It was shortly after my arrival at Thornleigh that I first saw the man whose story I had heard in the study at Cumber Priory. Milly and I had been together about a fortnight, and it was the end of January — cold, clear, bright weather — when we set out early one afternoon for a ramble in our favourite wood, Milly furnished with pencils and sketch-book, in order to jot down any striking effect of the gaunt leafless old trees. She had a hardy disregard of cold in her devotion to her art, and would sit down to sketch in the bitter January weather in spite of my entreaties.
We stayed out longer than usual, and Milly had stopped once or twice to make a hasty sketch, when the sky grew suddenly dark, and big drops of rain began to fall slowly. There were speedily succeeded by a pelting storm of rain and hail, and we felt that we were caught, and must be drenched to the skin before we could get back to Thornleigh. The weather had been temptingly fine when we left home, and we had neither umbrellas nor any other kind of protection against the rain.
‘We had better scamper off as fast as we can,’ said Milly.
‘But we can’t run four miles. Hadn’t we better go on to Cumber, and wait in the village till the weather changes, or try to get some kind of conveyance there?’
‘Well, I suppose that would be best. There must be such a thing as a fly at Cumber, I should think, small as the place is. But it’s nearly a mile from here to the village.’
‘Anything seems better than going back through the wood in such a weather,’ I said.
We were close to the outskirts of the wood at this time, and within a very short distance of the Priory gates. While we were still pausing in an undecided way, with the rain pelting down upon us, a figure came towards us from among the leafless trees — the figure of a man, a gentleman, as we could see by his dress and bearing, and a stranger. We had never met any one but country-people, farm-labourers, and so on, in the wood before, and were a little startled by his apparition.
He came up to us quickly, lifting his hat as he approached us.
‘Caught in the storm, ladies,’ he said, ‘and without umbrellas I see, too. Have you far to go?’
‘Yes, we have to go as far as Thornleigh,’ Milly answered.
‘Quite impossible in such weather. Will you come into the Priory and wait till the storm is over?’
‘The Priory! To be sure!’ cried Milly. ‘I never thought of that. I know the housekeeper very well, and I am sure she would let us stop there.’
We walked towards the Priory gates, the stranger accompanying us. I had no opportunity of looking at him under that pelting rain, but I was wondering all the time who he was, and how he came to speak of Cumber Priory in that familiar tone.
One of the gates stood open, and we went in.
‘A desolate-looking place, isn’t it?’ said the stranger. ‘Dismal enough, without the embellishment of such weather as this.’
He led the way to the hall-door, and opened it unceremoniously, standing aside for us to pass in before him. There was a fire burning in the wide old-fashioned fireplace, and the place had an air of occupation that was new to it.
‘I’ll send for Mrs. Mills, and she shall take your wet shawls away to be dried,’ said the stranger, ringing a bell; and I think we both began to understand by this time that he must be the master of the house.
‘You are very kind,’ Milly answered, taking off her dripping shawl. ‘I did not know that the Priory was occupied except by the old servants. I fear you must have thought me very impertinent just now when I talked so coolly of taking shelter here.’
‘I am only too glad that you should find refuge in the old place.’
He wheeled a couple of ponderous carved-oak chairs close to the hearth, and begged us to sit there; but Milly preferred standing in the noble old gothic window looking out at the rain.
‘They will be getting anxious about us at home,’ she said, ‘if we are not back before dark.’
‘I wish I possessed a close carriage to place at your service. I do, indeed, boast of the ownership of a dog-cart, if you would not be afraid of driving in such a barbarous vehicle when the rain is over. It would keep you out of the mud, at any rate.’
Milly laughed gaily.
‘I have been brought up in the country,’ she said, ‘and am not at all afraid of driving in a dog-cart. I used often to go out with papa in his, before he married.’
‘Then, when the storm is over, I shall have the pleasure of driving you to Thornleigh, if you will permit me that honour.’
Milly looked a little perplexed at this, and made some excuse about not wishing to cause so much trouble.
‘I really think we could walk home very well; don’t you, Mary?’ she said; and I declared myself quite equal to the walk.
‘It would be impossible for you to get back to Thornleigh before dark,’ the gentleman remonstrated. ‘I shall be quite offended if you refuse the use of my dog-cart, and insist on getting wet feet. I daresay your feet are wet as it is, by the bye.’
We assured him of the thickness of our boots, and gave our shawls to Mrs. Mills the old housekeeper, who carried them off to be dried in the kitchen, and promised to convey the order about the dog-cart to the stables immediately.
I had time now to look at our new acquaintance, who was standing with his shoulders against one angle of the high oak mantelpiece, watching the rain beating against a window opposite to him. I had no difficulty in recognising the original of that portrait which Augusta Darrell had looked at so strangely. He was much older than when the portrait had been taken — ten years at the least, I thought. In the picture he looked little more than twenty, and I should have guessed him now to be on the wrong side of thirty.
He was handsome still, but the dark powerful face had a sort of rugged look, the heavy eyebrows overshadowed the sombre black eyes, a thick fierce-looking moustache shrouded the mouth, but could not quite conceal an expression, half cynical, half melancholy, that lurked about the lowered corners of the full firm lips. He looked like a man whose past life held some sad or sinful history.
I could fancy, as I looked at him, that last bitter interview with his mother, and I could imagine how hard and cruel such a man might be under the influence of an unpardonable wrong. Like Mrs. Darrell, I was inclined to place myself on the side of the unfortunate lovers, rather than on that of the mother, who had been willing to sacrifice her son’s happiness to her pride of race.
We all three remained silent for some little time, Milly and I standing together in the window, Mr. Egerton leaning against the mantelpiece, watching the rain with an absent look in his face. He roused himself at last, as if with an effort, and came over to the window by which we stood.
‘It looks rather hopeless at present,’ he said; ‘but I shall spin you over to Thornleigh in no time; so you mustn’t be anxious. It is at Thornleigh Manor you live, is it not?’
‘Yes,’ Milly answered. ‘My name is Darrell, and this young lady is Miss Crofton, my very dear friend.’
He bowed in recognition of this introduction.
‘I thought as much — I mean as to your name being Darrell. I had the honour to know Mr. Darrell very well when I was a lad, and I have a vague recollection of a small child in white frock, who, I think, must have been yourself. I have only been home a week, or I should have done myself the pleasure of calling on your father.’
‘Papa is in Paris,’ Milly answered, ‘with my stepmother.’
‘Ah, he has married again, I hear. One of the many changes that have come to pass since I was last in Yorkshire.’
‘Have you returned for good, Mr. Egerton?’
‘For good — or for evil — who knows?’ he answered, with a careless laugh. ‘As to whether I stay here so many weeks or so many years, that is a matter of supreme uncertainty. I never am in the same mind very long together. But I am heartily sick of knocking about abroad, and I cannot possibly find life emptier or duller here than I have found it in places that people call gay.’
‘I can’t fancy any one growing tired of such a place as the Priory,’ said Milly.
‘ “Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage.” “ ’Tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus.” Cannot you fancy a man getting utterly tired of himself and his own thoughts — knowing himself by heart, and finding the lesson a dreary one? Perhaps not. A girl’s life seems all brightness. What should such happy young creatures know of that arid waste of years that lies beyond a man’s thirtieth birthday, when his youth has not been a fortunate one? Ah, there is a break in the sky yonder; the rain will be over presently.’
The rain did cease, as he had prophesied. The dog-cart was brought round to the door by a clumsy-looking man in corduroy, who seemed half groom, half gardener; and Mr. Egerton drove us home; Milly sitting next him, I at the back. His horse was very good one, and the drive only lasted a quarter of an hour, during which time our new acquaintance talked very pleasantly to both of us.
I could not forget that Mr. Darrell had called him a bad man; but in spite of that sweeping condemnation I could not bring myself to think of him without a certain interest.
Of course Milly and I discussed Mr. Egerton as we sat over our snug little tÃªte-Ã -tÃªte dinner, and we were both inclined to speak of his blighted life in a pitying kind of way, and to blame his mother’s conduct, little as we knew of the details of the story. Our existences were so quiet that this little incident made quite an event, and we were apt to date things from that afternoon for some time afterwards.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:47