Wrecked in Port/Book III, Chapter IX

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Chapter IX.For Once Gertrude Takes the Lead.

The lives of the two girls at Lady Caroline's were so completely happy, that they were induced to doubt whether they had ever really lived before. The difference between their racketty, disorderly, Bohemian existence while their father was alive, the pinched and poverty-stricken home which they shared with their mother until her death, and the refined comforts and luxuries which awaited them at their uncle's, was, of course, very great. But they were too young to feel it at the time, and they had come to look upon Woolgreaves as their home, and until Marian Ashurst entered upon it as its Mistress, as an epitome of everything that was charming. Lady Caroline's house was much smaller than Woolgreaves; her income, probably, was nothing like their uncle's; and yet about her house and her servants, her carriage, and everything she has, there was a stamp of refinement and of good taste, springing from high breeding, such as they had never witnessed, even under Mrs. Creswell's régime; and whatever other fault the girls found with Mrs. Creswell, they invariably allowed her the possession of good taste. And Lady Caroline herself was so different, so immeasurably superior to any woman they had ever seen. With the exception of Lady Churchill, they had known no one save the village people and the wives of the principal manufacturers at Brocksopp, who had been daughters of other principal manufacturers at Shuttleworth and Combcardingham, and might have been made in one mould, or punched out of one piece; and Lady Churchill was a stupid old woman in a brown front, who, as Gertrude knew, said "obleege," and "apurn" for apron, and "know-ledge," and nearly drove you mad by the way in which she stared at you and rubbed her nose with a knitting-needle, while you were attempting to find conversation for her. But, in the girls' eyes. Lady Caroline was perfection; and it would have been indeed odd had they not thought her so, as, for reasons best known to herself, she went in more determinedly to make herself agreeable to them than she had done to any one for some years previous.

One reason was that she liked the girls, and was agreeably disappointed in them; she had expected to find them provincial parvenues, thrown upon her by their quarrel with a person of similar position and disposition with themselves, and had found them quiet lady-like young women, unpretentious, unobtrusive, and thoroughly grateful to her for the home which she had offered them in their time of need. From the step which she had taken so chivalrously Lady Caroline never shrank, but she told the girls plainly, in the presence of Mr. Joyce, that she thought it highly desirable that the fact of their being there as her guests should be officially made known to Mr. Creswell, to whom every consideration was due. As to Mrs. Creswell, there was no necessity to acknowledge her in the matter; but Mr. Creswell was not merely their nearest blood relation, but, until adverse influences had been brought to bear upon him, he had proved himself their most excellent friend, and even at the last, so far as Lady Caroline could gather from Gertrude, had made some feeble kind of fight against their leaving his house. Mr. Joyce and the girls themselves were also of this opinion, Gertrude jumping at the prospect of any reconciliation with "dear old uncle," but avowing her determination to have nothing more to do with "that horrid madam;" and it was on Maud's suggestion, backed by Walter, that the services of Mr. Gould were employed for mediatory purposes. This was just before the election, and Mr. Gould declared it was utterly impossible for him to attend to anything that did not relate to blue and yellow topics; but a little later he wrote a very kind letter, announcing Mr. Creswell's illness, and deploring the strict necessity for keeping from the old gentleman any subjects of an exciting nature.

The corroboration of this bad news was brought to the little household in Chesterfield-street by Mr. Benthall, who, about that time, ran up to London for a week, and, it is needless to say, lost very little time in presenting himself to Miss Gertrude. The relations between the Helmingham schoolmaster and Gertrude Creswell were, of course, perfectly well known to Lady Caroline through Walter Joyce; who had explained to her ladyship that the causeless exclusion of Mr. Benthall from Woolgreaves had been the means of bringing about the final domestic catastrophe, and had led more immediately than anything else to the departure of the young ladies from their uncle's house. So that Lady Caroline was predisposed in the clergyman's favour, and the predisposition was by no means decreased when she made his acquaintance, and found him to be one of the Shropshire Benthalls, people of excellent family (a fact which always has immense weight with other people who can make the same boast), and essentially a man of the world and of society. A girl like Gertrude Creswell, who, charming though she was, was clearly nobody, might think herself lucky in getting a man of family to marry her. Of course Mrs. Creswell could not understand that kind of thing, and took a mere pounds-shillings-and-pence view of the question; but Mrs. Creswell had no real dominion over her husband's nieces, and as that husband was now too ill to be appealed to, and the girls were staying under her chaperonage, she should, in the exercise of her discretion, give Mr. Benthall full opportunity for seeing as much of Gertrude as he chose.

Lady Caroline did not come to this determination without consulting Walter Joyce, and Walter did not express his opinion without consulting Maud Creswell, of whose clear head and calm common sense he had conceived a high opinion. The joint decision being favourable, Mr. Benthall had a very happy holiday in London, finding, if such a thing were possible, his regard for Gertrude increased by the scarcely hidden admiration which the bright complexion, pretty hair, and trim figure of the country-girl evoked from the passers-by in the public places to which he escorted her. Indeed, so completely changed by an honest passion for an honest girl, was this, at one time, selfish and calculating man of the world, that he was most anxious to marry Gertrude at once, without any question of settlement or reference to her uncle; declaring that, however Mrs. Creswell might now choose to sneer at it, the school income had maintained a gentleman and his wife before, and could be made to do so again. Mr. Benthall spoke with such earnestness that Joyce conceived a much higher opinion of him than he had hitherto entertained, and would have counselled Lady Caroline to lend her aid to the accomplishment of the schoolmaster's wish, had it not been for Maud, who pointed out that in such a case a reference was undoubtedly due to their uncle, no matter what might be his supposed state of health. If he were really too ill to have the matter submitted to him, and an answer—which, of course, would be unfavourable—were to be received from Mrs. Creswell, they might then act on their own responsibility; with the feeling that they had done their duty towards the old gentleman, and without the smallest care as to what his wife might say. This view of Maud's, expressed to Joyce with much diffidence, at once convinced him of its soundness, and a little conversation with those most interested, showed them the wisdom of adopting it. Mr. Benthall wrote a straightforward manly letter to Mr. Creswell, asking consent to his marriage with Gertrude. The day after its despatch, Maud the impassible, who was reading the Times, gave a suppressed shriek, and let the paper fall to the ground. Joyce, who was sitting close by talking to Lady Caroline, picked it up, and read in it the announcement of Mr. Creswell's death.

Of course this news caused an indefinite postponement of the marriage. The two girls grieved with deep and heartfelt sorrow for the loss of the kind old man. All little differences of the past few months were forgotten. Marian had no part in their thoughts, which were all of the early days, when, two miserable little orphans, they were received at Woolgreaves, at once put into the position of daughters of the house, and where their every wish was studied and gratified. Gertrude's grief was especially violent, and she raved against the hard fate which had separated them from their uncle at a time when they would have so much wished to have been near him to minister to and nurse him. Evidence soon came that Mr. Creswell's sense of what was honourable and right had prevented him from allowing any recent events to influence his intentions towards his nieces. In his will they were mentioned as "my dearly loved Maud and Gertrude, daughters of my deceased brother Thomas, who have been to me as my own daughters during the greater part of their lives;" and to each of them was left the sum of ten thousand pounds on their coming of age or marriage. There were a few legacies to old servants and local charities, five hundred pounds each to Dr. Osborne and Mr. Teesdale, his two executors, and "all the rest of my property, real and personal, of every kind whatsoever, to my beloved wife Marian."

"And my beloved wife Marian will have about fifteen thousand a-year, as near as I can fix it," said Mr. Teesdale, as he left Woolgreaves, after the reading of the will; "and if the railway people take that twenty acres off that infernal Jack Ramsay's farm, about a couple of thou' more!"

It was not to be supposed that Mr. Benthall professed himself indifferent to the splendid legacy which Gertrude had inherited. As he had been willing and anxious to take her for herself, and to share what he had with her, so he was very much pleased to find that their future would be rendered considerably less anxious, and more comfortable than they had anticipated, and in his honest open-hearted way he did not scruple to say so. The death of their uncle did not make that any difference in the course of the girls' lives. They still remained with Lady Caroline, whose regard for them seemed to increase daily, and it was understood that they would continue to inhabit Chesterfield-street until Gertrude was married, and that after that event Maud would frequently return there, making it her London home, and visiting it whenever she was not staying with her sister. So at least Lady Caroline proposed, and begged Mr. Benthall to make the suggestion to Maud at the first convenient opportunity. The opportunity occurred very shortly, and arose from Maud's saying, when they were sitting together one morning,

"I saw Mr. Joyce yesterday, George, and took occasion to ask his advice on that matter."

"And what might that matter be, Maud? There are so many matters of importance on just now, that you must be more definite."

"It is well Gertrude is not here to hear you! In your present condition there should be only one matter of any importance to you, and that of course is——"

"Our marriage—to be sure! Well, you asked Joyce—what a wonderful fellow he is, by the way; his parliamentary business does not seem the least to have interfered with his writing, and with it all he seems to find time to come up here two or three times a week."

"He has the highest regard for Lady Caroline, and the greatest respect for her judgment," said Maud.

"Naturally, so have we all;" said Mr. Benthall, with a gradually spreading smile.

"Yes, but Mr. Joyce consults her in—how ridiculous you are, George! you're always saying stupid things and forgetting your subject. What were we talking about?"

"I like that; and you talk about forgetfulness! You were saying that you had spoken to Mr. Joyce about my marriage, though why you should have——"

"Don't be tiresome, you know what I mean! He perfectly agrees with you in thinking there is no necessity for postponing the marriage any further. Poor uncle has now been dead three months, and you have no necessity to consider whether Mrs. Creswell might think it too soon after that event or not!"

"We have no reason to be bound by what she would say, but I think it would be only right in Gertrude to write and tell her that the wedding is about to take place."

"That you and Gertrude must settle between you. For my part, I should not think of—— However, I confess my judgment is not to be relied on when that person is in question." Then she added in a low voice, and more as if speaking to herself, "How strange it will seem to be away from Gerty!"

Benthall heard the remark, and he took Maud's hand as he said, "But you won't be away from her, dear Maud! We have all of us talked over your future, and Gertrude and I hope you will make your home with us, though Lady Caroline insists on claiming you for some portion of the year."

"You are all of you very good, George," said Maud; "you know how much I should love to be with you and Gerty, and what gratitude and affection I have for Lady Caroline. But I don't think the life you have proposed would exactly suit me."

"Not suit you, Maud?" cried Mr. Benthall, in astonishment; "why, what would you propose to do?"

"I cannot say exactly, though I have some ideas about it which I can't clearly express. You see I shall never be married, George, don't laugh at me, please, I'm speaking quite seriously, and there is this large sum of money which uncle left me, and which I don't think should be either squandered away or left lying idle!"

"Why, my dear, what on earth do you propose to do with the money?" asked practical Mr. Benthall.

"To put it to some good use, I hope; to use it and my own time and services in doing good, in benefiting those who need it——"

"You're not going to give it to the missionaries, or any rubbish of that kind, I trust," interrupted Mr. Benthall. "Look here, Maud, depend upon it—oh! here's her ladyship, don't say a word about it before her. Good morning, Lady Caroline! This young lady and I have been discussing the propriety of writing to Mrs. Creswell announcing Gertrude's approaching marriage."

"I don't think there can be a doubt as to the propriety of such a course," said Lady Caroline. "Of course, whatever she might say about it would not make the slightest difference to us."

"Of course not."

"But I don't think you need fear any disagreeables. Mrs. Creswell is in a very different position now to that which she held when she thought fit to behave badly to those young ladies, and their relations with her are also quite altered. And by all accounts she is quite sufficient woman of the world to understand and appreciate this."

Lady Caroline was right. In reply to Gertrude's letter announcing her marriage, came a most affectionate note from Marian to her "dearest Gertrude," congratulating her most heartily; complimenting her on her choice of a husband; delighting in the prospect of their living so near to her; hoping to see much of them; regretting that her recent bereavement prevented her being present at the ceremony, or having it take place, as she should so much have wished, at Woolgreaves, and begging permission to send the enclosed, as her contribution to aid in the setting up of the new household; and the enclosure was a cheque for three hundred pounds.

Mr. Benthall winced a little when he saw the cheque, and Mr. Joyce gave a very grim smile when his friend informed him of the affair; but advised Mr. Benthall to pocket the money, which Mr. Benthall did. As has been said, he did not pretend to despise money; but he was essentially a gentleman in his notions as to the acceptance of favours. He had thought several times about that conversation with Maud, in which she had mentioned the manner in which she had wished to dispose of her fortune and her future. This had caused Mr. Benthall some uneasiness; he had no hankering after his future sister-in-law's fortune; there was nothing he would have liked so much as to see her happily married; but he did not like the idea of the money being foolishly invested in useless charity or gotten hold of by pseudo-philanthropists. A conversation which he had with Gertrude a few days before their marriage seemed, however, to do away with all his fears, and render him perfectly easy in his mind on this point. A short conversation which ended thus:

"And you're sure of it, Gerty?"

"Positive! I've thought so a long time—now I'm sure! And you must be a great goose, George, not to have noticed it yourself"

"I am not a great goose, and I certainly had some suspicions at one time; but—— Well, now, that would be highly satisfactory."

"Do you think there is anything remaining from—from the other one, George?"

"From the other one? You mean from Mrs.——Not the remotest thought of her even."

"Well, then, it rests with him entirely. Wouldn't it be nice for them both?"

"It would, indeed; and for us too. Well, we'll see what can be done."

Enigmatical, but apparently satisfactory.

So George Benthall and Gertrude Creswell were married at St. James's Church in Piccadilly, by the Reverend John Bontein, a High Church rector of a Worcestershire parish, and an old college chum of the bridegroom's. A very quiet wedding, with Maud as the sole bridesmaid, and Joyce as best man, and Lady Caroline, and, oddly enough, Lord Hetherington, who had just come up to town from Westhope, and, calling at his sister's, had learned what was going to take place, and "thought he should like to see it, don't you know. Had never been at any wedding except his own, and didn't recollect much about that, except that—curious thing, never should forget it—when he went into the vestry to sign his name, or something of that kind, saw surplice hanging up behind the door, thought it was ghost, or something of that kind, give you his word!" So the little earl arrived the next morning at eleven at the church, and took his place in a pew near the altar, and propped his ear up with his hand to listen to the marriage service, at which he seemed to be much affected. When the ceremony was over, he joined the party in the vestry, insisted on bestowing a formal salute upon the bride, Lady Hetherington, he knew, was safely moored at Westhope, and, as some recompense for the infliction, he clasped on Gertrude's arm a very handsome bracelet, as his bridal gift.

Such a marriage promised to prove a happy one. In its early days, of course, everything was rose-coloured, those days when Maud went down to stay with George and Gertrude at the school, and when, a little later, Walter Joyce ran down for the Easter holidays to his old quarters. He was glad of the chance of seeing them once again, he said, and determined to avail himself of it; and then George Benthall looked in his face and smiled knowingly. Walter returned the grin, and added, "For it's a chance that may not happen to me again!" And when his friend looked rather blank at this, and asked him what he meant, Joyce laughed again, and finally told him that Lord Hetherington had just had a piece of patronage fall to his share, the rectory of Newmanton-by-Perringden, a lovely place in the Isle of Wight, where the stipend was not sufficiently large to allow a man with a large family to live on it, but the exact place for a parson with a little money of his own. And Lord Hetherington had inquired of Joyce whether his friend, that remarkably pleasant fellow—bless my soul, forget my own name next! him wo saw married, don't you know?—whether he was not exactly the sort of fellow for this place, and would he like it? Walter thought that he was and he would; and Lord Hetherington, knowing Joyce was going down to see his friend, bid him inquire, and if all were straight, assure Mr. Benthall that the living was his. And this was how Walter Joyce executed his commission, and this was how George Benthall heard this most acceptable news.

"By the way, what made you grin, Benthall, when I said I had come down here for my holidav to look at my old quarters?" asked Walter.

"Because I thought there might be yet another reason, which you had not stated! Anxiety to see some one here!"

"Anxiety is the wrong word. Strong wish to see you and your wife again, and——"

"My wife and I are out of the affair! Come, confess!"

"I give you my honour, I don't know what you mean!"

"Likely enough; but I'm older than you, and, parson though I am, I declare I think I've seen more of the world! Shall I tell you what brought you down here? I shall!—then I will!—to see Maud Creswell."

"Maud Creswell! What on earth should I—what—why—I mean—what, is Miss Creswell to me?"

"Simply the woman who thinks more about you than any other creature on earth. Simply the girl who is raving—head over ears in love with you. Don't pretend you don't know it. Natural instinct is too strong to allow any doubt upon that point."

"I swear you surprise me beyond behef! I swear that—— Do you mean this, Benthall?"

"As a gentleman and a Christian, I've told you what I believe; and as a man of the world I tell you what I think; whether wittingly or unwittingly, you are very far gone in returning the young lady's sentiments!"

"I—that is—there's no doubt she is a girl of very superior mind, and—by Jove, Benthall, you've given a most singular twist to my holiday!"