‘I think it will amuse me.’
‘So I thought when I gave the nod to Isabella your friend.’
‘You like her?’
‘One fancies she would make an encouraging second in a duel.’
‘I will remember . . . when I call you out.’
‘Oh, my dear lord, you have dozens to choose from leave me my one if we are to enter the lists.’
‘We are, it seems; unless you consent to take the run to Paris. You are to say Tom or Rowsley.’
‘The former, I can never feel at home in saying; Rowsley is Lady Charlotte’s name for you.’
The name of Lady Charlotte was an invitation to the conflict between them. He passed it, and said ‘Durandarte runs a mile on the mouth, and the Coriolanus of their newspapers helps a stage-player to make lantern jaws. Neither of them comes well from the lips of my girl. After seven years she should have hit on a nickname, of none of the Christian suit. I am not “at home” either with “my lord.” However, you send me off to Paris alone; and you’ll be alone and dull here in this London. Incomprehensible to me why!’
‘We are both wondering?’ said Aminta.
‘You ‘re handsomer than when I met you first–by heaven you are!’
She flushed her dark brown-red late-sunset. ‘Brunes are exceptional in England.’
‘Thousands admiring you, of course! I know, my love, I have a jewel.’
She asked him: ‘What are jewels for?’ and he replied, ‘To excite cupidity.’
‘When they ‘re shut in a box?’
‘Ware burglars! But this one is not shut up. She shuts herself up. And up go her shoulders! Decide to be out of it, and come to Paris for some life for a month. No? It’s positive? When do you expect your little school friend?’
‘After Easter. Aunt will be away.’
‘Your little friend likes the country. I’ll go to my house agents. If there ‘s a country house open on the upper Thames, you can have swimming, boating, botanizing . . .’
He saw her throat swallow. But as he was offering agreeable things he chose to not understand how he was to be compassionate.
‘Steignton?’ she said, and did her cause no good by saying it feebly.
His look of a bygone awake-in-sleep old look, drearily known to her, was like a strip of sunlight on a fortress wall. It signified, Is the poor soul pushing me back to that again?
She compelled herself to say: ‘Your tenant there?’
‘Matter of business . . . me and my tenant,’ he remarked. ‘The man pays punctually.’
‘The lease has expired.’
‘Not quite. You are misinformed.’
‘Ah! Question of renewing.’
‘You were fond of the place.’
‘I was fond of the place? Thank Blazes, I’m not what I was!’ He paced about. ‘There’s not a corner of the place that doesn’t screw an eye at me, because I had a dream there. La gloire!’
The rest he muttered. ‘These English!’ was heard. Aminta said: ‘Am I never to see Steignton?’
Lord Ormont invoked the Powers. He could not really give answer to this female talk of the eternities.
‘Beaten I can never be,’ he said, with instinctive indulgence to the greater creature. ‘But down there at Steignton, I should be haunted by a young donkey swearing himself the fellow I grew up out of. No doubt of that. I don’t like him the better for it. Steignton grimaces at a cavalry officer fool enough at his own risks and penalties to help save India for the English. Maunderers! You can’t tell–they don’t know themselves–what they mean. Except that they ‘re ready to take anything you hand ’em, and then pipe to your swinging. I served them well–and at my age, in full activity, they condemn me to sit and gape!’
He stopped his pacing and gazed on the glass of the window.
‘Would you wish me not to be present at this fencing?’ said Aminta.
‘Dear me! by all means, go, my love,’ he replied.
Any step his Fair Enemy won in the secret game Pull between them, she was undisputedly to keep.
She suggested: ‘It might lead to unpleasantness.’
‘Of what sort?’
He emphasized: ‘Have you forgotten? Something happened after that last ball at Challis’s Rooms. Their women as well as their men must be careful not to cross me.’
Aminta had confused notions of her being planted in hostile territory, and torn and knitted, trumpeted to the world as mended, but not honourably mended in a way to stop corridor scandal. The ball at Challis’s Rooms had been one of her steps won: it had necessitated a requirement for the lion in her lord to exhibit himself, and she had gained nothing with Society by the step, owing to her poor performance of the lion’s mate. She had, in other words, shunned the countenance of some scattered people pityingly ready to support her against the deadly passive party known to be Lady Charlotte’s.
She let her lord go; thinking that once more had she striven and gained nothing: which was true of all their direct engagements. And she had failed because of her being only a woman! Mr. Morsfield was foolishly wrong in declaring that she, as a woman, had reserves of strength. He was perhaps of Lady Charlotte’s mind with regard to the existence of a Countess of Ormont, or he would know her to be incredibly cowardly. Cowardly under the boast of pride, too; well, then, say, if you like, a woman!
Yet this mere shallow woman would not hesitate to meet the terrible Lady Charlotte at any instant, on any terms: and what are we to think of a soldier, hero, lion, dreading to tell her to her face that the persecuted woman is his wife!
‘Am I a woman they can be ashamed of?’ she asked, and did not seek the answer at her mirror. She was in her bedroom, and she put out a hand to her jewel-box, fingered it, found it locked, and abandoned her idle project. A gentleman was ‘dangerous.’ She had not found him so. He had the reputation, perhaps, because he was earnest. Not so very many men are earnest. She called to recollection how ludicrously practical he was in the thick of his passion. His third letter (addressed to the Countess of Ormont–whom he manifestly did not or would not take to be the veritable Countess–and there was much to plead for his error), or was it his fourth?–the letters were a tropical hail-storm: third or fourth, he broke off a streaked thunderpeal, to capitulate his worldly possessions, give the names and degrees of kinship of his relatives, the exact amount of the rent-roll of his Yorkshire estates, of his funded property.
Silly man! but not contemptible. He proposed everything in honour, from his view of it.
Whether in his third, fourth, or fifth letter. . . . How many had come? She drew the key from her purse, and opened a drawer. The key of the jewel-box was applied to the lock.
Mr. Morsfield had sent her six flaming letters. He not only took no precautions, he boasted that he hailed the consequences of discovery. Six!
She lifted a pen: it had to be done.
He was briefly informed that he disturbed her peace. She begged he would abstain from any further writing to her.
The severity was in the brevity. The contrast of her style and his appeared harsh. But it belonged to the position.
Having with one dash of the pen scribbled her three lines, she slipped the letter into her pocket. That was done, and it had to be done; it ought to have been done before. How simple it was when one contemplated it as actually done! Aminta made the motion of a hand along the paper, just a flourish. Soon after, her head dropped back on the chair, and her eyes shut, she took in breath through parted lips. The brief lines of writing had cut away a lump of her vitality.
THE SECRETARY TAKEN AS AN ANTIDOTE
Dusty wayfarers along a white high-road who know of a bubbling little spring across a stile, on the woodland borders of deep grass, are hailed to sit aside it awhile: and Aminta’s feverishness was cooled by now and then a quiet conversation with the secretary ambitious to become a school-master. Lady Charlotte liked him, so did her lord; Mrs. Lawrence had chatted with him freshly, as it was refreshing to recollect; nobody thought him a stunted growth.
In Aminta’s realized recollections, amid the existing troubles of her mind, the charge against him grew paler, and she could no longer quite think that the young hero transformed into a Mr. Cuper had deceived her, though he had done it–much as if she had assisted at the planting and watched aforetime the promise of a noble tree, to find it, after an interval of years, pollarded–a short trunk shooting out a shock of small, slim, stiff branches; dwarfed and disgraced; serviceable perhaps; not ludicrous or ugly, certainly, taking it for a pollard. And he was a cool well-spring to talk with. He, supposed once to be a passionate nature, scorned passion as a madness; he smiled in his merciful executioner’s way at the high society, of which her aim was to pass for one among the butterflies or dragonflies; he had lost his patriotism; he labelled our English classes the skimmers, the gorgers, the grubbers, and stigmatized them with a friendly air; and uttered words of tolerance only for farmers and surgeons and schoolmasters. But that was quite incidental in the humorous run of his talk, diverting to hear while it lasted. He had, of course, a right to his ideas.
No longer concerned in contesting them, she drank at the water of this plain earth-well, and hoped she preferred it to fiery draughts, though it was flattish, or, say, flavourless. In the other there was excess of flavour–or, no, spice it had to be called. The young schoolmaster’s world seemed a sunless place, the world of traders bargaining for gain, without a glimmer of the rich generosity to venture life, give it, dare all for native land–or for the one beloved. Love pressed its claim on heroical generosity, and instantly it suffused her, as an earth under flush of sky. The one beloved! She had not known love; she was in her five-and-twentieth year, and love was not only unknown to her, it was shut away from her by the lock of a key that opened on no estimable worldly advantage in exchange, but opened on a dreary, clouded round, such as she had used to fancy it must be to the beautiful creamy circus- horse of the tossing mane and flowing tail and superb step. She was admired; she was just as much doomed to a round of paces, denied the glorious fling afield, her nature’s food. Hitherto she would have been shamefaced as a boy in forming the word ‘love’: now, believing it denied to her for good and all–for ever and ever–her bosom held and uttered the word. She saw the word, the nothing but the word that it was, and she envisaged it, for the purpose of saying adieu to it–good-bye even to the poor empty word.
This condition was attributable to a gentleman’s wild rageing with the word, into which he had not infused the mystic spirit. He poured hot wine and spiced. If not the spirit of love, it was really the passion of the man. Her tremors now and again in the reading of his later letters humiliated her, in the knowledge that they came of no response to him, but from the temporary base acquiescence; which is, with women, a terrible perception of the gulf of their unsatisfied nature.
The secretary, cheerful at his work, was found for just the opening of a door. Sometimes she hesitated–to disturb him, she said to herself,–and went up-stairs or out visiting. He protested that he could work on and talk too. She was able to amuse her lord with some of his ideas. He had a stock of them, all his own.
Ideas, new-born and naked original ideas, are acceptable at no time to the humanity they visit to help uplift, it from the state of beast. In the England of that, period original or unknown ideas were a smoking brimstone to the nose, dread Arabian afrites, invisible in the air, jumping out of vases, armed for the slaughter of the venerable and the cherished, the ivy-clad and celestially haloed. They carried the dishevelled Maenad’s torch. A step with them, and we were on the Phlegethon waters of the French Revolution. For a publication of simple ideas men were seized, tried at law, mulcted, imprisoned, and not pardoned after the term of punishment; their names were branded: the horned elect butted at them; he who alluded to them offered them up, wittingly or not, to be damned in the nose of the public for an execrable brimstone stench.
Lord Ormont broke through his shouts or grunts at Aminta’s report of the secretary’s ideas on various topics, particularly the proposal that the lords of the land should head the land in a revolutionary effort to make law of his crazy, top-heavy notions, with a self-satisfied ejaculation: ‘He has not favoured me with any of these puffballs of his.’
The deduction was, that the author sagaciously considered them adapted for the ear of a woman; they were womanish–i.e. flighty, gossamer. To the host of males, all ideas are female until they are made facts.
This idea, proposing it to our aristocracy to take up his other ideas, or reject them on pain of the forfeiture of their caste and headship with the generations to follow, and a total displacing of them in history by certain notorious, frowzy, scrubby pamphleteers and publishers, Lord Ormont thought amazingly comical. English nobles heading the weavers, cobblers, and barbers of England! He laughed, but he said, ‘Charlotte would listen to that.’
The dread, high-sitting Lady Charlotte was, in his lofty thinking, a woman, and would therefore listen to nonsense, if it happened to strike a particular set of bells hanging in her cranium. She patronized blasphemous and traitorous law-breakers, just to keep up the pluck of the people, not with a notion of maintaining our English aristocracy eminent in history.
Lady Charlotte, however, would be the foremost to swoop down on the secretary’s ideas about the education of women.
On that subject, Aminta said she did not know what to think.
Now, if a man states the matter he thinks, and a woman does but listen, whether inclining to agree or not, a perceptible stamp is left on soft wax. Lord Ormont told her so, with cavalier kindness.
She confessed ‘she did not know what to think,’ when the secretary proposed the education and collocation of boys and girls in one group, never separated, declaring it the only way for them to learn to know and to respect one another. They were to learn together, play together, have matches together, as a scheme for stopping the mischief between them.
‘But, my dear girl, don’t you see, the devilry was intended by Nature. Life would be the coldest of dishes without it.’ And as for mixing the breeched and petticoated in those young days–‘I can’t enter into it,’ my lord considerately said. ‘All I can tell you is, I know boys.’
Aminta persisted in looking thoughtful. ‘Things are bad, as they are now,’ she said.
‘Always were–always will be. They were intended to be, if we are to call them bad. Botched mendings will only make them worse.’
‘Which side suffers?’
‘Both; and both like it. One side must be beaten at any game. It’s off and on, pretty equal–except in the sets where one side wears thick boots. Is this fellow for starting a mixed sexes school? Funny mothers!’
‘I suppose–‘ Aminta said, and checked the supposition. ‘The mothers would not leave their girls unless they were confident . . . ?’
‘There’s to be a female head of the female department? He reckons on finding a woman as big a fool as himself? A fair bit of reckoning enough. He’s clever at the pen. He doesn’t bother me with his ideas; now and then I ‘ve caught a sound of his bee buzzing.’
The secretary was left undisturbed at his labours for several days.
He would have been gladdened by a brighter look of her eyes at her next coming. They were introspective and beamless. She had an odd leaning to the talk upon Cuper’s boys. He was puzzled by what he might have classed, in any other woman, as a want of delicacy, when she recurred to incidents which were red patches of the school time, and had clearly lost their glow for her.
A letter once written by him, in his early days at Cuper’s, addressed to J. Masner, containing a provocation to fight with any weapons, and signed, ‘Your Antagonist,’ had been read out to the whole school, under strong denunciation of the immorality, the unchristian-like conduct of the writer, by Mr. Cuper; creating a sensation that had travelled to Miss Vincent’s establishment, where some of the naughtiest of the girls had taken part with the audacious challenger, dreadful though the contemplation of a possible duel so close to them was. And then the girls heard that the anonymous ‘Your Antagonist,’ on being cited to proclaim himself in public assembly of school-mates and masters, had jumped on his legs and into the name of–one who was previously thought by Miss Vincent’s good girls incapable of the ‘appalling wickedness,’ as Mr. Cuper called it, of signing ‘Your Antagonist’ to a Christian school- fellow, having the design to provoke a breach of the law of the land and shed Christian blood. Mr. Cuper delivered an impressive sermon from his desk to the standing up boarders and day-scholars alike, vilifying the infidel Greek word ‘antagonist.’
‘Do you remember the offender’s name?’ the Countess of Ormont said; and Weyburn said–
‘Oh yes, I ‘ve not forgotten the incident.’
Her eyes, wherein the dead time hung just above the underlids, lingered, as with the wish for him to name the name.
She said: ‘I am curious to hear how you would treat a case of that sort. Would you preach to the boys?
‘Ten words at most. The right assumption is that both fellows were to blame. I fancy the proper way would be to appeal to the naughty girls for their opinion as to how the dispute should be decided.’
‘You impose too much on them. And you are not speaking seriously.’
‘Pardon me, I am. I should throw myself into the mind of a naughty girl –supposing none of these at hand–and I should let it be known that my eyes were shut to proceedings, always provided the weapons were not such as would cause a shock of alarm in female bosoms.’
‘You would at your school allow it to be fought out?’
‘Judging by the characters of the boys. If they had heads to understand, I would try them at their heads. Otherwise they are the better, they come round quicker to good blood, at their age–I speak of English boys –for a little hostile exercise of their fists. Well, for one thing, it teaches them the value of sparring.’
‘I must imagine I am not one of the naughty sisterhood,–for I cannot think I should ever give consent to fighting of any description, unless for the very best of reasons,’ said the countess.
His eyes were at the trick of the quarter-minute’s poising. Her lids fluttered. ‘Oh, I don’t mean to say I was one of the good,’ she added.
At the same time her enlivened memory made her conscious of a warning, that she might, as any woman might, so talk on of past days as to take, rather more than was required of the antidote she had come for.
The antidote was excellent; cooling, fortifying; ‘quite a chalybeate,’ her aunt would say, and she was thankful. Her heart rose on a quiet wave of the thanks, and pitched down to a depth of uncounted fathoms. Aminta was unable to tell herself why.
Mrs. Lawrence Finchley had been announced. On her way to the drawing room Aminta’s brain fell upon a series of dots, that wound along a track to the point where she accused herself of a repented coquettry–cause of the burning letters she was doomed to receive and could not stop without rousing her lion. She dotted backwards; there was no sign that she had been guilty of any weakness other than the almost–at least, in design– innocent first move, which had failed to touch Lord Ormont in the smallest degree. Never failure more absolute!
She was about to inquire of her bosom’s oracle whether she greatly cared now. For an answer, her brain went dotting along from Mr. Cuper’s school, and a boy named Abner there, and a boy named Matey Weyburn, who protected the little Jew-boy, up to Mr. Abner in London, who recommended him in due season to various acquaintances; among them to Lady Charlotte Eglett. Hence the introduction to Lord Ormont. How little extraordinary circumstances are, if only we trace them to the source!
But if only it had appeared marvellous, the throbbing woman might have seized on it, as a thing fateful, an intervention distinctly designed to waken the best in her, which was, after all, the strongest. Yea, she could hope and pray and believe it was the strongest.
She was listening to Isabella Lawrence Finchley, wishing she might have followed to some end the above line of her meditations.
Mrs. Lawrence was changed, much warmer, pressing to be more than merely friendly. Aminta twice gave her cheek for kisses. The secretary had spoken of Mrs. Lawrence as having the look of a handsome boy; and Aminta’s view of her now underwent a change likewise. Compunction, together with a sisterly taste for the boyish fair one flying her sail independently, and gallantly braving the winds, induced her to kiss in return.
‘You do like me a morsel?’ said Mrs. Lawrence. ‘I fell in love with you the last time I was here. I came to see Mr. Secretary–it’s avowed; and I have been thinking of you ever since, of no one else. Oh yes, for a man; but you caught me. I’ve been hearing of him from Captain May. They fence at those rooms. And it ‘s funny, Mr. Morsfield practises there, you know; and there was a time when the lovely innocent Amy, Queen of Blondes, held the seat of the Queen of Brunes. Ah, my dear, the infidelity of men doesn’t count. They are affected by the changeing moons. As long as the captain is civil to him, we may be sure beautiful Amy has not complained. Her husband is the pistol she carries in her pocket, and she has fired him twice, with effect. Through love of you I have learnt the different opinion the world of the good has of her and of me; I thought we ran under a common brand. There are gradations. I went to throw myself at the feet of my great-aunt; good old great-aunt Lady de Culme, who is a power in the land. I let her suppose I came for myself, and she reproached me with Lord Adder. I confessed to him and ten others. She is a dear, she’s ticklish, and at eighty-four she laughed! She looked into my eyes and saw a field with never a man in it–just the shadow of a man. She admitted the ten cancelled the one, and exactly named to me, by comparison with the erring Amy, the sinner I am and must be, if I ‘m to live. So, dear, the end of it is,’ and Mrs. Lawrence put her fingers to a silken amber bow at Aminta’s throat, and squared it and flattened it with dainty precision, speaking on under dropped eyelids, intent upon her work, ‘Lady de Culme will be happy to welcome you whenever it shall suit the Countess of Ormont to accompany her disreputable friend. But what can I do, dear?’ She raised her lids and looked beseechingly. ‘I was born with this taste for the ways and games and style of men. I hope I don’t get on badly with women; but if I ‘m not allowed to indulge my natural taste, I kick the stable-boards and bite the manger.’
Aminta threw her arms round her, and they laughed their mutual peal.
Caressing her still, Aminta said: ‘I don’t know whether I embrace a boy.’
‘That idea comes from a man!’ said Mrs. Lawrence. It was admitted. The secretary was discussed.
Mrs. Lawrence remarked: ‘Yes, I like talking with him; he’s bright. You drove him out of me the day I saw him. Doesn’t he give you the idea of a man who insists on capturing you and lets it be seen he doesn’t care two snaps of a finger?’
Aminta petitioned on his behalf indifferently: ‘He ‘s well bred.’
She was inattentive to Mrs. Lawrence’s answer. The allusion of the Queen of Blondes had stung her in the unacknowledged regions where women discard themselves and are most sensitive.
‘Decide on coming soon to Lady de Culme,’ said Mrs. Lawrence. ‘Now that her arms are open to you, she would like to have you in them. She is old–. You won’t be rigorous? no standing on small punctilios?
She would call, but she does not–h’m, it is M. le Comte that she does not choose to–h’m. But her arms are open to the countess. It ought to be a grand step. You may be assured that Lady Charlotte Eglett would not be taken into them. My great-aunt has a great-aunt’s memory. The Ormonts are the only explanation–if it ‘s an apology–she can offer for the behaviour of the husband of the Countess of Ormont. You know I like him. I can’t help liking a man who likes me. Is that the way with a boy, Mr. Secretary? I must have another talk with the gentleman, my dear. You are Aminta to me.’
‘Always Aminta to you,’ was the reply, tenderly given.
‘But as for comprehending him, I’m as far off that as Lady de Culme, who hasn’t the liking for him I have.’
‘The earl?’ said Aminta, showing by her look that she was in the same position.
Mrs. Lawrence shrugged: ‘I believe men and women marry in order that they should never be able to understand one another. The riddle’s best read at a moderate distance. It ‘s what they call the golden mean; too close, too far, we’re strangers. I begin to understand that husband of mine, now we’re on bowing terms. Now, I must meet the earl to-morrow. You will arrange? His hand wants forcing. Upon my word, I don’t believe it ‘s more.’
Mrs. Lawrence contrasted him in her mind with the husband she knew, and was invigorated by the thought that a placable impenetrable giant may often be more pliable in a woman’s hands than an irascible dwarf–until, perchance, the latter has been soundly cuffed, and then he is docile to trot like a squire, as near your heels as he can get. She rejoiced to be working for the woman she had fallen in love with.
Aminta promised herself to show the friend a livelier affection at their next meeting.
A seventh letter, signed ‘Adolphus,’ came by post, was read and locked up in her jewel-box. They were all nigh destruction for a wavering minute or so. They were placed where they lay because the first of them had been laid there, the box being a strong one, under a patent key, and discovery would mean the terrible. They had not been destroyed because they had, or seemed to her to have, the language of passion. She could read them unmoved, and appease a wicked craving she owned to having, and reproached herself with having, for that language.
Was she not colour in the sight of men? Here was one, a mouthpiece of numbers, who vowed that homage was her due, and devotion, the pouring forth of the soul to her. What was the reproach if she read the stuff unmoved?
But peruse and reperuse it, and ask impressions to tell our deepest instinct of truthfulness whether language of this character can have been written to two women by one hand! Men are cunning. Can they catch a tone? Not that tone!
She, too, Mrs. Amy May, was colour in the sight of men. Yet it seemed that he could not have written so to the Queen of Blondes. And she, by repute, was as dangerous to slight as he to attract. Her indifference exonerated him. Besides, a Queen of Blondes would not draw the hearts out of men in England, as in Italy and in Spain. Aminta had got thus far when she found ‘Queen of Brunes’ expunged by a mist: she imagined hearing the secretary’s laugh. She thought he was right to laugh at her. She retorted simply: ‘These are feelings that are poetry.’
A man may know nothing about them, and be an excellent schoolmaster.
Suggestions touching the prudence of taking Mrs. Lawrence into her confidence, as regarded these troublesome letters of the man with the dart in his breast, were shuffled aside for various reasons: her modesty shrank; and a sense of honour toward the man forbade it. She would have found it easier to do if she had conspired against her heart in doing it. And yet, cold-bloodedly to expose him and pluck the clothing from a passion–dear to think of only when it is profoundly secret–struck her as an extreme baseness, of which not even the woman who perused and reperused his letters could be guilty.
Her head rang with some of the lines, and she accused her head of the crime of childishness, seeing that her heart was not an accomplice. At the same time, her heart cried out violently against the business of a visit to Lady de Culme, and all the steps it involved. Justly she accused her heart of treason. Heart and head were severed. This, as she partly apprehended, is the state of the woman who is already on the slope of her nature’s mine-shaft, dreading the rush downwards, powerless to break away from the light.
Letters perused and reperused, coming from a man never fervently noticed in person, conjure features one would wish to put beside the actual, to make sure that the fiery lines he writes are not practising a beguilement. Aminta had lost grasp of the semblance of the impassioned man. She just remembered enough of his eyes to think there might be healing in a sight of him.
Latterly she had refused to be exhibited to a tattling world as the great nobleman’s conquest:–The ‘Beautiful Lady Doubtful’ of a report that had scorched her cars. Theatres, rides, pleasure-drives, even such houses as she saw standing open to her had been shunned. Now she asked the earl to ride in the park.
He complied, and sent to the stables immediately, just noted another of her veerings. The whimsy creatures we are matched to contrast with, shift as the very winds or feather-grasses in the wind. Possibly a fine day did it. Possibly, too, her not being requested to do it.
He was proud of her bearing on horseback. She rode well and looked well. A finer weapon wherewith to strike at a churlish world was never given into the hands of man. These English may see in her, if they like, that they and their laws and customs are defied. It does her no hurt, and it hits them a ringing buffet.
Among the cavaliers they passed was Mr. Morsfield. He rode by slowly. The earl stiffened his back in returning the salute. Both that and the gentleman were observed by Aminta.
‘He sees to having good blood under him,’ said the earl. ‘I admired his mount,’ she replied.
Interpreted by the fire of his writing, his features expressed character: insomuch that a woman could say of another woman, that she admired him and might reasonably do so. His gaze at her in the presence of her lord was audacious.
He had the defect of his virtue of courage. Yet a man indisputably possessing courage cannot but have an interesting face–though one may continue saying, Pity that the eyes are not a little wider apart! He dresses tastefully; the best English style. A portrait by a master hand might hand him down to generations as an ancestor to be proud of. But with passion and with courage, and a bent for snatching at the lion’s own, does he not look foredoomed to an early close? Her imagination called up a portrait of Elizabeth’s Earl of Essex to set beside him; and without thinking that the two were fraternally alike, she sent him riding away with the face of the Earl of Essex and the shadow of the unhappy nobleman’s grievous fortunes over his head.
But it is inexcuseable to let the mind be occupied recurrently by a man who has not moved the feelings, wicked though it be to have the feelings moved by him. Aminta rebuked her silly wits, and proceeded to speculate from an altitude, seeing the man’s projects in a singularly definite minuteness, as if the crisis he invoked, the perils he braved, the mute participation he implored of her for the short space until their fate should be decided, were a story sharply cut on metal. Several times she surprised herself in an interesting pursuit of the story; abominably cold, abominably interested. She fell upon a review of small duties of the day, to get relief; and among them a device for spiriting away her aunt from the table where Mrs. Lawrence wished to meet Lord Ormont. It sprang up to her call like an imp of the burning pit. She saw it ingenious and of natural aspect. I must be a born intriguer! she said in her breast. That was hateful; but it seemed worse when she thought of a woman commanding the faculty and consenting to be duped and foiled. That might be termed despicable; but what if she had not any longer the wish to gain her way with her lord?
Those letters are acting like a kind of poison in me! her heart cried: and it was only her head that dwelt on the antidote.
ETEXT EDITOR’S BOOKMARKS:
A woman, and would therefore listen to nonsense And not be beaten by an acknowledged defeat Botched mendings will only make them worse Convincing themselves that they impersonate sagacity I have all the luxuries–enough to loathe them Lawyers hold the keys of the great world Naked original ideas, are acceptable at no time Not daring risk of office by offending the taxpayer This female talk of the eternities
To know how to take a licking, that wins in the end To males, all ideas are female until they are made facts We cannot, men or woman, control the heart in sleep at night Who cries, Come on, and prays his gods you won’t
XII. MORE OF CUPER’S BOYS
XIII. WAR AT OLMER
XIV. OLD LOVERS NEW FRIENDS
XV. SHOWING A SECRET FISHED WITHOUT ANGLING XVI. ALONG TWO ROADS TO STEIGNTON
MORE OF CUPER’S BOYS
Entering the dining-room at the appointed minute in a punctual household, Mrs. Lawrence informed the company that she had seen a Horse Guards orderly at the trot up the street. Weyburn said he was directing a boy to ring the bell of the house for him. Lord Ormont went to the window.
‘Amends and honours?’ Mrs. Lawrence hummed and added an operatic flourish of an arm. Something like it might really be imagined. A large square missive was handed to the footman. Thereupon the orderly trotted off.
My lord took seat at table, telling the footman to lay ‘that parcel’ beside the clock on the mantelpiece. Aminta and Mrs. Lawrence gave out a little cry of bird or mouse, pitiable to hear: they could not wait, they must know, they pished at sight of plates. His look deferred to their good pleasure, like the dead hand of a clock under key; and Weyburn placed the missive before him, seeing by the superscription that it was not official.
It was addressed, in the Roman hand of a boy’s copybook writing, to
General the Earl of Ormont, I.C.B., etc., Horse Guards,
The earl’s eyebrows creased up over the address; they came down low on the contents.
He resumed his daily countenance. ‘Nothing of importance,’ he said to the ladies.
Mrs. Lawrence knocked the table with her knuckles. Aminta put out a hand, in sign of her wish.
‘Pray let me see it.’
‘After lunch will do.’
‘No, no, no! We are women–we are women,’ cried Mrs. Lawrence.
‘How can it concern women?’
‘As well ask how a battle-field concerns them!’
‘Yes, the shots hit us behind you,’ said Aminta; and she, too, struck the table.
He did not prolong their torture. Weyburn received the folio sheet and passed it on. Aminta read. Mrs. Lawrence jumped from her chair and ran to the countess’s shoulder; her red lips formed the petitioning word to the earl for the liberty she was bent to take.
‘Peep? if you like,’ my lord said, jesting at the blank she would find, and soft to the pretty play of her mouth.
When the ladies had run to the end of it, he asked them: ‘Well; now then?’
‘But it’s capital–the dear laddies!’ Mrs. Lawrence exclaimed.
Aminta’s eyes met Weyburn’s.
She handed him the sheet of paper; upon the transmission of which empty thing from the Horse Guards my lord commented: ‘An orderly!’
Weyburn scanned it rapidly, for the table had been served.
The contents were these:
‘HIGH BRENT NEAR ARTSWELL.
‘To GENERAL THE EARL OF ORMONT
‘May it please your Lordship, we, the boys of Mr. Cuper’s school, are desirous to bring to the notice of the bravest officer England possesses now living, a Deed of Heroism by a little boy and girl, children of our school laundress, aged respectively eight and six, who, seeing a little fellow in the water out of depth, and sinking twice, before the third time jumped in to save him, though unable to swim themselves; the girl aged six first, we are sorry to say; but the brother, Robert Coop, followed her example, and together they made a line, and she caught hold of the drowning boy, and he held her petycoats, and so they pulled. We have seen the place: it is not a nice one. They got him ashore at last. The park-keeper here going along found them dripping, rubbing his hands, and blowing into his nostrils. Name, T. Shellen, son of a small cobbler here, and recovered.
‘May it please your Lordship, we make bold to apply, because you have been for a number of years, as far as the oldest can recollect, the Hero of our school, and we are so bold as to ask the favour of General Lord Ormont’s name to head a subscription we are making to circulate for the support of their sick mother, who has fallen ill. We think her a good woman. Gentlemen and ladies of the neighbourhood are willing to subscribe. If we have a great name to head the list, we think we shall make a good subscription. Names:–
‘Martha Mary Coop, mother.
‘Jane Coop, the girl, aged six.
‘If we are not taking too great a liberty, a subscription paper will follow. We are sure General the Earl of Ormont’s name will help to make them comfortable.
‘We are obediently and respectfully, ‘DAVID GOWEN,
‘JAMES PANNERS PARSONS, ‘And seven others.’
Weyburn spared Aminta an answering look, that would have been a begging of Browny to remember Matey.
‘It ‘s genuine,’ he said to Mrs. Lawrence, as he attacked his plate with the gusto for the repast previously and benignly observed by her. ‘It ought to be the work of some of the younger fellows.’
‘They spell correctly, on the whole.’
‘Excepting,’ said my lord, ‘an article they don’t know much about yet.’
Weyburn had noticed the word, and he smiled. ‘Said to be the happy state! The three signing their names are probably what we called bellman and beemen, collector, and heads of the swarm-enthusiasts. If it is not the work of some of the younger hands, the school has levelled on minors. In any case it shows the school is healthy.’
‘I subscribe,’ said Mrs. Lawrence.
‘The little girl aged six shall have something done for her,’ said Aminta, and turned her eyes on the earl.
He was familiar with her thrilled voice at a story of bravery. He said–
‘The boys don’t say the girl’s brother turned tail.’
‘Only that the girl’s brother aged eight followed the lead of the little girl aged six,’ Mrs. Lawrence remarked. ‘Well, I like the schoolboys, too–“we are sorry to say!” But they ‘re good lads. Boys who can appreciate brave deeds are capable of doing them.’
‘Speak to me about it on Monday,’ the earl said to Weyburn.
He bowed, and replied–
‘I shall have the day to-morrow. I ‘ll walk it and call on Messrs.’ (he glanced at the paper) ‘Gowen, Bench, and Parsons. I have a German friend in London anxious to wear his legs down stumpier.’
‘The name of the school?’
‘It is called Cuper’s.’
Aminta, on hearing the name of Cuper a second time, congratulated herself on the happy invention of her pretext to keep Mrs. Pagnell from the table at midday. Her aunt had a memory for names: what might she not have exclaimed! There would have been little in it, but it was as well that the ‘boy of the name of Weyburn’ at Cuper’s should be unmentioned. By an exaggeration peculiar to a disgust in fancy, she could hear her aunt vociferating ‘Weyburn!’ and then staring at Mr. Weyburn opposite–perhaps not satisfied with staring.
He withdrew after his usual hearty meal, during which his talk of boys and their monkey tricks, and what we can train them to, had been pleasant generally, especially to Mrs. Lawrence. Aminta was carried back to the minute early years at High Brent. A line or two of a smile touched her cheek.
‘Yes, my dear countess, that is the face I want for Lady de Culme to-day,’ said Mrs. Lawrence.’ She likes a smiling face. Aunty–aunty has always been good; she has never been prim. I was too much for her, until I reflected that she was very old, and deserved to know the truth before she left us; and so I went to her; and then she said she wished to see the Countess of Ormont, because of her being my dearest friend. I fancy she entertains an ‘arriere’ idea of proposing her flawless niece Gracey, Marchioness of Fencaster, to present you. She ‘s quite equal to the fatigue herself. You ‘ll rejoice in her anecdotes. People were virtuous in past days: they counted their sinners. In those days, too, as I have to understand, the men chivalrously bore the blame, though the women were rightly punished. Now, alas! the initiative is with the women, and men are not asked for chivalry. Hence it languishes. Lady de Culme won’t hear of the Queen of Blondes; has forbidden her these many years!’
Lord Ormont, to whom the lady’s prattle was addressed, kept his visage moveless, except in slight jerks of the brows.
‘You insist upon renewing my old, old pangs of jealousy, my dear lord! The Queen of Cyprus, they called her, in the last generation; she fights our great duellist handsomely.’
‘My dear Mrs. Lawrence!’
‘He triumphs finally, we know, but she beats him every round.’
‘It ‘s only tattle that says the duel has begun.’
‘May is the month of everlasting beauty! There ‘s a widower marquis now who claims the right to cast the glove to any who dispute it.’
‘Mrs. May is too good-looking to escape from scandal.’
‘Amy May has the good looks of the Immortals.’
‘She can’t be thirty.’
‘In the calendar of women she counts thirty-four.’
‘Malignity! Her husband’s a lucky man.’
‘The shots have proved it.’
Lord Ormont nodded his head over the hopeless task of defending a woman from a woman, and their sharp interchange ceased. But the sight of his complacency in defeat told Aminta that he did not respect his fair client: it drew a sketch of the position he allotted his wife before the world side by side with this Mrs. Amy May, though a Lady de Culme was persuaded to draw distinctions.
He had, however, quite complacently taken the dose intended for him by Mrs. Lawrence, who believed that the system of gently forcing him was the good one.
The ladies drove away in the afternoon. The earl turned his back on manuscript. He sent for a couple of walking sticks, and commanded Weyburn to go through his parades. He was no tyro, merely out of practice, and unacquainted with the later, simpler form of the great master of the French school, by which, at serious issues, the guarding of the line can be more quickly done: as, for instance, the ‘parade de septime’ supplanting the slower ‘parade de prime;’ the ‘parade de quarte’ having advantage over the ‘parade de quince;’ the ‘parade de tierce’ being readier and stronger than the ‘parade de sixte;’ the same said for the ‘parade de seconde’ instead of the weak ‘parade d’octave.’
These were then new points of instruction. Weyburn demonstrated them as neatly as he could do with his weapon.
‘Yes, the French think,’ Lord Ormont said, grasping the stick to get conviction of thumb-strength and finger-strength from the parades advocated; ‘their steel would thread the ribs of our louts before: they could raise a cry of parry; so here they ‘re pleased to sneer at fencing, as if it served no purpose but the duel. Fencing, for one thing, means, that with a good stick in his hand, a clever fencer can double up a giant or two, grant him choice of ground. Some of our men box; but the sword’s the weapon for an officer, and precious few of ’em are fit for more than to kick the scabbard. Slashing comes easier to them: a plaguey cut, if it does cut–say, one in six. Navy too. Their cutlass-drill is like a woman’s fling of the arm to fetch a slap from behind her shoulder. Pinking beats chopping. These English ‘ll have their lesson. It ‘s like what you call good writing: the simple way does the business, and that’s the most difficult to learn, because you must give your head to it, as those French fellows do. ‘Trop de finesse’ is rather their fault. Anything’s better than loutishness. Well! the lesson ‘ll come.’
He continued. He spoke as he thought: he was not speaking what he was thinking. His mind was directed on the visit of Aminta to Lady de Culme, and the tolerably wonderful twist whereby Mrs. Lawrence Finchley had vowed herself to his girl’s interests. And he blamed neither of them; only he could not understand how it had been effected, for Aminta and Mrs. Lawrence had not been on such particularly intimate terms last week or yesterday. His ejaculation, ‘Women!’ was, as he knew, merely ignorance roaring behind a mask of sarcasm. But it allied him with all previous generations on the male side, and that was its virtue. His view of the shifty turns of women got no further, for the reason that he took small account of the operations of the feelings, to the sole exercise of which he by system condemned the sex.
He was also insensibly half a grain more soured by the homage of those poor schoolboys, who called to him to take it for his reward in a country whose authorities had snubbed, whose Parliament had ignored, whose Press had abused him. The ridiculous balance made him wilfully oblivious that he had seen his name of late eulogized in articles and in books for the right martial qualities. Can a country treating a good soldier–not serving it for pay–in so scurvy a fashion, be struck too hard with our disdain? One cannot tell it in too plain a language how one despises its laws, its moralities, its sham of society. The Club, some choice anecdotists, two or three listeners to his dolences clothed as diatribes; a rubber, and the sight of his girl at home, composed, with a week’s shooting now and then, his round of life now that she refused to travel. What a life for a soldier in his vigour. Weyburn was honoured by the earl’s company on the walk to Chiallo’s. In the street of elegant shops they met Lord Adderwood, and he, as usual, appeared in the act of strangling one of his flock of yawns, with gentlemanly consideration for the public. Exercise was ever his temporary specific for these incurables. Flinging off his coat, he cast away the cynic style engendering or engendered by them. He and Weyburn were for a bout. Sir John Randeller and Mr. Morsfield were at it, like Bull in training and desperado foiled. A French ‘maitre d’armes,’ famed in ‘escrime,’ standing near Captain Chiallo, looked amused in the eyes, behind a mask of professional correctness. He had come on an excursion for the display of his art. Sir John’s very sturdy defence was pierced. Weyburn saluted the Frenchman as an acquaintance, and they shook hands, chatted, criticized, nodded. Presently he and his adversary engaged, vizored and in their buckram, and he soon proved to be too strong for Adderwood, as the latter expected and had notified to Lord Ormont before they crossed the steel. My lord had a pleasant pricking excitement in the sound. There was a pretty display between Weyburn and the ‘escrimeur,’ who neatly and kindly trifled, took a point and returned one, and at the finish complimented him. The earl could see that he had to be sufficiently alert.
Age mouthed an ugly word to the veteran insensible of it in his body, when a desire to be one with these pairs of nimble wrists and legs was like an old gamecock shown the pit and put back into the basket. He left the place, carrying away an image of the coxcombical attitudinizing of the man Morsfield at the salut, upon which he brought down his powers of burlesque.
My lord sketched the scene he had just quitted to a lady who had stopped her carriage. She was the still beautiful Mrs. Amy May, wife of the famous fighting captain. Her hair was radiant in a shady street; her eyelids tenderly toned round the almond enclosure of blue pebbles, bright as if shining from the seawash. The lips of the fair woman could be seen to say that they were sweet when, laughing or discoursing, they gave sight of teeth proudly her own, rivalling the regularity of the grin of dentistry. A Venus of nature was melting into a Venus of art, and there was a decorous concealment of the contest and the anguish in the process, for which Lord Ormont liked her well enough to wink benevolently at her efforts to cheat the world at various issues, and maintain her duel with Time. The world deserved that she should beat it, even if she had been all deception.
She let the subject of Mr. Morsfield pass without remark from her, until the exhaustion of open-air topics hinted an end of their conversation, and she said–
‘We shall learn next week what to think if the civilians. I have heard Mr. Morsfield tell that he is ‘de premiere force.’ Be on your guard. You are to know that I never forget a service, and you did me one once.’ ‘You have reason . . . ?’ said the earl.
‘If anybody is the dragon to the treasure he covets he is a spadassin who won’t hesitate at provocations. Adieu.’
Lord Ormont’s eye had been on Mr. Morsfield. He had seen what Mrs. Pagnell counselled her niece to let, him see. He thanked Mr. Morsfield for a tonic that made him young with anticipations of bracing; and he set his head to work upon an advance half-way to meet the gentleman, and safely exclude his wife’s name.
Monday brought an account of Cuper’s boys. Aminta received it while the earl was at his papers for the morning’s news of the weightier deeds of men.
They were the right boys, Weyburn said; his interview with Gowen, Bench, Parsons, and the others assured him that the school was breathing big lungs. Mr. Cuper, too, had spoken well of them.
‘You walked the twenty miles?’ Aminta interrupted him.
‘With my German friend: out and home: plenty of time in the day. He has taken to English boys, but asks why enthusiasm and worship of great deeds don’t grow upward from them to their elders. And I, in turn, ask why Germans insist on that point more even than the French do.’
‘Germans are sentimental. But the English boys he saw belonged to a school with traditions of enthusiasm sown by some one. The school remembered?’
‘Curiously, Mr. Cuper tells me, the hero of the school has dropped and sprung up, stout as ever, twice–it tells me what I wish to believe– since Lord Ormont led their young heads to glory. He can’t say how it comes. The tradition’s there, and it ‘s kindled by some flying spark.’
‘They remember who taught the school to think of Lord Ormont?’
‘I ‘m a minor personage. I certainly did some good, and that ‘s a push forward.’
‘They speak of you?’
It was Aminta more than the Countess of Ormont speaking to him.
‘You take an interest in the boys,’ he said, glowing. ‘Yes, well, they have their talks. I happened to be a cricketer, counting wickets and scores. I don’t fancy it’s remembered that it was I preached my lord. A day of nine wickets and one catch doesn’t die out of a school. The boy Gowen was the prime spirit in getting up the subscription for the laundress. But Bench and Parsons are good boys, too.’
He described them, dwelt on them. The enthusiast, when not lyrical, is perilously near to boring. Aminta was glad of Mrs. Lawrence’s absence. She had that feeling because Matthew Weyburn would shun talk of himself to her, not from a personal sense of tedium in hearing of the boys; and she was quaintly reminded by suggestions, coming she knew not whence, of a dim likeness between her and these boys of the school when their hero dropped to nothing and sprang up again brilliantly–a kind of distant cousinship, in her susceptibility to be kindled by so small a flying spark as this one on its travels out of High Brent. Moreover, the dear boys tied her to her girlhood, and netted her fleeting youth for the moth-box. She pressed to hear more and more of them, and of the school- laundress Weyburn had called to see, and particularly of the child, little Jane, aged six. Weyburn went to look at the sheet of water to which little Jane had given celebrity over the county. The girl stood up to her shoulders when she slid off the bank and made the line for her brother to hold, he in the water as well. Altogether, Cuper’s boys were justified in promoting a subscription, the mother being helpless.
‘Modest little woman,’ he said of Jane. ‘We’ll hope people won’t spoil her. Don’t forget, Lady Ormont, that the brother did his part; he had more knowledge of the danger than she.’
‘You will undertake to convey our subscriptions? Lord Ormont spoke of the little ones and the schoolboys yesterday.’
‘I’ll be down again among them next Sunday, Lady Ormont. On the Monday I go to Olmer.’
‘The girls of High Brent subscribe?’
There was a ripple under Weyburn’s gravity.
‘Messrs. Gowen, Bench, and Parsons thought proper to stop Miss Vincent at the head of her detachment in the park.’
‘On the Sunday?’
‘And one of them handed her a paper containing a report of their interview with Mrs. Coop and a neat eulogy of little Jane. But don’t suspect them, I beg. I believe them to be good, honest fellows. Bench, they say, is religious; Gowen has written verses; Parsons generally harum-scarum. They’re boyish in one way or another, and that’ll do. The cricket of the school has been low: seems to be reviving.’
‘Mr. Weyburn,’ said the countess, after a short delay–and Aminta broke through–‘it pleases me to hear of them, and think they have not forgotten you, or, at least, they follow the lead you gave. I should like to know whether an idea I have is true: Is much, I mean constant, looking down on young people likely to pull one’s mind down to their level?’
‘Likely enough to betray our level, if there ‘s danger,’ he murmured. ‘Society offers an example that your conjecture is not unfounded, Lady Ormont. But if we have great literature and an interest in the world’s affairs, can there be any fear of it? The schoolmaster ploughs to make a richer world, I hope. He must live with them, join with them in their games, accustom them to have their heads knocked with what he wants to get into them, leading them all the while, as the bigger schoolfellow does, if he is a good fellow. He has to be careful not to smell of his office. Doing positive good is the business of his every day–on a small scale, but it ‘s positive, if he likes his boys. ‘Avaunt favouritism!’ he must like all boys. And it ‘s human nature not so far removed from the dog; only it’s a supple human nature: there ‘s the beauty of it. We train it. Nothing is more certain than that it will grow upward. I have the belief that I shall succeed, because I like boys, and they like me. It always was the case.’
‘I know,’ said Aminta.
Their eyes met. She looked moved at heart behind that deep forest of her chestnut eyes.
‘And I think I can inspire confidence in fathers and mothers,’ he resumed.’ I have my boys already waiting for me to found the school. I was pleased the other day: an English friend brought an Italian gentleman to see me and discuss my system, up at Norwood, at my mother’s –a Signor Calliani. He has a nephew; the parents dote on him. The uncle confesses that the boy wants–he has got hold of our word–“pluck.” We had a talk. He has promised to send me the lad when I am established in Switzerland.’
‘When?’ said Aminta.
‘A relative from whom a Reversion comes is near the end. It won’t be later than September that I shall go. My Swiss friend has the school, and would take me at once before he retires.’
‘You make friends wherever you go,’ said Aminta.
‘Why shouldn’t everybody? I’m convinced it’s because I show people I mean well, and I never nurse an injury, great or small. And besides, they see I look forward. I do hope good for the world. If at my school we have all nationalities–French boys and German, Italian, Russian, Spaniard–without distinction of race and religion and station, and with English intermixing–English games, English sense of honour and conception of gentleman–we shall help to nationalize Europe. Emile Grenat, Adolf Fleischer, and an Italian, Vincentino Chiuse, are prepared to start with me: and they are men of attainments; they will throw up their positions; they will do me the honour to trust to my leadership. It’s not scaling Alps or commanding armies, true.’
‘It may be better,’ said Aminta, and thought as she spoke.
‘Slow work, if we have a taste for the work, doesn’t dispirit. Otherwise, one may say that an African or South American traveller has a more exciting time. I shall manage to keep my head on its travels.’
‘You have ideas about the education of girls?’
‘They can’t be carried out unaided.’
‘Aid will come.’
Weyburn’s confidence, high though it was, had not mounted to that pitch.
‘One may find a mate,’ he said. The woman to share and practically to aid in developing such ideas is not easily found: that he left as implied.
Aminta was in need of poetry; but the young schoolmaster’s plain, well- directed prose of the view of a business in life was welcome to her.
Lord Ormont entered the room. She reminded him of the boys of High Brent and the heroine Jane. He was ready to subscribe his five-and-twenty guineas, he said. The amount of the sum gratified Weyburn, she could see. She was proud of her lord, and of the boys and the little girl; and she would have been happy to make the ardent young schoolmaster aware of her growing interest in the young.
The night before the earl’s departure on the solitary expedition to which she condemned him, he surprised her with a visit of farewell, so that he need not disturb her in the early morning, he said. She was reading beside her open jewel-box, and she closed it with the delicate touch of a hand turned backward while listening to him, with no sign of nervousness.
WAR AT OLMER
Lively doings were on the leap to animate Weyburn at Olmer during Easter week. The Rev. Mr. Hampton-Evey, rector of Barborough, on hearing that Lady Charlotte Eglett was engaged in knocking at the doors of litigation with certain acts that constituted distinct breaches of the law and the peace, and were a violation of the rights of her neighbour, Mr. Gilbert Addicote, might hope that the troublesome parishioner whom he did not often number among his congregation would grant him a term of repose. Therein he was deceived. Alterations and enlargements of the church, much required, had necessitated the bricking up of a door regarded by the lady as the private entrance to the Olmer pew. She sent him notice of her intention to batter at the new brickwork; so there was the prospect of a pew-fight before him. But now she came to sit under him every Sunday; and he could have wished her absent; for she diverted his thoughts from piety to the selections of texts applicable in the case of a woman who sat with arms knotted, and the frown of an intemperate schoolgirl forbidden speech; while her pew’s firelight startlingly at intervals danced her sinister person into view, as from below. The lady’s inaccessible and unconquerable obtuseness to exhortation informed the picture with an evil spirit that cried for wrestlings.
Regularly every week-day she headed the war now rageing between Olmer and Addicotes, on the borders of the estates. It was open war, and herself to head the cavalry. Weyburn, driving up a lane in the gig she had sent to meet the coach, beheld a thicket of countrymen and boys along a ridge; and it swayed and broke, and through it burst the figure of a mounted warrior woman at the gallop, followed by what bore an appearance of horse and gun, minus carriage, drivers at the flanks cracking whips on foot. Off went the train, across a small gorse common, through a gate.
‘That’s another down,’ said his whip. ‘Sound good wood it is, not made to fall. Her ladyship’s at it hard to-day. She ‘ll teach Mr. Addicote a thing or two about things females can do. That is, when they stand for their rights.’
He explained to Weyburn that Mr. Addicote, a yeoman farmer and a good hunting man, but a rare obstinate one, now learning his lesson from her ladyship, was in dispute with her over rights of property on a stretch of fir-trees lining the ridge where the estates of Olmer and Addicotes met. Her ladyship had sworn that if he did not yield to her claim she would cut down every tree of the ridge and sell the lot for timber under his nose. She acted according to her oath, in the teeth of his men two feet across the border. All the world knew the roots of those trees were for the most part in Olmer soil, though Addicote shared the shade. All the people about mourned for the felling of those trees. All blamed Mr. Gilbert Addicote for provoking her ladyship, good hunting man though he was. But as to the merits of the question, under the magnifier of the gentlemen of the law, there were as many different opinions as wigs in the land.
‘And your opinion?’ said Weyburn.
To which the young groom answered: ‘Oh, I don’t form an opinion, sir. I ‘m of my mistress’s opinion; and if she says, Do it, think as we like, done it has to be.’
Lady Charlotte came at a trot through the gate, to supervise the limbering-up of another felled tree. She headed it as before. The log dragged bounding and twirling, rattling its chains; the crowd along the ridge, forbidden to cheer, watching it with intense repression of the roar. We have not often in England sight of a great lady challengeing an unpopular man to battle and smacking him in the face like this to provoke him. Weyburn was driven on a half-circle of the lane to the gate, where he jumped out to greet Lady Charlotte trotting back for another smack in the face of her enemy,–a third rounding of her Troy with the vanquished dead at her heels, as Weyburn let a flimsy suggestion beguile his fancy, until the Homeric was overwhelming even to a playful mind, and he put her in a mediaeval frame. She really had the heroical aspect in a grandiose-grotesque, fitted to some lines of Ariosto. Her head wore a close hood, disclosing a fringe of grey locks, owlish to see about features hooked for action.
‘Ah, you! there you are: good–I’ll join you in three minutes,’ she sang out to him, and cantered to the ridge.
Hardly beyond the stated number she was beside him again, ranging her steed for the victim log to dance a gyration on its branches across the lane and enter a field among the fallen compeers. One of her men had run behind her. She slid from her saddle and tossed him the reins, catching up her skirts.
‘That means war, as much as they’ll have it in England,’ she said, seeing his glance at the logs. ‘My husband’s wise enough to leave it to me, so I save him trouble with neighbours. An ass of a Mr. Gilbert Addicote dares us to make good our claim on our property, our timber, because half a score of fir-tree roots go stretching on to his ground.’
She swished her whip. Mr. Gilbert Addicote received the stroke and retired, a buried subject. They walked on at an even pace. ‘You ‘ll see Leo to-morrow. He worships you. You may as well give him a couple of hours’ coaching a day for the week. He’ll be hanging about you, and you won’t escape him. Well, and my brother Rowsley: how is Lord Ormont? He never comes to me now, since–Well, it ‘s nothing to me; but I like to see my brother. She can’t make any change here. Olmer and Lady Charlotte ‘s bosom were both implied. ‘What do you think?–you ‘ve noticed: is he in good health? It ‘s the last thing he ‘ll be got to speak of.’
Weyburn gave the proper assurances.
‘Not he!’ said she. ‘He’s never ill. Men beat women in the long race, if they haven’t overdone it when young. My doctor wants me to renounce the saddle. He says it ‘s time. Not if I ‘ve got work for horseback!’ she nicked her head emphatically: ‘I hate old age. They sha’nt dismount me till a blow comes. Hate it! But I should despise myself if I showed signs, like a worm under heel. Let Nature do her worst; she can’t conquer us as long as we keep up heart. You won’t have to think of that for a good time yet. Now tell me why Lord Ormont didn’t publish the “Plan for the Defence” you said he was writing; and he was, I know. He wrote it and he finished it; you made the fair copy. Well, and he read it,–there! see!’ She took the invisible sheets in her hands and tore them. ‘That’s my brother. He’s so proud. It would have looked like asking the country, that injured him, to forgive him. I wish it had been printed. But whatever he does I admire. That–she might have advised, if she ‘d been a woman of public spirit or cared for his reputation. He never comes near me. Did she read your copy?’
The question was meant for an answer.
Weyburn replied: ‘Lady Ormont had no sight of it.’
‘Ah! she’s Lady Ormont to the servants, I know. She has an aunt living in the house. If my brother’s a sinner, and there’s punishment for him, he has it from that aunt. Pag . . . something. He bears with her. He ‘s a Spartan. She ‘s his pack on his back, for what she covers and the game he plays. It looks just tolerably decent with her in the house. She goes gabbling a story about our Embassy at Madrid. To preserve propriety, as they call it. Her niece doesn’t stoop to any of those tricks, I ‘m told. I like her for that.’
Weyburn was roused: ‘I think you would like Lady Ormont, if you knew her, my lady.’
‘The chances of my liking the young woman are not in the dice-box. You call her Lady Ormont: you are not one of the servants. Don’t call her Lady Ormont to me.’
‘It is her title, Lady Charlotte.’ She let fly a broadside at him.
‘You are one of the woman’s dupes. I thought you had brains. How can you be the donkey not to see that my brother Rowsley, Lord Ormont, would never let a woman, lawfully bearing his name, go running the quadrille over London in couples with a Lady Staines and a Mrs. Lawrence Finchley, Lord Adderwood, and that man Morsfield, who boasts of your Lady Ormont, and does it unwhipped—tell me why? Pooh, you must be the poorest fool born to suppose it possible my brother would allow a man like that man Morsfield to take his wife’s name in his mouth a second time. Have you talked much with this young person?’
‘With Lady Ormont? I have had the honour occasionally.’
‘Stick to the title and write yourself plush-breech. Can’t you be more than a footman? Try to be a man of the world; you’re old enough for that by now. I know she ‘s good-looking; the whole tale hangs on that. You needn’t be singing me mooncalf hymn tunes of “Lady Ormont, Lady Ormont,” solemn as a parson’s clerk; the young woman brought good looks to market; and she got the exchange she had a right to expect. But it ‘s not my brother Rowsley’s title she has got–except for footmen and tradesmen. When there’s a true Countess of Ormont!….. Unless my brother has cut himself from his family. Not he. He’s not mad.’
They passed through Olmer park-gates. Lady Charlotte preceded him, and she turned, waiting for him to rejoin her. He had taken his flagellation in the right style, neither abashed nor at sham crow: he was easy, ready to converse on any topic; he kept the line between supple courtier and sturdy independent; and he was a pleasant figure of a young fellow. Thinking which, a reminder that she liked him drew her by the road of personal feeling, as usual with her, to reflect upon another, and a younger, woman’s observing and necessarily liking him too.
‘You say you fancy I should like the person you call Lady Ormont?’
‘I believe you would, my lady.’
‘Are her manners agreeable?’
‘Perfect; no pretension.’
‘Ah! she sings, plays–all that?
‘She plays the harp and sings.’
‘You have heard her?’
‘She didn’t set you mewing?’
‘I don’t remember the impulse; at all events, it was restrained.’
‘She would me; but I’m an old woman. I detest their squalling and strumming. I can stand it with Italians on the boards: they don’t, stop conversation. She was present at that fencing match where you plucked a laurel? I had an account of it. I can’t see the use of fencing in this country. Younger women can, I dare say. Now, look. If we’re to speak of her, I can’t call her Lady Ormont, and I don’t want to hear you. Give me her Christian name.’
‘It is’–Weyburn found himself on a slope without a stay–‘Aminta.’
Lady Charlotte’s eye was on him. He felt intolerably hot; his vexation at the betrayal of the senseless feeling made it worse, a conscious crimson.
‘Aminta,’ said she, rather in the style of Cuper’s boys, when the name was a strange one to them. ‘I remember my Italian master reading out a poem when I was a girl. I read poetry then. You wouldn’t have imagined that. I did, and liked it. I hate old age. It changes you so. None of my children know me as I was when I had life in me and was myself, and my brother Rowsley called me Cooey. They think me a hard old woman. I was Cooey through the woods and over the meadows and down stream to Rowsley. Old age is a prison wall between us and young people. They see a miniature head and bust, and think it a flattery–won’t believe it. After I married I came to understand that the world we are in is a world to fight in, or under we go. But I pity the young who have to cast themselves off and take up arms. Young women above all.’
Why had she no pity for Aminta? Weyburn asked it of his feelings, and he had the customary insurgent reply from them.
‘You haven’t seen Steignton yet,’ she continued. ‘No place on earth is equal to Steignton for me. It ‘s got the charm. Here at Olmer I’m a mother and a grandmother–the “devil of an old-woman” my neighbours take me to be. She hasn’t been to Steignton, either. No, and won’t go there, though she’s working her way round, she supposes. He’ll do everything for his “Aminta,” but he won’t take her to Steignton. I’m told now she’s won Lady de Culme. That Mrs. Lawrence Finclhley has dropped the curtsey to her great-aunt and sworn to be a good girl, for a change, if Lady de Culme will do the chaperon, and force Lord Ormont’s hand. My brother shrugs. There’ll be a nice explosion one day soon. Presented? The Court won’t have her. That I know for positive. If she’s pushed forward, she ‘ll be bitterly snubbed. It ‘s on the heads of those women –silly women! I can’t see the game Mrs. Lawrence Finchley’s playing. She’d play for fun. If they’d come to me, I ‘d tell them I ‘ve proof she ‘s not the Countess of Ormont: positive proof. You look? I have it. I hold something; and not before,–(he may take his Aminta to Steignton, he may let her be presented, she may wear his name publicly, I say he’s laughing at them, snapping his fingers at them louder and louder the more they seem to be pushing him into a corner, until–I know my brother Rowsley!–and, poor dear fellow! a man like that, the best cavalry general England ever had:–they’ll remember it when there comes a cry for a general from India: that’s the way with the English; only their necessities teach them to be just!)–he to be reduced to be out- manoeuvring a swarm of women,–I tell them, not before my brother Rowsley comes to me for what he handed to my care and I keep safe for him, will I believe he has made or means to make his Aminta Countess of Ormont.’
They were at the steps of the house. Turning to Weyburn there, the inexhaustible Lady Charlotte remarked that their conversation had given her pleasure. Leo was hanging on to one of his hands the next minute. A small girl took the other. Philippa and Beatrice were banished damsels.
Lady Charlotte’s breath had withered the aspect of Aminta’s fortunes. Weyburn could forgive her, for he was beginning to understand her. He could not pardon ‘her brother Rowsley,’ who loomed in his mind incomprehensible, and therefore black. Once he had thought the great General a great man. He now regarded him as a mere soldier, a soured veteran; socially as a masker and a trifler, virtually a callous angler playing his cleverly-hooked fish for pastime.
What could be the meaning of Lady Charlotte’s ‘that, man Morsfield, who boasts of your Lady Ormont, and does it unwhipped’?
Weyburn stopped his questioning, with the reflection that he had no right to recollect her words thus accurately. The words, however, stamped Morsfield’s doings and sayings and postures in the presence of Aminta with significance. When the ladies were looking on at the fencers, Morsfield’s perfect coxcombry had been noticeable. He knew the art of airing a fine figure. Mrs. Lawrence Finchley had spoken of it, and Aminta had acquiesced; in the gravely simple manner of women who may be thinking of it much more intently than the vivacious prattler. Aminta confessed to an admiration of masculine physical beauty; the picador, matador, of the Spanish ring called up an undisguised glow that English ladies show coldly when they condescend to let it be seen; as it were, a line or two of colour on the wintriest of skies. She might, after all, at heart be one of the leisured, jewelled, pretty-winged; the spending, never harvesting, world she claimed and sought to enter. And what a primitive world it was!–world of the glittering beast and the not too swiftly flying prey, the savage passions clothed in silk. Surely desire to belong to it writes us poor creatures. Mentally, she could hardly be maturer than the hero-worshipping girl in the procession of Miss Vincent’s young seminarists. Probably so, but she carried magic. She was of the order of women who walk as the goddesses of old, bearing the gift divine. And, by the way, she had the step of the goddess. Weyburn repeated to himself the favourite familiar line expressive of the glorious walk, and accused Lord Ormont of being in cacophonous accordance with the perpetual wrong of circumstance, he her possessor, the sole person of her sphere insensible to the magic she bore! So ran his thought.
The young man chose to conceive that he thought abstractedly. He was, in truth, often casting about for the chances of his meeting on some fortunate day the predestined schoolmaster’s wife: a lady altogether praiseworthy for carrying principles of sound government instead of magic. Consequently, susceptible to woman’s graces though he knew himself to be, Lady Ormont’s share of them hung in the abstract for him. His hopes were bent on an early escape to Switzerland and his life’s work.
Lady Charlotte mounted to ride to the battle daily. She talked of her brother Rowsley, and of ‘Aminta,’ and provoked an advocacy of the Countess of Ormont, and trampled the pleas and defences to dust, much in the same tone as on the first day; sometimes showing a peep of sweet humaneness, like the ripe berry of a bramble, and at others rattling thunder at the wretch of a woman audacious enough to pretend to a part in her brother’s title.
Not that she had veneration for titles. She considered them a tinsel, and the devotee on his knee-caps to them a lump for a kick. Adding: ‘Of course I stand for my class; and if we can’t have a manlier people– and it ‘s not likely in a country treating my brother so badly–well, then, let things go on as they are.’ But it was the pretension to a part in the name of Ormont which so violently offended the democratic aristocrat, and caused her to resent it as an assault on the family honour, by ‘a woman springing up out of nothing’–a woman of no distinctive birth.
She was rational in her fashion; or Weyburn could at least see where and how the reason in her took a twist. The Rev. Mr. Hampton-Evey would not see it; he was, in charity to her ladyship, of a totally contrary opinion, he informed Weyburn. The laborious pastor and much-enduring Churchman met my lady’s apologist as he was having a swing of the legs down the lanes before breakfast, and he fell upon a series of complaints, which were introduced by a declaration that ‘he much feared’ her ladyship would have a heavy legal bill to pay for taking the law into her hands up at Addicotes.
Her ladyship might, if she pleased, he said, encourage her domestics and her husband’s tenants and farm-labourers to abandon the church for the chapel, and go, as she had done and threatened to do habitually, to the chapel herself; but to denounce the ritual of the Orthodox Church under the denomination of ‘barbarous,’ to say of the invoking supplications of the service, that they were–she had been heard to state it more or less publicly and repeatedly–suitable to abject ministers and throngs at the court of an Indian rajah, that he did not hesitate to term highly unbecoming in a lady of her station, subversive and unchristian. The personal burdens inflicted on him by her ladyship he prayed for patience to endure. He surprised Weyburn in speaking of Lady Charlotte as ‘educated and accomplished.’ She was rather more so than Weyburn knew, and more so than was common among the great ladies of her time.
Weyburn strongly advised the reverend gentleman on having it out with Lady Charlotte in a personal interview. He sketched the great lady’s combative character on a foundation of benevolence, and stressed her tolerance for open dealing, and the advantage gained by personal dealings with her–after a mauling or two. His language and his illustrations touched an old-school chord in the Rev. Mr. Hampton-Evey, who hummed over the project, profoundly disrelishing the introductory portion.
‘Do me the honour to call and see me to-morrow, after breakfast, before her ladyship starts for the fray on Addicote heights,’ Weyburn said; ‘and I will ask your permission to stand by you. Her bark is terrific, we know; and she can bite, but there’s no venom.’
Finally, on a heave of his chest, Mr. Hampton-Evey consented to call, in the interests of peace.
Weyburn had said it must be ‘man to man with her, facing her and taking steps’; and, although the prospect was unpleasant to repulsiveness, it was a cheerful alternative beside Mr. Hampton-Evey’s experiences and anticipations of the malignant black power her ladyship could be when she was not faced.
‘Let the man come,’ said Lady Charlotte. Her shoulders intimated readiness for him.
She told Weyburn he might be present–insisted to have him present. During the day Weyburn managed to slide in observations on the favourable reports of Mr. Hampton-Evey’s work among the poor–emollient doses that irritated her to fret and paw, as at a checking of her onset.
In the afternoon the last disputed tree on the Addicotes’ ridge was felled and laid on Olmer ground. Riding with Weyburn and the joyful Leo, she encountered Mr. Eglett and called out the news. He remarked, in the tone of philosophy proper to a placable country gentleman obedient to government on foreign affairs: ‘Now for the next act. But no more horseback now, mind!’
She muttered of not recollecting a promise. He repeated the interdict. Weyburn could fancy seeing her lips form words of how she hated old age.
He had been four days at Olmer, always facing her, ‘man to man,’ in the matter of Lady Ormont, not making way at all, but holding firm, and winning respectful treatment. They sat alone in her private room, where, without prelude, she discharged a fiery squib at impudent hussies caught up to the saddle-bow of a hero for just a canter, and pretending to a permanent seat beside him.
‘You have only to see Lady Ormont; you will admit the justice of her claim, my lady,’ said he; and as evidently he wanted a fight, she let him have it.
‘You try to provoke me; you take liberties. You may call the woman Aminta, I’ve told you; you insult me when you call the woman by my family name.’
‘Pardon me, my lady: I have no right to call Lady Ormont Aminta.’
‘You’ve never done so, eh? Say!’
She had him at the edge of the precipice. He escaped by saying, ‘Her Christian name was asked the other day, and I mentioned it. She is addressed by me as Lady Ormont.’
‘And by her groom and her footman. They all do; it ‘s the indemnity to that class of young woman. Her linendraper is Lady-Ormonting as you do. I took you for a gentleman. Let me hear you give her that title again, you shall hear her true one, that the world fits her with, from me.’
The time was near the half-hour bell before dinner, the situation between them that of the fall of the breath to fetch words electrical. She left it to him to begin the fight, and was not sorry that she had pricked him for it.
A footman entered the room, bearer of a missive for Mr. Weyburn. Lord Ormont’s groom had brought it from London.
‘Send in the man,’ said Lady Charlotte.
‘The Countess of Ormont begs Mr. Weyburn to return instantly. There has been an accident in his home. It may not be very serious. An arm–a shock to the system from a fall. Messenger informs her, fear of internal hemorrhage. Best doctors in attendance.’
He handed Lady Charlotte the letter. She humped at the first line, flashed across the remainder, and in a lowered voice asked–
‘Sister in the house?’
‘My mother,’ Weyburn said.
The groom appeared. He knew nothing. The Countess had given him orders to spare no expense on the road to Olmer, without a minute’s delay. He had ridden and driven.
He looked worn. Lady Charlotte rang the bell for her butler. To him she said–
‘See that this man has a good feed of meat, any pastry you have, and a bottle of port wine. He has earned a pipe of tobacco; make up a bed for him. Despatch at once any one of the stable-boys to Loughton–the Dolphin. Mr. Leeman there will have a chariot, fly, gig, anything, ready-horsed in three hours from now. See Empson yourself; he will put my stepper Mab to the light trap; no delay. Have his feed at Loughton. Tell Mrs. Maples to send up now, here, a tray, whatever she has, within five minutes–not later. A bottle of the Peace of Amiens Chambertin– Mr. Eglett’s. You understand. Mrs. Maples will pack a basket for the journey; she will judge. Add a bottle of the Waterloo Bordeaux. Wait: a dozen of Mr. Eglett’s cigars. Brisk with all the orders. Go.’
She turned to Weyburn. ‘You pack your portmanteau faster than a servant will do it.’
He ran up-stairs.
She was beside the tray to welcome and inspirit his eating, and she performed the busy butler’s duty in pouring out wine for him. It was a toned old Burgundy, happy in the year of its birth, the grandest of instruments to roll the gambol-march of the Dionysiaca through the blood of this frame and sound it to the spirit. She spoke no word of his cause for departure. He drank, and he felt what earth can do to cheer one of her stricken children and strengthen the beat of a heart with a dread like a shot in it.
She, while he flew supporting the body of his most beloved to the sun of Life in brighter hope, reckoned the stages of his journey.
‘Leeman at Loughton will post you through the night to Mersley. Wherever you bait, it is made known that you come from Olmer, and are one of us. That passes you on up to London. Where can Lord Ormont be now?’
‘Still in Paris? He leaves her. She did well to send as she did. You will not pay for the posting along the road.’
‘I will pay for myself–I have a ‘purse,’ Weyburn said; and continued, ‘Oh, my lady; there is Mr. Hampton-Evey to-morrow morning: I promised to stand by him.’
‘I’ll explain,’ said Lady Charlotte. ‘He shall not miss you. If he strips the parson and comes as a man and a servant of the poor, he has nothing to fear. You’ve done? The night before my brother Rowsley’s first duel I sat with him at supper and poured his wine out, and knew what was going to happen, didn’t say a word. No use in talking about feelings. Besides, death is only the other side of the ditch, and one or other of us must go foremost. Now then, good-bye. Empson’s waiting by this time. Mr. Eglett and Leo shall hear the excuses from me. Think of anything you may want, while I count ten.’
She held his hand. He wanted her to be friendly to Lady Ormont, but could not vex her at the last moment, touched as he was by her practical kindness.
She pressed his hand and let it go.
OLD LOVERS NEW FRIENDS
The cottage inhabited by Weyburn’s mother was on the southern hills over London. He reached it late in the afternoon. His mother’s old servant, Martha, spied the roadway at the gate of the small square of garden. Her steady look without welcome told him the scene he would meet beyond the door, and was the dead in her eyes. He dropped from no height; he stood on a level with the blow. His apprehensions on the road had lowered him to meet it.
‘Too late, Martha?’
‘She’s in heaven, my dear.’
‘She is lying alone?’
‘The London doctor left half an hour back. She’s gone. Slipped, and fell, coming from her room, all the way down. She prayed for grace to see her son. She ‘ll watch over him, be sure. You ‘ll not find it lone and cold. A lady sits with it–Lady Ormont, they call her–a very kind lady. My mistress liked her voice. Ever since news of the accident, up to ten at night; and never eats or drinks more than a poor tiny bit of bread-and-butter, with a teacup.’
‘Weyburn went up-stairs.
Aminta sat close to the bedside in a darkened room. They greeted silently. He saw the white shell of the life that had flown; he took his mother’s hand and kissed it, and knelt, clasping it.
Fear of disturbing his prayer kept Aminta seated. Death was a stranger to him. The still warm, half-cold, nerveless hand smote the fact of things as they were through the prayer for things as we would have them. The vitality of his prayer was the sole light he had. It drew sustainment from the dead hand in his grasp, and cowered down to the earth claiming all we touch. He tried to summon vision of a soaring spirituality; he could not; his understanding and senses were too stricken. He prayed on. His prayer was as a little fountain, not rising high out of earth, and in the clutch of death; but its being it had from death, his love gave it food.
Prayer is power within us to communicate with the desired beyond our thirsts. The goodness of the dear good mother gone was in him for assurance of a breast of goodness to receive her, whatever the nature of the eternal secret may be. The good life gone lives on in the mind; the bad has but a life in the body, and that not lasting,–it extends, dispreads, it worms away, it perishes. Need we more to bid the mind perceive through obstructive flesh the God who reigns, a devil vanquished? Be certain that it is the pure mind we set to perceive. The God discerned in thought is another than he of the senses. And let the prayer be as a little fountain. Rising on a spout, from dread of the hollow below, the prayer may be prolonged in words begetting words, and have a pulse of fervour: the spirit of it has fallen after the first jet. That is the delirious energy of our craving, which has no life in our souls. We do not get to any heaven by renouncing the Mother we spring from; and when there is an eternal secret for us, it is befit to believe that Earth knows, to keep near her, even in our utmost aspirations.
Weyburn still knelt. He was warned to quit the formal posture of an exhausted act by the thought, that he had come to reflect upon how he might be useful to his boys in a like calamity.
Having risen, he became aware, that for some time of his kneeling Aminta’s hand had been on his head, and they had raised their souls in unison. It was a soul’s link. They gazed together on the calm, rapt features. They passed from the room.
‘I cannot thank you,’ he said.
‘Oh no; I have the reason for gratitude,’ said she. ‘I have learnt to know and love her, and hope I may imitate when my time is near.’
“She….. at the last?’
‘Peacefully; no pain. The breath had not left her very long before you came.’
‘I said I cannot; but I must–
‘Not in speech, then.’
They went into the tasteful little sitting-room below, where the stillness closed upon them as a consciousness of loss.
‘You have comforted her each day,’ he said.
‘It has been my one happiness.’
‘I could not wish for better than for her to have known you.’
‘Say that for me. I have gained. She left her last words for you with me. They were love, love . . . pride in her son: thanks to God for having been thought worthy to give him birth.’
‘She was one of the noble women of earth.’
‘She was your mother. Let me not speak any more. I think I will now go. I am rarely given to these–‘
The big drops were falling.
‘You have not ordered your carriage?’
‘It brings me here. I find my way home.’
‘I like the independence.’
‘At night, too!’
‘Nothing harmed me. Now it is daylight. A letter arrived for you from High Brent this morning. I forgot to bring it. Yesterday two of your pupils called here. Martha saw them.’
Her naming of the old servant familiarly melted him. ‘You will not bear to hear praise or thanks.’
‘If I deserved them. I should like you to call on Dr. Buxton; he will tell you more than we can. He drove with me the first day, after I had sent you the local doctor’s report. I had it from the messenger, his assistant.’
Weyburn knew Dr. Buxton’s address. He begged her to stay and take some nourishment; ventured a remark on her wasted look.
‘It is poor fare in cottages.’
‘I have been feeding on better than bread and meat,’ she said.’ I should have eaten if I had felt appetite. My looks will recover, such as they are. I hope I have grown out of them; they are a large part of the bondage of women. You would like to see me safe into some conveyance. Go up-stairs for a few minutes; I will wait here.’
He obeyed her. Passing from the living to the dead, from the dead to the living, they were united in his heart.
Her brevity of tone, and her speech, so practical upon a point of need, under a crisis of distress, reminded him of Lady Charlotte at the time of the groom’s arrival with her letter.
Aminta was in no hurry to drive. She liked walking and looking down on London, she said.
‘My friend and schoolmate, Selina Collett, comes to me at Whitsuntide. We have taken a house on the Upper Thames, above Marlow. You will come and see us, if you can be persuaded to leave your boys. We have a boathouse, and a bathing-plank for divers. The stream is quiet there between rich meadows. It seems to flow as if it thought. I am not poetical; I tell you only my impression. You shall be a great deal by yourself, as men prefer to be.’
‘As men are forced to be–I beg!’ said he. ‘Division is against my theories.’
‘We might help, if we understood one another, I have often fancied. I know something of your theories. I should much like to hear you some day on the scheme of the school in Switzerland, and also on the schoolmaster’s profession. She whom we have lost was full of it, and spoke of it to me as much as her weakness would permit. The subject seemed to give her strength.’
‘She has always encouraged me,’ said Weyburn.’ I have lost her, but I shall feel that she is not absent. She had ideas of her own about men and women.’
‘Some she mentioned.’
‘And about marriage?’
Aminta shook herself out of a sudden stupor.
‘Her mind was very clear up to the last hour upon all the subjects interesting her son. She at one time regretted his not being a soldier, for the sake of his father’s memory. Then she learned to think he could do more for the world as the schoolmaster. She said you can persuade.’
‘We had our talks. She would have the reason, if she was to be won. I like no other kind of persuasion.’
‘I long to talk over the future school with you. That is, to hear your plans.’
They were at the foot of the hill, in view of an inn announcing livery stables. She wished to walk the whole distance. He shook his head.
The fly was ready for her soon, and he begged to see her safe home. She refused, after taking her seat, but said: ‘At any other time. We are old friends. You will really go through the ceremony of consulting me about the school?’
He replied: ‘I am honoured.’
‘Ah, not to me,’ said Aminta. ‘We will be the friends we–You will not be formal with me?–not from this day?’
She put out her hand. He took it gently. The dead who had drawn them together withheld a pressure. Holding the hand, he said: ‘I shall crave leave of absence for some days.’
‘I shall see you on the day,’ said she. ‘If it is your desire: I will send word.’
‘We both mourn at heart. We should be in company. Adieu.’
Their hands fell apart. They looked. The old school time was in each mind. They saw it as a shore-bank in grey outline across morning mist. Years were between; and there was a division of circumstance, more repelling than an abyss or the rush of deep wild waters.
Neither of them had regrets. Under their cloud, and with the grief they shared, they were as happy as two could be in recovering one another as friends.
On the day of the funeral Aminta drove to the spot where they had parted –she walked to the churchyard.
She followed the coffin to its gravel-heap, wishing neither to see nor be seen, only that she might be so far attached to the remains of the dead; and the sense of blessedness she had in her bowed simplicity of feeling was as if the sainted dead had cleansed and anointed her.
When the sods had been cast on, the last word spoken, she walked her way back, happy in being alone, unnoticed. She was grateful to the chief mourner for letting her go as she had come. That helped her to her sense of purification, the haven out of the passions, hardly less quiet than the repose into which the dear dead woman, his mother, had entered.
London lay beneath her. The might of the great hive hummed at the verge of her haven of peace without disturbing. There she had been what none had known of her: an ambitious girl, modest merely for lack of intrepidity; paralyzed by her masterful lord; aiming her highest at a gilt weathercock; and a disappointed creature, her breast a home of serpents; never herself. She thought and hoped she was herself now. Alarm lest this might be another of her moods, victim of moods as she had latterly been, was a shadow armed with a dart playing round her to find the weak spot. It sprang from her acknowledged weakness of nature; and she cast about for how to keep it outside her and lean on a true though a small internal support. She struck at her desires, to sound them.
They were yesterday for love; partly for distinction, for a woman having beauty to shine in the sphere of beauty; but chiefly to love and be loved, therefore to live. She had yesterday read letters of a man who broke a music from the word–about as much music as there is in a tuning –fork, yet it rang and lingered; and he was not the magical musician. Now those letters were as dust of the road. The sphere of beauty was a glass lamp-globe for delirious moths. She had changed. Belief in the real change gave her full view of the compliant coward she had been.
Her heart assured her she had natural courage. She felt that it could be stubborn to resist a softness. Now she cared no more for the hackneyed musical word; friendship was her desire. If it is not life’s poetry, it is a credible prose; a land of low undulations instead of Alps; beyond the terrors and the deceptions. And she could trust her friend: he who was a singular constancy. His mother had told her of his preserving letters of a girl he loved when at school; and of his journeys to an empty house at Dover. That was past; but, as the boy, so the man would be in sincerity of feeling trustworthy to the uttermost.
She mused on the friend. He was brave. She had seen how he took his blow, and sorrow as a sister, conquering emotion. It was not to be expected of him by one who knew him when at school. Had he faults? He must have faults. She, curiously, could see none. After consenting to his career as a schoolmaster, and seeing nothing ludicrous in it, she endowed him with the young school-hero’s reputation, beheld him with the eyes of the girl who had loved him–and burnt his old letters!–bitterly regretted that she burnt his letters!–and who had applauded his contempt of ushers and master opposing his individual will and the thing he thought it right to do.
Musing thus, she turned a corner, on a sudden, in her mind, and ran against a mirror, wherein a small figure running up to meet her, grew large and nodded, with the laugh and eyes of Browny. So little had she changed! The stedfast experienced woman rebuked that volatile, and some might say, faithless girl. But the girl had her answer: she declared they were one and the same, affirmed that the years between were a bad night’s dream, that her heart had been faithful, that he who conjures visions of romance in a young girl’s bosom must always have her heart, as a crisis will reveal it to her. She had the volubility of the mettled Browny of old, and was lectured. When she insisted on shouting ‘Matey! Matey!’ she was angrily spurned and silenced.