Sir Montague Hockin, to my great delight, was still away from Bruntsea. If he had been there, it would have been a most awkward thing for me to meet him, or to refuse to do so. The latter course would probably have been the one forced upon me by self-respect and affection toward my cousin; and yet if so, I could scarcely have avoided an explanation with my host. From the nature of the subject, and several other reasons, this would have been most unpleasant; and even now I was haunted with doubts, as I had been from the first, whether I ought not to have told Mrs. Hockin long ago what had been said of him. At first sight that seemed the honest thing to do; but three things made against it. It might seem forward and meddlesome; it must be a grievous thing to my cousin to have his sad story discussed again; and lastly, I had promised Mrs. Price that her words should go no further. So that on the whole perhaps I acted aright in keeping that infamous tale to myself as long as ever it was possible.
But now ere ever I spoke of him — which I was always loath to do — Mrs. Hockin told me that he very seldom came to see them now, and when he did come he seemed to be uneasy and rather strange in his manners. I thought to myself that the cause of this was clear. Sir Montague, knowing that I went to Castlewood, was pricked in his conscience, and afraid of having his vile behavior to my cousin disclosed. However, that idea of mine was wrong, and a faulty conception of simple youth. The wicked forgive themselves so quickly, if even they find any need of it, that every body else is supposed to do the same. With this I have no patience. A wrong unrepented of and unatoned gathers interest, instead of getting discount, from lost time. And so I hated that man tenfold.
Good Mrs. Hockin lamented his absence not only for the sake of her darling fowls, but also because she considered him a check upon the Major’s enterprise. Great as her faith was in her husband’s ability and keenness, she was often visited with dark misgivings about such heavy outlay. Of economy (as she often said) she certainly ought to know something, having had to practice it as strictly as any body in the kingdom, from an age she could hardly remember. But as for what was now brought forward as a great discovery — economy in politics — Mrs. Hockin had tried to follow great opinions, but could only find, so far, downright extravagance. Supply (as she had observed fifty times with her own butcher and fishmonger), instead of creating demand, produced a lot of people hankering round the corner, till the price came down to nothing. And if it were so with their institutions — as her dear husband called his new public-house — who was to find all the interest due to the building and land societies? Truly she felt that Sir Rufus Hockin, instead of doing any good to them, had behaved very badly in leaving them land, and not even a shilling to work it with.
It relieved her much to tell me this, once for all and in strict confidence; because her fine old-fashioned (and we now may say quite obsolete) idea of duty toward her husband forbade her ever to say to him, or about him, when it could be helped, any thing he might not like, any thing which to an evil mind might convey a desire on her part to meddle with — with —
“Political economy,” I said; and she laughed, and said, Yes, that was just it. The Major of course knew best, and she ought with all her heart to trust him not to burden their old days with debt, after all the children they had brought up and fairly educated upon the professional income of a distinguished British officer, who is not intended by his superiors to provide successors.
“Perhaps it is like the boiled eggs they send me,” the old lady said, with her soft sweet smile, “for my poor hens to sit upon. Their race is too good to be made common. So now they get tinkers’ and tailors’ boys, after much competition, and the crammed sons of cooks. And in peace-time they do just as well.”
Of such things I knew nothing; but she seemed to speak with bitterness, the last thing to be found in all her nature, yet discoverable — as all bad things (except its own) are — by the British government. I do not speak from my own case, in which they discovered nothing.
By the time these things had been discussed, my host (who was always particular about his dress) came down to dinner, and not until that was over could I speak of the subject which had brought me there. No sooner had I begun my tale than they both perceived that it must neither be flurried nor interrupted, least of all should it be overheard.
“Come into my lock-up,” cried the Major; “or, better still, let us go out of doors. We can sit in my snuggery on the cliff, with only gulls and jackdaws to listen, and mount my telescope and hoist my flag, and the men know better than to skulk their work. I can see every son of a gun of them as clearly as if I had them on parade. You wish Mrs. Hockin to come, I suppose. Very well, let us be off at once. I shall count my fellows coming back from dinner.”
With a short quick step the Major led the way to a beautifully situated outpost at a corner of the cliff, where land and sea for many a fair league rolled below. A niche of the chalk had been cleverly enlarged and scooped into a shell-shaped bower, not, indeed, gloriously overhung, as in the far West might have been, but broken of its white defiant glare by climbing and wandering verdure. Seats and slabs of oak were fixed to check excess of chalkiness, and a parapet of a pattern which the Major called Egyptian saved fear of falling down the cliff, and served to spread a paper on, or to rest a telescope.
“From this point,” said the Major, crossing wiry yet substantial legs, “the whole of my little domain may be comprised as in a bird’s-eye view. It is nothing, of course, much less than nothing, compared with the Earl of Crowcombe’s, or the estate of Viscount Gamberley; still, such as it is, it carries my ideas, and it has an extent of marine frontage such as they might envy. We are asked 5 pounds per foot for a thread of land fronting on a highway, open to every kind of annoyance, overlooked, without any thing to look at. How much, then, per fathom (or measure, if you please, by cable-lengths) is land worth fronting the noble, silent, uncontaminating, healthful sea? Whence can come no coster-mongers’ cries, no agitating skir of bagpipes or the maddening hurdy-gurdy, no German band expecting half a crown for the creation of insanity; only sweet murmur of the wavelets, and the melodious whistle of a boatman catching your breakfast lobster. Where, again, if you love the picturesque —”
“My dear,” said Mrs. Hockin, gently, “you always were eloquent from the first day I saw you; and if you reconstitute our borough, as you hope, and enter Parliament for Bruntsea, what a sensation you will create! But I wished to draw your attention to the fact that Erema is waiting to tell her tale.”
“To be sure. I will not stop her. Eloquence is waste of time, and I never yet had half a second to spare. Fear no eloquence from me; facts and logic are my strong points. And now, Erema, show what yours are.”
At first this made me a little timid, for I had never thought that any strong points would be needed for telling a simple tale. To my mind the difficulty was, not to tell the story, but to know what to make of it when told; and soon I forgot all about myself in telling what I had seen, heard, and found.
The Major could not keep himself from stamping great holes through his — something I forget the name of, but people sow it to make turf of chalk — and dear “Aunt Mary’s” soft pink cheeks, which her last grandchild might envy, deepened to a tone of rose; while her eyes, so full of heavenly faith when she got upon lofty subjects, took a most human flash and sparkle of hatred not theological.
“Seven!” she cried; “oh, Nicholas, Nicholas, you never told me there were seven!”
“There were not seven graves without the mother,” the Major answered, sternly. “And what odds whether seven or seventy? The criminality is the point, not the accumulation of results. Still, I never heard of so big a blackguard. And what did he do next, my dear?”
The way in which they took my story was a great surprise to me, because, although they were so good, they had never paid any attention to it until it became exciting. They listened with mere politeness until the scent of a very wicked man began to taint my narrative; but from that moment they drew nearer, and tightened their lips, and held their breath, and let no word escape them. It made me almost think that people even of pure excellence, weaned as they are from wicked things by teaching and long practice, must still retain a hankering for them done at other people’s cost.
“And now,” cried the Major, “let us see it”— even before I had time to pull it out, though ready to be quick, from a knowledge of his ways. “Show it, and you shall have my opinion. And Mary’s is certain to agree with mine. My dear, that makes yours so priceless.”
“Then, Nicholas, if I retain my own, yours is of no value. Never mind that. Now don’t catch words, or neither opinion will be worth a thought. My dear, let us see it and then judge.”
“My own idea, but not so well expressed,” Major Hockin answered, as he danced about, while I with stupid haste was tugging at my package of the hateful locket. For I had not allowed that deceitful thing any quarters in my pocket, where dear little relics of my father lay, but had fastened it under my dress in a manner intended in no way for gentlemen to think about. Such little things annoy one’s comfort, and destroy one’s power of being quite high-minded. However, I got it out at last, and a flash of the sun made the difference.
“Brilliants, Mary!” the Major cried; “brilliants of first water; such as we saw, you know where; and any officer in the British army except myself, I do believe, would have had them at once in his camlet pouch — my dear, you know all about it. Bless my heart, how slow you are! Is it possible you have forgotten it? There came out a fellow, and I cut him down, as my duty was, without ceremony. You know how I used to do it, out of regulation, with a slash like this —”
“Oh, Nicholas, you will be over the cliff! You have shown me how you used to do it, a thousand times — but you had no cricks in your back then: and remember how brittle the chalk is.”
“The chalk may be brittle, but I am tough. I insist upon doing every thing as well as I did it forty years ago. Mary, you ought not to speak to me like that. Eighteen, nineteen, twenty brilliants, worth twenty pounds apiece upon an average, I do believe. Four hundred pounds. That would finish our hotel.”
“My dear, I was only in fun. Erema understands me. But who is this beautiful lady?”
“The very point,” I exclaimed, while he held it so that the pensive beauty of the face gleamed in soft relief among bright blue enamel and sparkling gems. “The very thing that I must know — that I would give my life to know — that I have fifty thousand fancies —”
“Now don’t be excited, Erema, if you please. What will you give me to tell you who it is?”
“All those diamonds, which I hate the sight of, and three-quarters of my half nugget; and if that is not enough —”
“It is a thousand times too much; I will tell you for just one smile, and I know it, will be a smile of unbelief.”
“No, no; I will believe it, whoever you say,” with excitement superior to grammar, I cried; “only tell me at once — don’t be so long.”
“But then you won’t believe me when I do tell you,” the Major replied, in the most provoking way. “I shall tell you the last person you would ever think of, and then you will only laugh at me.”
“I won’t laugh; how can I laugh in such a matter? I will believe you if you say it is — Aunt Mary.”
“My dear, you had better say at once that it is I, and have no more mystery about it.” Mrs. Hockin was almost as impatient as myself.
“Mrs. Hockin, you must indeed entertain an exalted idea of your own charms. I knew that you were vain, but certainly did not — Well, then, if you will allow me no peace, this is the lady that lives down in the ruin, and stands like a pillar by my pillar-box.”
“I never thought you would joke like that,” I cried, with vexation and anger. “Oh, is it a subject to be joked about?”
“I never was graver in my life; and you promised implicitly to believe me. At any rate, believe that I speak in earnest.”
“That I must believe, when you tell me so. But what makes you think such a wonderful thing? I should have thought nothing more impossible. I had made up my mind that it was Flittamore who lived down here; but this can not be she. Flittamore was unheard of at the time of my grandfather’s death. Moreover, her character was not like this; she was giddy and light and heartless. This lady had a heart — good or bad, a deep one. Most certainly it is not Flittamore.”
“Flittamore! I do not remember that name. You should either tell us all or tell us nothing.” The Major’s tone was reproachful, and his eyes from their angular roofs looked fierce.
“I have not told you,” I said, “because it can have nothing to do with it. The subject is a painful one, and belongs to my family only.”
“Enough. I am not inquisitive — on the other hand, too forgetful. I have an appointment at 3.25. It takes me seven minutes and a quarter to get there. I must be two minutes and three-quarters late. Mrs. Hockin, mount the big telescope and point it at the ramparts; keep the flag up also. Those fellows will be certain that I am up here, while I enfilade them from the western end with this fine binocular. Surprises maintain discipline. Good-by, my dear, and, Miss Castlewood, good-by. Tea at 6.30, and not too much water.”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:05