The hall gates were plain enough from the rectory lawn, but plainer still from the steps whence, on the afternoon of the garden party, Mr. Holland watched them from under the brim of the first hard hat he had worn for a fortnight. He was ready, while the ladies were traditionally late, but he did not lose patience; he was too much entertained in watching the hall gates and the hedgerow that hid the road leading up to them. Vehicles were filing along this road in a procession which for the moment was continuous. Erskine could see them over the hedge, and it was difficult to do so without sharing some opinions which Mrs. Willoughby had expressed regarding the comprehensive character of the social measure taken not before it was time by the noble family within those gates. There were county clergymen driving themselves in ill-balanced dogcarts, and county townspeople in carriages manifestly hired, and county bigwigs — as big as the Dromards themselves — in splendid equipages, with splendid coachmen and horseflesh the most magnificent. Greater processional versatility might scarcely be seen in southwestern suburbs on Derby Day; and the low phaeton which he himself was about to contribute to the medley made Erskine laugh.
“We should follow the next really swagger turnout — we should run behind it,” he suggested to the girls when at length they appeared; and Ruth took him seriously.
“No, get in front of them,” said Herbert, who was lounging on the steps, in dirty flannels which Erskine envied him. “Get in front of them and slow down. That’d be the sporting thing to do! They couldn’t pass you in the drive. It would do ’em good.”
However, the procession was not without gaps, and to Ruth’s satisfaction they found themselves in rather a wide one. As they drove through those august gates a parson’s dogcart was rounding a curve some distance ahead, but nothing was in sight behind. Ruth sat beside her husband, who drove. She looked rather demure, but very charming in her little matronly bonnet; her costume was otherwise somewhat noticeably sober, and certainly she had never felt more sensibly the married sister than now, as she glanced at Christina with furtive anxiety, but open admiration. Tiny was neatly dressed in white, and her hat was white also. “Do you know why I wear a white hat?” she asked Erskine on the way; but her question proved merely to be an impudent adaptation of a very disreputable old riddle, and beyond this she was unusually silent during the short drive. Yet she seemed not only self-possessed, but inwardly at her ease. She sat on the little seat in front, often turning round to gaze ahead, and her curiosity and interest were very frank and natural. So were her admiration of the park, her anxiety to see the house itself, and even her wonder at the great length of the drive, which ran alongside the cricket field, and then bent steadily to the left. When at last the low red-brick pile became visible, Gallow Hill was seen immediately behind it, which surprised Christina; the lawn in front was alive with people, which put her on her mettle; and the inspiriting outburst of a military band at that moment forced from her an admission of the pleasure and excitement which had been growing upon her for some minutes.
“I like this!” she exclaimed. “This is first-rate England!”
Countess Dromard stood on the edge of the lawn at the front of the house, and apparently the carriages were unloading at this side of the drive. Ruth whispered hurriedly that she was sure they were, but she was not so sure in reality, and she now saw the disadvantage of arriving in a wide gap, which deprives the inexperienced of their lawful cue. She was quite right, however, and when some minutes elapsed before the arrival of another carriage to interrupt the charming little conversation Ruth had with Lady Dromard, the good of the gap became triumphantly apparent. The countess was very kind indeed. She was a tall, fine woman, with whom the shadows of life had scarce begun to lengthen to the eye; her face was not only handsome, but wonderfully fresh, and she had a trick of lowering it as she chatted with Ruth, bending over her in a way which was comfortable and almost motherly from the first. She had heard of Mrs. Holland, whom she was glad to meet at last, and of whom she now hoped to see something more. Ruth observed that they had the rectory only till September; she was sorry her time was so short. Lady Dromard very flatteringly echoed her sorrow, and also professed an envious admiration for the rectory, which she described as idyllic. That was practically all. What was said of the weather hardly counted; and a repetition of her ladyship’s hopes of seeing something more of Mrs. Holland and her party was not worth remembering, according to Erskine, who declared that this meant nothing at all.
Ruth, however, was not likely to forget it; though she treasured just as much the memory of a certain glance which she had caught the countess leveling at her sister. She thought that other eyes also were attracted by the white-robed Tiny, and the smooth-shaven turf was air to Ruth’s tread as she marched off with her husband and that cynosure. Nor was her satisfaction decreased when the first person they came across chanced to be no other than Mrs. Willoughby. This meeting was literally the unexpected treat that Ruth pronounced it to be, for the clergyman’s wife was smiling in a manner which showed that she had witnessed the countess’ singular civility to her friend.
“Yes, I’m here after all,” said Mrs. Willoughby grimly. “Henry made me very angry by insisting on coming, but of course I wasn’t going to let him come alone. I hope you think he looks happy now he’s here!” (Mr. Willoughby and a brother rector might have been hatching dark designs against their bishop, who was himself present, judging by their looks.) “I call him the picture of misery. Well, Mrs. Holland, I hope you are gratified at your reception! Oh, it was quite gushing, I assure you; we have all been watching. But wait till you meet them in Piccadilly, my dear Mrs. Holland.”
Mrs. Holland left the reply to her husband, who, however, contented himself with promising Mrs. Willoughby a telegraphic report of the proceedings at that meeting, if it ever took place.
“Ah, there won’t be much to report,” said that redoubtable woman; “they won’t look at you. But I shouldn’t be surprised to see them make a deal of you in the country, if you let them.”
It did not seem conducive to the enjoyment of the afternoon to prolong the conversation with Mrs. Willoughby. The party of three wandered toward the band, admiring the scarlet coats of the bandsmen against the dark green of the shrubbery, and their bright brass instruments flaming in the sun. The music also was of much spirit and gayety, and it was agreed that a band was an immense improvement to a rite of this sort. Then these three, who, after all, knew very few people present, followed the example of others, and made a circuit of the house, in high good humor. But Tiny found herself between two conversational fires, for Ruth would compel her to express admiration for the premises, which might have been taken for granted, while Erskine called her attention to the people, who were much more entertaining to watch. As they passed a table devoted to refreshments, at which a large lady was being waited upon very politely by a small boy in a broad collar, they overheard one of those scraps of conversation which amuse at the moment.
“So you’re a Dromard boy, are you?” the lady was saying. “I’ve never seen you before. What Dromard boy are you, pray?”
“My name’s Douglas.”
“Oh! So you’re the Honorable Douglas Dromard, are you?”
The boy handed her an ice without answering as the three passed on.
“I said you’d see and hear some queer things,” whispered Mr. Holland; “but you won’t hear anything much finer than that. The woman is Mrs. Foster–Simpson; her husband’s a solicitor, and may be the Conservative agent, if his wife doesn’t disqualify him. She professes to know all about the Dromards, as you heard the other day. You can guess the kind of knowledge. Even the boy snubs her. Yet mark him. The mixture of politeness and contempt was worth noticing in a small boy like that. There’s a little nobleman for you!”
“No, a little Englishman,” said Tiny. “Now that’s a thing I do envy you — your schoolboys, your little gentlemen! We don’t grow them so little in the colonies; we don’t know how.”
They were walking on a majestic terrace in the shadow of the red-brick house, their figures mirrored in each mullioned window as they passed it.
“I call Lord Manister the luckiest young man in England,” Ruth exclaimed during a pause between the other two. “To think that all this will be his!”
“It rather reminds me of Hampton Court on this side,” remarked Tiny indifferently.
“And it’s by no means their only place, you know; there are others they never use, are there not, Erskine? — to say nothing of all those squares and streets in town!”
But Erskine sounded the thick sibilant of silence as they passed a shabby looking person with a slouching walk and a fair beard.
“I wonder how he got here?” Tiny murmured next moment.
“He has a better right than most of us.”
“What do you mean, Erskine?”
“Well, it’s the earl.”
“Earl Dromard? I should have guessed his gardener!”
“No, that’s the earl. Old clothes are his special fancy in the country. It’s his particular form of side, so they say.”
“Well,” said Tiny, “I prefer it to his son’s, which has always appeared to me to be the other extreme.”
“I am sure Lord Manister is not over-dressed,” remonstrated Ruth, with her usual alacrity in defense of his lordship.
“No, that’s the worst of him,” answered her sister. “There is nothing to find fault with, ever; that’s what makes one think he employs his intellect on the study of his appearance.”
They had seen Lord Manister in the distance. Presumably he had not seen them, but he might have done so; and Ruth supposed it was the doubt that made her sister speak of him more captiously than usual. But the criticism was not utterly unfair, as Ruth might presently have seen for herself; for as they came back to the front of the house, Lord Manister detached himself from a group, and approached them with the suave smile and the slight flourish of the hat which were two of his tricks. Christina asked afterward if the flourish was not dreadfully continental, but she was told that it was merely up to date, like the hat itself. At the time, however, she introduced Lord Manister to her sister Mrs. Erskine Holland, and to Mr. Holland, taking this liberty with charming grace and tact, yet with a becoming amount of natural shyness. Manister, for one, was pleased with the introduction on all grounds. From the first, however, he addressed himself to the married lady, speaking partly of the surrounding country, for which Ruth could not say too much, and partly of Melbourne, which enabled him to return her compliments. His manner was eminently friendly and polite. Discovering that they had not yet been in the house for tea, he led the way thither, and through a throng of people in the hall, and so into the dining room. Here he saved the situation from embarrassment by making himself equally attentive to another party. To Ruth, however, Lord Manister’s civility was still sufficiently marked, while he asked her husband whether he was a cricketer; and this reminded him of Herbert, for whom he gave Miss Luttrell a message. He said they had just arranged some cricket for the last week of the month; he thought they would be glad of Miss Luttrell’s brother in one or two of the matches. But he seemed to fear that most of the teams were made up; his young brother was arranging everything. Christina gathered that in any case they would be glad to see Herbert at the nets any afternoon of the following week, more especially on the Monday. Lord Manister made a point of the message, and also of the cricket week, “when,” he said, “you must all turn up if it’s fine.” And those were his last words to them.
“I see you know my son,” said the countess in her kindliest manner as Ruth thanked her for a charming afternoon.
“My sister met him the other day at Lady Almeric’s,” replied Ruth, “and before that in Australia.”
“I knew Lord Manister in Melbourne,” added Tiny with freedom.
“Do you mean to tell me you are Australians?” said Lady Dromard in a tone that complimented the girls at the expense of their country. “Then you must certainly come and see me,” she added cordially, though her surprise was still upon her. “I am greatly interested in Australia since my son was there. I feel I have a welcome for all Australians — you welcomed him, you know!”
Christina afterward expressed the firm opinion that Lady Dromard had said this rather strangely, which Ruth as firmly denied. Tiny was accused of an imaginative self-consciousness, and the accusation provoked a blush, which Ruth took care to remember. Certainly, if the countess had spoken queerly, the queerness had escaped the one person who was not on the lookout for something of the kind; Erskine Holland had perceived nothing but her ladyship’s condescension, which had been indeed remarkable, though Erskine still told his wife to expect no further notice from that quarter.
“And I’m selfish enough to hope you’ll get none, my dears,” he said to the girls that evening as they sauntered through the kitchen garden after dinner; “because for my part I’d much rather not be noticed by them. We were not intended to take seriously anything that was said this afternoon; honey was the order of the day for all comers — and can’t you imagine them wiping their foreheads when we were all gone? I only hope they wiped us out of their heads! We’re much happier as we are. I’m not rabid, like Mrs. Willoughby; but she prophesied a very possible experience, when all’s said and done, confound her! I have visions of Piccadilly myself. And seriously, Ruth, you wouldn’t like it if you became friendly with these people here and they cut you in town; no more should I. I think you can’t be too careful with people of that sort; and if they ask us again I vote we don’t go; but they won’t ask us any more, you may depend upon it.”
“I don’t depend upon it, all the same,” replied Ruth, with some spirit. “Lady Dromard was most kind; and as for Lord Manister, I was enchanted with him.”
“Were you?” Tiny said, feeling vaguely that she was challenged.
“I was; I thought him unaffected and friendly, and even simple. I am sure he is simple-minded! I am also sure that you won’t find another young man in his position who is better natured or better hearted ——”
“Or better mannered — or better dressed! You are quite right; he is nearly perfect. He is rather too perfect for me in his manners and appearance; I should like to untidy him; I should like to put him in a temper. Lord Manister was never in a temper in his life; he’s nicer than most people — but he’s too nice altogether for me!”
“You knew him rather well in Melbourne?” said Erskine, eyeing his sister-in-law curiously; her face was toward the moon, and her expression was set and scornful.
“Very well indeed,” she answered with her erratic candor.
“I might have guessed as much that time in town. I say, if we meet him in Piccadilly we may score off Mrs. Willoughby yet! Wait till we get back ——”
“All right; only don’t let us wait out here,” Ruth interrupted —“or Tiny and I may have to go back in our coffins!”
Last updated Tuesday, March 25, 2014 at 21:16