands with Crosbie. The episode in his life and in Lily's would have been painful; but he would learn to look back upon that without regret, if Lily could be taught to believe that a kind fate had at last given her to the better of her two lovers. "I'm afraid she won't bring herself to forget him," he had said to the earl. "She'll only be too happy to forget him," the earl had answered, "if you can induce her to begin the attempt. Of course it is very bitter at first;—all the world knew about it; but, poor girl, she is not to be wretched for ever, because of that. Do you go about your work with some little confidence, and I don't doubt but what you'll have your way. You have everybody in your favour,—the squire, her mother, and all." While such words as these were in his ears how could he fail to hope and to be confident? While he was sitting cozily over his bedroom fire he resolved that it should be as the earl had said. But when he got up on the following morning, and stood shivering as he came out of his bath, he could not feel the same confidence. "Of course I shall go to her," he said to himself, "and make a plain story of it. But I know what her answer will be. She will tell me that she cannot forget him." Then his feelings towards Crosbie were not so friendly as they had been on the previous evening.
He did not visit the Small House on that, his first day. It had been thought better that he should first meet the squire and Bell at Guestwick Manor, so he postponed his visit to Mrs. Dale till the next morning.
"Go when you like," said the earl. "There's the brown cob for you to do what you like with him while you are here."
"I'll go and see my mother," said John; "but I won't take the cob to-day. If you'll let me have him to-morrow, I'll ride to Allington." So he walked off to Guestwick by himself.
He knew well every yard of the ground over which he went, remembering every gate and stile and greensward from the time of his early boyhood. And now as he went along through his old haunts, he could not but look back and think of the thoughts which had filled his mind in his earlier wanderings. As I have said before, in some of these pages, no walks taken by the man are so crowded with thought as those taken by the boy. He had been early taught to understand that the world to him would be very hard; that he had nothing to look to but his own exertions, and that those exertions would not, unfortunately, be backed by any great cleverness of his own. I do not know that anybody had told him that he was a fool; but he had come to understand, partly through his own modesty, and partly, no doubt, through the somewhat obtrusive diffidence of his mother, that he was less sharp than other lads. It is probably true that he had come to his sharpness later in life than is the case with many young men. He had not grown on the sunny side of the wall. Before that situation in the Income-tax Office had fallen in his way, very humble modes of life had offered themselves,—or, rather, had not offered themselves for his acceptance. He had endeavoured to become an usher at a commercial seminary, not supposed to be in a very thriving condition; but he had been, luckily, found deficient in his arithmetic. There had been some chance of his going into the leather-warehouse of Messrs. Basil and Pigskin, but those gentlemen had required a premium, and any payment of that kind had been quite out of his mother's power. A country attorney, who had known the family for years, had been humbly solicited, the widow almost kneeling before him with tears, to take Johnny by the hand and make a clerk of him; but the attorney had discovered that Master Johnny Eames was not supposed to be sharp, and would have none of him. During those days, those gawky, gainless, unadmired days, in which he had wandered about the lanes of Guestwick as his only amusement, and had composed hundreds of rhymes in honour of Lily Dale which no human eye but his own had ever seen, he had come to regard himself as almost a burden upon the earth. Nobody seemed to want him. His own mother was very anxious; but her anxiety seemed to him to indicate a continual desire to get rid of him. For hours upon hours he would fill his mind with castles in the air, dreaming of wonderful successes in the midst of which Lily Dale always reigned as a queen. He would carry on the same story in his imagination from month to month, almost contenting himself with such ideal happiness. Had it not been for the possession of that power, what comfort could there have been to him in his life? There are lads of seventeen who can find happiness in study, who can busy themselves in books and be at their ease among the creations of other minds. These are they who afterwards become well-informed men. It was not so with John Eames. He had never been studious. The perusal of a novel was to him in those days a slow affair; and of poetry he read but little, storing up accurately in his memory all that he did read. But he created for himself his own romance, though to the eye a most unromantic youth; and he wandered through the Guestwick woods with many thoughts of which they who knew him best knew nothing. All this he thought of now as, with devious steps, he made his way towards his old home;—with very devious steps, for he went backwards through the woods by a narrow path which led right away from the town down to a little water-course, over which stood a wooden foot-bridge with a rail. He stood on the centre of the plank, at a spot which he knew well, and rubbing his hand upon the rail, cleansed it for the space of a few inches of the vegetable growth produced by the spray of the water. There, rudely carved in the wood, was still the word LILY. When he cut those letters she had been almost a child. "I wonder whether she will come here with me and let me show it to her," he said to himself. Then he took out his knife and cleared the cuttings of the letters, and having done so, leaned upon the rail, and looked down upon the running water. How well things in the world had gone for him! How well! And yet what would it all be if Lily would not come to him? How well the world had gone for him! In those days when he stood there carving the girl's name everybody had seemed to regard him as a heavy burden, and he had so regarded himself. Now he was envied by many, respected by many, taken by the hand as a friend by those high in the world's esteem. When he had come near the Guestwick Mansion in his old walks,—always, however, keeping at a great distance lest the grumpy old lord should be down upon him and scold him,—he had little dreamed that he and the grumpy old lord would ever be together on such familiar terms, that he would tell to that lord more of his private thoughts than to any other living being; yet it had come to that. The grumpy old lord had now told him that that gift of money was to be his whether Lily Dale accepted him or no. "Indeed, the thing's done," said the grumpy lord, pulling out from his pocket certain papers, "and you've got to receive the dividends as they become due." Then, when Johnny had expostulated,—as, indeed, the circumstances had left him no alternative but to expostulate,—the earl had roughly bade him hold his tongue, telling him that he would have to fetch Sir Raffle's boots directly he got back to London. So the conversation had quickly turned itself away to Sir Raffle, whom they had both ridiculed with much satisfaction. "If he finds his way down here in September, Master Johnny, or in any other month either, you may fit my head with a foolscap. Not remember, indeed! Is it not wonderful that any man should make himself so mean a fool?" All this was thought over again, as Eames leaned upon the bridge. He remembered every word, and remembered many other words,—earlier words, spoken years ago, filling him with desolation as to the prospects of his life. It had seemed that his friends had united in prophesying that the outlook into the world for him was hopeless, and that the earning of bread must be for ever beyond his power. And now his lines had fallen to him in very pleasant places, and he was among those whom the world had determined to caress. And yet, what would it all be if Lily would not share his happiness? When he had carved that name on the rail, his love for Lily had been an idea. It had now become a reality which might probably be full of pain. If it were so,—if such should be the result of his wooing,—would not those old dreamy days have been better than these—the days of his success?
It was one o'clock by the time that he reached his mother's house, and he found her and his sister in a troubled and embarrassed state. "Of course you know, John," said his mother, as soon as their first embraces were over, "that we are going to dine at the Manor this evening?" But he did not know it, neither the earl nor Lady Julia having said anything on the subject. "Of course we are going," said Mrs. Eames, "and it was so very kind. But I've never been out to such a house for so many years, John, and I do feel in such a twitter. I dined there once, soon after we were married; but I never have been there since that."
"It's not the earl I mind, but Lady Julia," said Mary Eames.
"She's the most good-natured woman in the world," said Johnny.
"Oh, dear; people say she is so cross!"
"That's because people don't know her. If I was asked who is the kindest-hearted woman I know in the world, I think I should say Lady Julia de Guest. I think I should."
"Ah! but then they're so fond of you," said the admiring mother. "You saved his lordship's life,—under Providence."
"That's all bosh, mother. You ask Dr. Crofts. He knows them as well as I do."
"Dr. Crofts is going to marry Bell Dale," said Mary; and then the conversation was turned from the subject of Lady Julia's perfections, and the awe inspired by the earl.
"Crofts going to marry Bell!" exclaimed Eames, thinking almost with dismay of the doctor's luck in thus getting himself accepted all at once, while he had been suing with the constancy almost of a Jacob.
"Yes," said Mary; "and they say that she has refused her cousin Bernard, and that, therefore, the squire is taking away the house from them. You know they're all coming into Guestwick."
"Yes, I know they are. But I don't believe that the squire is taking away the house."
"Why should they come then? Why should they give up such a charming place as that?"
"Rent-free!" said Mrs. Eames.
"I don't know why they should come away, but I can't believe the squire is turning them out; at any rate not for that reason." The squire was prepared to advocate John's suit, and therefore John was bound to do battle on the squire's behalf.
"He is a very stern man," said Mrs. Eames, "and they say that since that affair of poor Lily's he has been more cross than ever with them. As far as I know, it was not Lily's fault."
"Poor Lily!" said Mary. "I do pity her. If I was her I should hardly know how to show my face; I shouldn't, indeed."
"And why shouldn't she show her face?" said John, in an angry tone. "What has she done to be ashamed of? Show her face indeed! I cannot understand the spite which one woman will sometimes have to another."
"There is no spite, John; and it's very wrong of you to say so," said Mary, defending herself. "But it is a very unpleasant thing for a girl to be jilted. All the world knows that she was engaged to him."
"And all the world knows——" But he would not proceed to declare that all the world knew also that Crosbie had been well thrashed for his baseness. It would not become him to mention that even before his mother and sister. All the world did know it; all the world that cared to know anything of the matter;—except Lily Dale herself. Nobody had ever yet told Lily Dale of that occurrence at the Paddington Railway Station, and it was well for John that her friends and his had been so discreet.
"Oh, of course you are her champion," said Mary. "And I didn't mean to say anything unkind. Indeed I didn't. Of course it was a misfortune."
"I think it was the best piece of good fortune that could have happened to her, not to marry a d—— scoundrel like ——"
"Oh, John!" exclaimed Mrs. Eames.
"I beg your pardon, mother. But it isn't swearing to call such a man as that a d—— scoundrel." And he particularly emphasized the naughty word, thinking that thereby he would add to its import, and take away from its naughtiness. "But we won't talk any more about him. I hate the man's very name. I hated him the first moment that I saw him, and knew that he was a blackguard from his look. And I don't believe a word about the squire having been cross to them. Indeed I know he has been the reverse of cross. So Bell is going to marry Dr. Crofts!"
"There is no doubt on earth about that," said Mary. "And they say that Bernard Dale is going abroad with his regiment."
Then John discussed with his mother his duties as private secretary, and his intention of leaving Mrs. Roper's house. "I suppose it isn't nice enough for you now, John," said his mother.
"It never was very nice, mother, to tell you the truth. There were people there——. But you mustn't think I am turning up my nose because I'm getting grand. I don't want to live any better than we all lived at Mrs. Roper's; but she took in persons that were not agreeable. There is a Mr. and Mrs. Lupex there." Then he described something of their life in Burton Crescent, but did not say much about Amelia Roper. Amelia Roper had not made her appearance in Guestwick, as he had once feared that she would do; and therefore it did not need that he should at present make known to his mother that episode in his life.
When he got back to the Manor House he found that Mr. Dale and his niece had arrived. They were both sitting with Lady Julia when he went into the morning room, and Lord de Guest was standing over the fire talking to them. Eames as he came among them felt terribly conscious of his position, as though all there were aware that he had been brought down from London on purpose to make a declaration of love;—as, indeed, all of them were aware of that fact. Bell, though no one had told her so in direct words, was as sure of it as the others.
"Here comes the prince of matadores," said the earl.
"No, my lord; you're the prince. I'm only your first follower." Though he could contrive that his words should be gay, his looks were sheepish, and when he gave his hand to the squire it was only by a struggle that he could bring himself to look straight into the old man's face.
"I'm very glad to see you, John," said the squire, "very glad indeed."
"And so am I," said Bell. "I have been so happy to hear that you have been promoted at your office, and so is mamma."
"I hope Mrs. Dale is quite well," said he;—"and Lily." The word had been pronounced, but it had been done with so manifest an effort that all in the room were conscious of it, and paused as Bell prepared her little answer.
"My sister has been very ill, you know,—with scarlatina. But she has recovered with wonderful quickness, and is nearly well again now. She will be so glad to see you if you will go over."
"Yes; I shall certainly go over," said John.
"And now shall I show you your room, Miss Dale?" said Lady Julia. And so the party was broken up, and the ice had been broken.