Essingham Rectory, which the Erskine Hollands had taken for the month of August, was a little old building with some picturesque points to console one for the tameness of the view from its windows. The surrounding country was perfectly flat but for Gallow Hill, and not at all green but for the glebe and the riverside meadows, while the only trees of any account were the rectory elms and those in the Mundham grounds. It is true that on Gallow Hill three wind-crippled beeches brandished their deformities against the sky, as they may do still; but the country around Essingham is no country for trees. It is the country for warrens and rabbits and roads without hedges. So it struck Christina as more like the back-blocks than anything she had hoped to see in England, and pleased her more than anything she had seen. She showed her pleasure before they arrived at Essingham. She forgot to disparage the old country during the long drive from the county town; and that was notable. She had actually no stone to cast at the elaborate and impressive gates of Mundham Hall; apparently she was herself impressed. But opposite the gates they turned to the left, into a narrow road with hedges, from which you can see the rectory, and as Herbert put it afterward:
“That’s what knocked our Tiny!”
For the girl’s first glimpse of the old house was over the hedge and far away above a brilliant sash of meadow green. The cream-colored walls were aglow in the low late sunshine, what was to be seen of them, for they were half hidden by a creeper almost as old as themselves. The red-tiled, weather-beaten roof was dark with age. Even at a distance one smelt rats in the wainscot within the stuccoed walls. Around the house, and towering above the tiles, the elms stood as still against the evening sky as the square church tower but a little way to the right. To the right of that, but farther away, rose Gallow Hill. Thereabouts the sun was sinking, but the clock on the near side of the church tower had gilt hands, which marked the hour when Christina stood up in the fly and astonished her friends with her frank delight. It was a point against this young lady, on subsequent occasions when she did not forget to decry the old country, that at ten minutes past seven on the evening of the 1st of August she had given way to enthusiasm over a scene that was purely English and very ordinary in itself.
Not that her immediate appreciation of the place became modified on a closer acquaintance with it. At the end of the first clear day at Essingham she informed the others that thus far she had not enjoyed herself so much since leaving Australia. Of course she had enjoyed herself in London. That did not count. London only compared itself with Melbourne, Christina did not care how favorably; but Essingham was for comparison with the place that was dearer to her than any other in the world. You will understand why all her appreciations were directly comparative. This is natural in the very young, and fortunately Tiny Luttrell was still very young in some respects. Blessed with observant eyes, and having at this time an irritable memory to keep her prejudices at attention, her mind soon became the scene of many curious and specific contests between England and Australia. In the match between Wallandoon and Essingham the latter made a better fight than you would think against so strong an opponent. The rectory was homely and convenient in its old age, and Christina was greatly charmed with her own room, because it was small; and if the wall-paper was modern and conventional, and not to be read from the pillow in the early morning, it was almost as pleasant to lie and watch the elm tops trembling against the sky. And if the sky was not really blue in England, the leaves in Australia were not really green, as Christina now knew. So there they were quits. But England and Essingham scored palpably in some things; the kitchen garden was one. Christina had never seen such a kitchen garden; she found it possible to spend half an hour there at any time, to her further contentment; and there were other attractions on the premises, which were just as good in their way, while their way was often better for one.
For instance, there was a lawn tennis court which satisfied the soul of Erskine, who played daily for its express refreshment. That was what brought him to Essingham. The neighboring clergy were always ready for a game. But they laughed at Erskine for being so keen; he would get up before breakfast to roll the court, which passed their understanding. Christina played also, by no means ill, and Herbert uncommonly well; but this player neither won nor lost very prettily. He was more amiable over the photography which he had taken up in partnership with Tiny; but his photographs were uncommonly bad. Yet this was another amusement in the country, where, however, Christina was most amused by the neighbors who called. These were friendly people, and they had all called on the Hollands the previous year. Half of them were clergymen, though the stranger who met them found this difficult to believe in some cases; the other half were the clergymen’s wives. Very grand families apart, there is no other society round about Essingham. And what could man wish better? Even Christina found it impossible to disapprove of the well-bred, easy-going, tennis-playing, unprofessional country clergy, as acquaintances and friends. But she did find fault with the rector of Essingham as a rector, though she had never seen him, and though Ruth assured her that he was a dear old man.
“He may be a dear old man,” Miss Luttrell would allow, “but he’s a bad old rector! His flock don’t find him such a dear old man, either. They only see him once a week, in the pulpit; and then they can’t hear him!”
“Who has been telling you that, Tiny?” asked Ruth.
“You’ve been talking sedition in the village!” said Erskine Holland.
“Well, I’ve been making friends with two or three of the people, if that’s what you call talking sedition,” Tiny replied; “and I think your dear old rector neglects them shamefully. He does worse than that. There’s some fund or other for buying coals and blankets for the poor of the parish; and there’s old Mrs. Clapperton. Mrs. Clapperton’s a Roman Catholic; so, if you please, she never gets her coals or blankets, and she’s too proud to ask for them. That’s a fact — and I tell you what, I’d like to expose your dear old man, Ruth! As for the village, if it’s a specimen of your English villages, let me tell you, Erskine, that it’s leagues behind the average bush township. Why, they haven’t even got a state school, but only a one-horse affair run by the rector! And the schoolmaster’s the most ignorant man in the village. I wonder you don’t copy us, and go in for state schools!”
“‘Copy us, and go in for state schools,’” echoed Ruth with gentle mirth, as she sometimes would echo Tiny’s remarks, and with a smile that traveled from Tiny to Erskine. But Erskine did not return the smile. His eyes rested shrewdly upon Christina, and Ruth feared from their expression that he thought the girl an utter fool; but she was wrong.
Christina was not, if you like, an intellectual girl, but she was by no means a fool. Neither was her brother-in-law, who perceived this. Her comments on the books he lent her were sufficiently intelligent, and she pleased him in other ways too. He was glad, for instance, to see her interesting herself in the local peasants; she was particularly glad that she did not give this interest its head, though as a matter of fact it never pulled. Christina was not the girl for interests that gallop and have not legs. Not the least of her attractions, in the eyes of a male relative of middle age, was a certain solid sanity that showed through every crevice of her wayward nature. It was sanity of the cynical sort, which men appreciate most. And it was least apparent in her own actions, which is the weak point of the cynically sane.
“At all events, Tiny, you can’t find the country a tight fit, like London,” said Erskine once, during the first few days. “Come, now!”
“No,” replied Tiny thoughtfully, “I must own it doesn’t fit so tight. But it tickles! You mayn’t go here and you mayn’t go there; in Australia you may go anywhere you darn please. Excuse me, Erskine, but I feel this a good deal. Only this morning Ruth and I were blocked by a notice board just outside the wicket at the far end of the churchyard; we were thinking of going up Gallow Hill, but we had to turn back, as trespassers would be prosecuted. There’s no trespassing where I come from. And Ruth says the board wasn’t there last year.”
“Ah, the Dromards weren’t there last year! They’ve stuck it up. You should pitch into your friend Lord Manister. It’s rather vexatious of them, I grant you; they can’t want to have tea on Gallow Hill; and it’s a pity, because there’s a fine view of the Hall from the top.”
“Indeed? Ruth never told me that,” remarked Christina curiously. “Have they arrived yet?” she added in apparent idleness.
“Last night, I hear — if you mean the Dromards. And a rumor has arrived with them.”
Now Christina was careful not to inquire what the rumor was; but Erskine told her; and, oddly enough, what he had heard and now repeated was to come true immediately.
The great family at Mundham were about to entertain the county. That was the whisper, which was presently to be spoken aloud as a pure fact. It ran over the land with “At last!” hissing at its heels, and a still more sinister whisper chased the pair of them; for the Dromards might have entertained the county months before; a house-warming had been expected of them in the winter, but they had chosen to warm Mundham with their own friends from a distance; and since then the general election had become a moral certainty for the following spring, and — the point was — Viscount Manister had declared his willingness to stand for the division. The corollary was irresistible, but so, it appears, was Countess Dromard’s invitation, which few are believed to have declined — for those that did so made it known. Some disgust, however, was expressed at the kind of entertainment, which, after all, was to be nothing more than a garden party. But nearly all who were bidden accepted. The notice, too, was shorter than other people would have presumed to give; but other people were not the Dromards. The countess’ invitation conveyed to a hundred country homes a joy that was none the less keen for a certain shame or shyness in showing any sort of satisfaction in so small a matter. Nevertheless, though not adorned by a coronet, as it might have been, nor in any way a striking trophy, the card obtained a telling position over many a rectory chimney-piece, where in some instances it remained, accidentally, for months. In justice to the residents, however, it must be owned that not one of them read it with a more poignant delight, nor adjusted it in the mirror with a nicer care and a finer show of carelessness, nor gazed at it oftener while ostensibly looking at the clock, than did Mrs. Erskine Holland during the next ten days.
But when it came she acted cleverly. There was occasion for all her cleverness, because in her case the invitation was a complete surprise; she had not dared to expect one; and you may imagine her peculiar satisfaction at receiving an invitation that embraced her “party.” Yet she was able to toss the card across the breakfast table to Erskine, merely remarking, “Should we go?” And when Tiny at once stated that for her part she was not keen, Ruth gave her a sympathetic look, as much as to say, “No more am I, my dear,” which might have deceived a less discerning person. But Tiny saw that her sister was holding her breath until Erskine spoke his mind.
“Have we any other engagement?” said he directly. “If not, it would hardly do to stick here playing tennis within sight of their lodge. I’m no more keen than you are, Tiny, but that would look uncommon poor. It was very kind of them to think of asking us; I’m afraid we must go; but I am sure you will find it amusing.”
“Thanks,” replied Christina, to whom this assurance was addressed, “but you needn’t send me there to be amused; you see, I have plenty to amuse me here,” she added, with a smile that had been slow to come. “I’ll go, of course, and with pleasure; but there would be more pleasure in some hard sets with you, Erskine, or in taking your photograph.”
“Ah, you don’t know what you’d miss, Tiny! I can promise you some sport, if you keep your eyes and ears open. Then you knew Lord Manister in Melbourne. In any case, you oughtn’t to go back there without a glimpse of some of our fine folks at home, when you can get it.”
“Oh, I’ll go; but not for the sport of seeing your clergy and gentry on their knees to your fine folks, nor yet to be amused. As for Lord Manister, he was well enough in Melbourne; he didn’t give himself airs, and there he was wise. But on his native heath! One would be sorry to set foot on the same soil. It must be sacred.”
“Come, I say, I don’t think you’ll find the parsons on their knees. We think a lot of a lord, if you like; but we try to forget that when we’re talking to him. We do our best to treat him as though he were merely a gentleman, you know,” said Erskine, smiling, but giving, as he felt, an informing hint.
“Ah, you try!” said Christina. “You do your best!”
“Our best may be very bad,” laughed Erskine; “if so, you must show us how to better it, Tiny.”
“I should get Tiny to teach you how to treat a lord, dear,” said Ruth, who saw nothing to laugh at, and seemed likely to lend her husband a severer support than the occasion needed.
“Say Lord Manister!” suggested Erskine. “Will you show me on him?”
“I may if you’re good — you wait and see,” said Tiny lightly. And lightly the matter was allowed to drop. For Herbert, as usual, was late for breakfast, which was for once a very good thing; and as for Ruth, it was merely her misfortune to have a near sight for the line dividing chaff from earnest, but now she saw it, and on which side of it the others were, for she had joined them and was laughing herself.
But Herbert would not have laughed at all; indeed, he had not a smile for the subject when he did come down and Ruth gave him his breakfast alone. It seemed well that Christina was not in the room. Her brother took the opportunity of saying what he thought of Manister, and what Manister had once called him behind his back, and what he would have done to Manister’s eye had half as much been said to his face. His personal decision about the garden party was merely contemptuous. He was not going. Nor did he go when the time came. Meanwhile, however, something happened to modify for the moment his opinion of the young viscount whom it was Herbert’s meager satisfaction to abuse roundly whenever his noble name was spoken.
Having been provided with two rooms at the rectory, in one of which he was expected to read diligently every morning, Herbert entered that room only when his pipe needed filling. He kept his tobacco there, and also, to be sure, his books; but these he never opened. He read nothing, save chance items in an occasional sporting paper; he simply smoked and pottered, leaving the smell of his pipe in the least desirable places. When he took photographs with Tiny, that was pottering too, for neither of them knew much about it, and Herbert was too indolent to take either pains or care in a pursuit which essentially demands both. He had rather a good eye for a subject; he could arrange a picture with some judgment. That interested him, but the subsequent processes did not, and these invariably spoilt the plate. All his actions, however, suggested an underlying theory that what is worth doing is not necessarily worth doing well. This applied even to his games, about which Herbert was really keen; he played lawn tennis carelessly, though with a verve and energy somewhat surprising in the loafing, smoking idler of the morning. He had been fond of cricket, too, in Australia; it was a disappointment to him that no cricket was to be had at Essingham. He looked forward to Cambridge for the athletic advantages. He had no intention of reading there; so what, he wanted to know, was the good of his reading here? Certainly Herbert had entered at an accommodating college, which would receive young men quite free from previous knowledge; but he might have been reading for his little-go all this time; and he never read a word.
But one morning he loitered afield, and came back enthusiastic about a place for a photograph; the next, Tiny and the implements were dragged to the spot; and really it was not bad. It was a scene on the little river just below Mundham bridge. The thick white rails of the bridge standing out against a clump of trees in the park beyond, the single arch with the dark water underneath and some sunlit ripples twinkling at the further side, seemed to call aloud for a camera; and Herbert might have used his to some purpose, for a change, had he not forgotten to fill his slides with plates before leaving home. This discovery was not made until the bridge was in focus, and it put young Luttrell in the plight of a rifleman who has sighted the bull’s-eye with an empty barrel. It was a question of returning to the rectory to load the slides or of giving up the photograph altogether. On another occasion, having forgotten the lens, Herbert had packed up the camera and gone back in disgust. But that happened nearer home. To-day he had carried the camera a good mile. Two journeys with something to show for them were preferable to one with a tired arm for the only result. Within a minute after the slides were found empty Christina was alone in the meadow below the bridge; Herbert had found it impossible to give up the photograph altogether.
The girl had not lost patience, for she was herself partly to blame. There were, however, still better reasons for her resignation. She happened to have the second volume of “The Newcomes” in her jacket pocket, and the little river seemed to ripple her an invitation from the bridge to make herself comfortable with her book in its shade. There was no great need for shade, but the idea seemed sensible. With her hand on the book in her pocket, and her eyes hovering about the bridge for the coolest corner, she felt perhaps a little ashamed as she thought of Herbert making a cool day hot by running back alone for what they had both forgotten. It was hardly this feeling, however, that kept her standing where she was.
She had known no finer day in England. The light was strong and limpid, the shadows abrupt and deep. The sky was not cloudless, but the clouds were thin and clean. There was a refreshing amount of wind; the tree tops beyond the bridge swayed a little against the sky; the focusing cloth flapped between the tripod legs, and for some minutes the girl stood absently imbibing all this, without a thought in her head.
Presently she found herself wondering whether there was enough movement in the trees to mar a photograph; later she tucked her head under the cloth to see. As she examined the inverted picture on the ground glass, she held the cloth loosely over her head and round her neck. But suddenly she twitched it tighter. For first the sound of wheels had come to her ears. Then a dogcart had been pulled up on the bridge. And now on the focusing screen a figure was advancing upside down, like a fly on the ceiling, and doubling its size with each stride, until there occurred a momentary eclipse of the inverted landscape by Lord Manister, who had stalked in broad daylight to our Tiny’s side.
Last updated Tuesday, March 25, 2014 at 21:16