Tiny Luttrell, by E. W. Hornung

Chapter 9.

Mother and Son.

A clever man is not necessarily an infallible prophet; and the clever man who is married may well preserve an intellectual luster in the eyes of his admirer by never prophesying at all. But should he take pleasure in predicting the thing that is openly deprecated at the other side of the hearth, let him see to it that his prediction comes true, for otherwise he has whetted a blade for his own breast, from whose justifiable use only an angel could abstain. There was no angel in the family which had been brought up on Wallandoon Station, New South Wales. When, within the next three days, Ruth received a note from Lady Dromard inviting them all to dinner at a very early date, she did not fail to prod Erskine as he deserved. But her thrust was not malignant; nor did she give vexatious vent to her own triumph, which was considerable.

“You are a very clever man,” she merely told him, and with the relish of a wife who can say this from her heart; “but you see, you’re wrong for once. Lady Dromard did mean what she said. She wants us all to dine there on Friday evening, when, as it happens, we have no other engagement; and really I don’t see how we can refuse.”

“You mean that you would like to get out of it if you could?” her husband said.

“You don’t need to be sarcastic,” remarked Ruth with a slight flush. “Who wants to get out of it?”

“I thought perhaps you did, my dear; to tell you the truth, I rather hoped so.”

“You don’t want to go!”

“I can’t say I jump.”

Ruth colored afresh.

“I have no patience with you, Erskine! Nobody is dying to go; but I own I can’t see any reason against going, nor any excuse for stopping away; and considering what you yourself said about going to the garden party, dear, I must say I think you’re rather inconsistent.”

Holland gazed down into the flushed, frowning face, that frowned so seldom, and flushed so prettily. Always an undemonstrative husband, very properly he had been more so than ever since others had been staying in the house. But neither of those others was present now, and rather suddenly he stooped and kissed his wife.

“There is no reason, and there would be no excuse; so you are quite right,” he said kindly. “It’s only that one has a constitutional dislike to being taken up — and dropped. I have visions of all that. I’m afraid Mrs. Willoughby has poisoned my mind; we will go, and let us hope it’ll prove an antidote.”

They went, and that dinner party was not the formidable affair it might have been; as Lady Dromard herself said, most graciously, it was not a dinner party at all. Ten, however, sat down, of whom four came from the rectory; for Herbert had been over to practice at the nets, and was fairly satisfied with his treatment on that occasion, which accounted for his presence on this. The only other guests were an inevitable divine and his wife. The earl was absent. As if to conserve Christina’s impression of the old clothes in which, as the natives said, his lordship “liked himself,” Earl Dromard had left for London rather suddenly that morning. Lord Manister filled his place impeccably, with Ruth at her best on his right. Herbert was less happy with Lady Mary Dromard, a very proud person, who could also be very rude in the most elegant manner. But Christina fell to the jolliest scion of the house, Mr. Stanley Dromard; and this pair mutually enjoyed themselves.

Young in every way was the Honorable Stanley Dromard. He had just left Eton, where he had been in the eleven, like his brother before him; he was to go into residence at Trinity in October. With a quantum of gentlemanly interest he heard that Miss Luttrell’s brother was also going up to Cambridge next term; but not to Trinity. Said Mr. Dromard, “Your brother’s a bit of a cricketer, too; he came over for a knock the other day; he means to play for us next week, if we’re short, doesn’t he?” Christina fancied so. Mr. Dromard said “Good!” with some emphasis, and Herbert’s name dropped out of the conversation. This became Anglo–Australian, as it was sure to, and led to some of those bold comparisons for which Christina was generally to be trusted; but the bolder they were, the more Mr. Dromard enjoyed them, for the girl glittered in his eyes. He was a delightfully appreciative youth, if easily amused, and his laughter sharpened Tiny’s wits. She shone consciously, but yet calmly, and made a really remarkable impression upon her companion, without once meeting Lord Manister’s glance, which rested on her sometimes for a second.

So the flattering attentions of young Dromard were not terminated, but merely interrupted, by the flight of the ladies. When the men followed them to the drawing room the younger son shot to Miss Luttrell’s side with the fine regardlessness of nineteen, and furthered their friendship by divulging the Mundham plans for the following week. The cricket was to begin on the Tuesday. The men were coming the day before: half the Eton eleven, Tiny understood, and some older young fellows of Manister’s standing. The first two were to be two-day matches against the county and a Marylebone team. The Saturday’s match would be between Mundham Hall and another scratch eleven, “and that’s when we may want your brother, Miss Luttrell,” added Mr. Dromard, “though we might want him before. Our team has been made up some time, but somebody is sure to have some other fixture for Saturday.”

“I think he may like to play,” said Christina.

Mr. Dromard seemed a little surprised.

“It’s a jolly ground,” he remarked, “and there will be some first-rate players.”

“I am sure he would like a game on your ground,” Christina went so far as to say.

“Do you dance, Miss Luttrell?” asked the young man, after a pause.

“When I get the chance,” said Christina.

He gazed at her a moment, and could imagine her dancing — with him.

“Suppose we were to do something of the kind here one evening between the matches; would you come?”

“If I got the chance,” said Christina.

Dromard considered what he was saying. “We ought to have a dance,” he added in a doubtful tone, as though the need were greater than the chance; “we really ought. But I don’t suppose we shall; nothing is arranged, you see.”

“You needn’t hedge, Mr. Dromard,” said the girl, smiling.

“Eh?”

“I shan’t expect an invitation!”

She nodded knowingly as he blushed; but he had the great merit of being easily amused, and with another word she made him merry and at ease again. Not unreasonably, perhaps, a casual spectator might have suspected these two of a mild but immediate flirtation. Stanley, however, was at a safe and privileged age, and no eye was on him but his brother’s. Lord Manister gave the impression of being a rather dignified person in his own home, but he was doing his gracious duty by the guests, none of whom seemed especially to occupy his attention, while he was reasonably polite to all. It was he, too, who at length suggested to Lady Dromard that Miss Luttrell would probably sing something if she were asked.

So Christina sang something — it hardly matters what. Her song was not a classic, neither was it grossly popular. It was a pleasant song, pleasantly sung, and the entire absence of pretentiousness and of affectation in the song and the singing was more noticeable than the positive excellence of either. The girl had no greater voice than one would have expected of so small a person, but what she had was in keeping. Lady Dromard, however, had a more sensitive appreciation of good taste than of good music, and she asked for more. Christina sang successively something of Lassen’s, and then “Last Night,” taking the English words in each case. She played her own accompaniments, and felt little nervousness until her last song was finished, when it certainly startled her to find Lady Dromard standing at her side.

“Thank you!” said the countess with considerable enthusiasm. “You sing delightfully, and you sing delightful songs. You must have been very well taught.”

“Mostly in the bush,” said Christina truthfully.

“You come from the bush?”

“But you had some lessons in Melbourne,” put in Ruth, who was visibly delighted.

“Oh, yes, a few,” Tiny said, smiling; “as many as I was worth.”

“Ah, you shall tell me about Melbourne one day soon,” said Lady Dromard to the young girl. “Your sister has promised to come over and watch the cricket. I do hope you will come with her.”

Christina expressed her pleasure at the prospect, and, taking the nearest seat, found Lord Manister leaning over the end of the piano and looking down upon her with a rather sardonic smile.

“You haven’t looked at me this evening,” he said to her under cover of the general conversation, which was now renewed. “May I ask what I have done?”

“Certainly you may ask, Lord Manister,” answered the girl with immense simplicity; “but I can’t tell you, because I am not aware that you have done anything beyond making us all very happy and at home.”

“Well, I’m glad to hear that,” said Manister, whose quasi-humorous tone lacked the lightness to deceive; “I was afraid I had offended you.”

“Offended me!” cried Christina, with widening eyes and a puzzled look. “When have you seen me to offend me! I haven’t seen you since your garden party, and you certainly didn’t offend me then — you were awfully nice to us all!”

“Ah, that wasn’t seeing you,” Lord Manister murmured. “I don’t reckon that I’ve seen you since — the photographs. I had to go to Scotland; I meant to tell you.”

“It wouldn’t have interested me,” said Christina, with a shrug. “It might have interested me if you had said — you were not going,” she added next moment. Her tone had dropped. She looked at him and smiled.

Her smile stayed with him after she was gone; but from his face you would not have guessed that he was nursing a kind look. She had given him one smile, which made up for many things. But you would have thought, with his people, that he had been suffering the whole evening from acute boredom: you might well have fancied, with Lady Mary, that a remark disparaging Australian women would have met with a grateful response from him. The response it did meet with was anything but grateful to Lady Mary Dromard. It drove her from the room, in which Manister and his mother were presently left alone.

“I think you were just,” the countess said critically. “They are pleasant people, and quite all right. The young man is their weak point.”

“They always are,” her son remarked, rather savagely still. “They’re larrikins!”

“The young girl was especially nice, and sang like a lady.”

“Ah, you approve of her,” said Lord Manister dryly.

“Entirely, I think. Evidently you don’t. I only saw you speak to her once, toward the end. Yet she has met you in Australia; I should have recognized that, I think. Now her people,” Lady Dromard added tentatively, “will be rather superior, I suppose, as colonials go?”

“Well, they’re rich; I suppose that’s how colonials go.”

For one moment Lady Dromard fancied that the sneer was for the colonials, and it surprised her; the next, she took it to herself, and very meekly for so proud a heart.

“My dear boy!” she murmured indulgently. “Apart from their people, these girls — for the married one is as young as she has any right to be-strike one as fresh, and free, and pleasing. And they are ladies. Am I to believe that the majority out there are like them?”

Manister shrugged his shoulders.

“That’s as you please, my dear mother. These people didn’t strike me as the only decent ones in Melbourne. I did meet others.”

The countess tapped her foot upon the fender, and took counsel with her own reflection in the mirror, for she was standing before the fireplace while her son wandered about the room — her son with the reputation for a childlike devotion to his mother. There had been little of that sort of devotion since his return from Australia. Nothing between them was as it had been before. This bitter coldness had been his domestic manner — his manner with her, of all people — longer than the mother could bear. She knew the reason; she had tried to tell him so; she had tried to speak freely to him of the whole matter — even penitently, if he would. But he had never spoken freely to her; and once he had refused to speak at all, thence or thenceforth. Lady Dromard had made a resolve then which she remembered now.

“Really, Harry, I can’t make you out,” she said lightly at length. “You knock down the colonials with one hand, and you set them up with the other, as though they were so many ninepins. I am puzzled to know what you really mean, and what you mean satirically. You never used to be satirical, Harry! I should like to know whether you really approve of these people, or whether you don’t.”

“I do approve of them,” said Lord Manister, halting on the rug before his mother. “I won’t put it more strongly. But I am glad that you should have seen there are such things as ladies in Australia!”

Their eyes met, and the mother forgot her resolve; for he had raised the subject himself, and for the first time.

“You think of her still!” whispered Lady Dromard.

“Of course I do,” returned Manister, roughly; and again he was striding about the room.

Never in her life, perhaps, had the countess received a sharper hurt; for he had refused to see the hand she had reached out to him involuntarily. Yet assuredly Lady Dromard had never spoken in a more ordinary tone than that of her next words, a minute later.

“It occurred to me, Harry, that if we really think of dancing one evening during the cricket week, we might do worse than ask these people from the rectory. You must have girls to dance with. Still, if you think better not, you have only to say so.”

“I think it’s for you to decide; but, if you ask me, I don’t see the least objection to it,” said Lord Manister, with a smooth ceremony that had a sharper edge than his rough words. “I’m not sure, however, that they will come every time you ask them.”

“Pourquoi?”

“Because they’re the most independent people in the world, the Australians.”

“It would scarcely touch their independence,” said Lady Dromard with careless contempt; “but we can really do without them, and I am glad of your hint, because now I shall not think of asking them.”

“Now, my dear mother,” cried Lord Manister, no longer either hot or cold, but his old self for once in his anxiety —“you misunderstand me entirely! I’m not great on a dance at all, but if we’re to have one we must, as you say, have somebody to dance with; and I want you to ask these people.”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/h/hornung/ew/tiny-luttrell/chapter9.html

Last updated Tuesday, March 25, 2014 at 21:16