We heard nothing of Mr. Egerton for about three weeks, at the end of which time we were invited to dine at the Rectory. The first person we saw on going into the long, low, old-fashioned drawing-room was the master of Cumber Priory leaning against the mantelpiece in his favourite attitude. The Rector was not in the room when we arrived, and Angus Egerton was talking to Mrs. Collingwood, who sat in a low chair near the fire.
‘Mr. Egerton has been telling me about your adventure in the wood, Milly,’ Mrs. Collingwood said, as she rose to receive us. ‘I hope it will be a warning to you to be more careful in future. I think that Cumber Wood is altogether too dangerous a place for two young ladies like you and Miss Crofton.’
‘The safest place in the world,’ cried Angus Egerton. ‘I shall always be at hand to come to the ladies’ assistance, and shall pray for the timely appearance of an infuriated bull, in order that I may distinguish myself by something novel in the way of a rescue. I hear that you are a very charming artist, Miss Darrell, and that you have done some of our oaks and beeches the honour to immortalise them.’
There is no need for me to record all the airy empty talk of that evening. It was a very pleasant evening. Angus Egerton had received his first lessons in the classics from the kind old Rector, and had been almost a son of the house in the past, the girls told me. He had resumed his old place upon his return, and seemed really fond of these friends, whom he had found ready to welcome him warmly in spite of all rumours to his disadvantage that had floated to Thornleigh during the years of his absence.
He was very clever, and seemed to have been everywhere, and to have seen everything worth seeing that the world contained. He had read a great deal too, in spite of his wandering life; and the fruit of his reading cropped up pleasantly now and then in his conversation.
There were no other guests, except an old country squire, who talked of nothing but his farming. Milly sat next Angus Egerton; and from my place on the other side of the table I could see how much she was interested in his talk. He did not stop long in the dining-room after we had left, but joined us as we sat round the fire in the drawing-room, talking over the poor people with Mrs. Collingwood and her two daughters, who were great authorities upon the question, and held a Dorcas society once a week, of which Milly and I were members.
There was the usual music — a little playing and a little singing from the younger ladies of the company, myself included. Milly sang an English ballad very sweetly, and Angus Egerton stood by the piano looking down at her while she sang.
Did he fall in love with her upon this first happy evening that those two spent together? I cannot tell; but it is certain that after that evening, he seemed to haunt us in our walks, and, go where we would, we were always meeting him, in company with a Scottish deerhound called Nestor, of which Milly became very fond. When we met in this half-accidental way he used to join us in our walk for a mile or two, very often bearing us company till we were within a few paces of Thornleigh.
These meetings, utterly accidental as they always were on our side, were a source of some perplexity to me. I was not quite certain whether I was right in sanctioning so close an acquaintance between Emily Darrell and the master of Cumber Priory. I knew that her father thought badly of him. Yet, what could I do? I was not old enough to pretend to any authority over my darling, nor had her father invested me with any; and I knew that her noble nature was worthy of all confidence. Beyond this, I liked Angus Egerton, and was inclined to trust him. So the time slipped away very pleasantly for all of us, and the friendship among us all three became closer day by day.
We met Mr. Egerton very often at the Rectory, and sometimes at other houses where we visited. He was much liked by the Thornleigh people, who had, most of them, known him in his boyhood; and it was considered by his old friends, that, whatever his career abroad might have been, he had begun, and was steadily pursuing, a reformed course of life. His means did not enable him to do much, but he was doing a little towards the improvement of Cumber Priory; and his existence there was as simple as that of the Master of Ravenswood.
I had noticed that Mrs. Collingwood did all in her power to encourage the friendship between Milly and Mr. Egerton, and one day in the spring, after they had met a great many times at her house, she spoke to me of her hopes quite openly.
It was a bright afternoon, and we were all strolling in the garden, after a game of croquet — the Rector’s wife and I side by side, Milly and Angus a little way in front of us.
‘I think she likes him,’ Mrs. Collingwood said thoughtfully.
‘Everybody seems to like Mr. Egerton,’ I answered.
‘O yes, I know that; but I mean something more than the ordinary liking. I am so anxious that he should marry — and marry wisely. I think I am almost as fond of him as if he were my son; and I should be so pleased if I could be the means of bringing about a match between them. Milly is just the girl to make a man happy, and her fortune would restore Cumber Priory to all its old glory.’
Her fortune! The word jarred upon me. Was it her money, after all, that Angus Egerton was thinking of when he took such pains to pursue my darling?
‘I should be sorry for her to marry any one who cared for her money,’ I said.
‘Of course, my dear Miss Crofton; and so should I be sorry to see her throw herself away upon any one with whom her money was a paramount consideration. But one cannot put these things quite out of the question. I know that Angus admired her very much the first day he saw her, and I fancy his admiration has grown into a warmer feeling since then. He has said nothing to me upon the subject, nor I to him; for you know how silent he always is about himself. But I cannot help wishing that such a thing might come to pass. He has one of the best names in the North Riding, and a first-rate position as the owner of Cumber Priory. He only wants money.’
I was too young and inexperienced to take a worldly view of things, and from this moment felt disposed to distrust Mr. Egerton. I remembered the story of his early attachment, and told myself that a man who had loved once like that had in all probability worn out his powers of loving.
‘I don’t think Mr. Darrell would approve of, or even permit, such a marriage,’ I said presently. ‘I know he has a very bad opinion of Mr. Egerton.’
‘On what account?’
‘On account of his conduct to his mother.’
‘No one knows the secret of that affair except Angus himself,’ answered Mrs. Collingwood. ‘I don’t think any one has a right to think badly of him upon that ground. I knew Mrs. Egerton very well. She was a proud hard woman, capable of almost anything in order to accomplish any set purpose of her own. Up to the time when he went to Oxford Angus had been an excellent son.’
‘Was it at Oxford he met the girl he wanted to marry?’
‘No; it was somewhere in the west of England, where he went on a walking tour during the long vacation.’
‘He must have loved her very much, to act as he did. I should doubt his power ever to love any one else.’
‘That is quite a girl’s way of thinking, my dear Miss Crofton. Depend upon it, after that kind of stormy first love, there generally comes a better and truer feeling. Angus was little more than a boy then. He is in the prime of manhood now, able to judge wisely, and not easily to be caught, or he would have married in all those years abroad.’
This seemed reasonable enough; but I was vexed, nevertheless, by Mrs. Collingwood’s match-making notions, which seemed to disturb the peaceful progress of our lives. After this I looked upon every invitation to the Rectory — where we never went without meeting Mr. Egerton — as a kind of snare; but our visits there were always very pleasant, and I grew in time to think with more indulgence of the Rector’s wife’s desire for her favourite’s advantage.
In all this time Angus Egerton had in no manner betrayed the state of his feelings. If he met us in our walks oftener than seemed possible by mere chance, there was nothing strictly lover-like in his tone or conduct. But I have seen his face light up as he met my dear girl at these times, and I have noticed a certain softening of his voice as he talked to her, that I never heard on other occasions.
And she? About her feelings I had much less doubt. She tried her uttermost to hide the truth from me, ashamed of her regard for one who had never yet professed to be more than a friend; but I knew that she loved him. It was impossible, in the perfect companionship and confidence of our lives, for Milly to keep this first secret of her pure young heart hidden from me. I knew that she loved him; and I began to look forward anxiously to Mr. Darrell’s return, which would relieve me of all responsibility, and perhaps put an end to our friendship with Angus Egerton.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:05