The travellers came back to Thornleigh Manor in August, when the days were breathless and sultry, and the freshness of the foliage had already begun to fade after an unusually dry summer. Milly and I had been very happy together, and I think we both looked forward with a vague dread to the coming break in our lives. She loved her father as dearly as she had ever done, and longed ardently to see him again; but she knew as well as I did that our independence must end with his return.
‘If he were coming back alone, Mary,’ she said —‘if that marriage were all a dream, and he were coming back alone — how happy I should be! I know that of is own free will he would never come between me and any wish of mine. But I don’t know how he would act under his wife’s influence. You cannot imagine the power she has over him. And we shall have to begin the old false life over again, she and I— disliking and distrusting each other in our hearts — the daily round of civilities and ceremonies and pretences. O Mary, you cannot think how I hate it.’
We had seen nothing of Julian Stormont during all the time of our happy solitude; but on the day appointed for Mr. and Mrs. Darrell’s return he came to Thornleigh, looking more careworn than ever. I pitied him a little, knowing the state of his feelings about Milly, believing indeed that he loved her with a rare intensity, and being inclined to attribute the change in him to his disappointment upon this subject.
Milly told him how ill he was looking, and he said something about hard work and late hours, with a little bitter laugh.
‘It doesn’t matter to any one whether I am well or ill, you see, Milly,’ he said. ‘What would any one care if I were to drop over the side of the quay some dark night, on my way from the office to my lodgings, after a hard day’s work, and never be seen alive again?’
‘How wicked it is of you to talk like that, Julian! There are plenty of people who would care — papa, to begin with.’
‘Well, I suppose my uncle William would be rather sorry. He would lose a good man of business, and he would scarcely like going back to the counting-house, and giving himself up to all the dry details of commerce once more.’
The travellers arrived soon after this. Mr. Darrell greeted his daughter with much tenderness; but I noticed a kind of languor in Mrs. Darrell’s embrace, very different from her reception of Milly at that first meeting which I had witnessed more than a year before. It seemed to me that her power over her husband was now supreme, and that she did not trouble herself to keep up any pretence of affection for his only child.
She was dressed to perfection; and that subdued charm which was scarcely beauty, and yet stood in place of it, attracted me to-day as it had done when we first met. She was a woman who, I could imagine, might be more admired than many handsomer women. There was a distinction, an originality about the pale delicate face, dark arched brows, and gray eyes — eyes which were at times very brilliant.
She looked round her without the faintest show of interest or admiration as she loitered with her husband on the terrace, while innumerable travelling-bags, shawls, books, newspapers, and packages were being carried from the barouche to the house.
‘How dry and burnt-up everything looks!’ she said.
‘Have you no better greeting than that for Thornleigh, my dear Augusta?’ Mr. Darrell asked in rather a wounded tone. ‘I thought you would be pleased to see the old place again.’
‘Thornleigh Manor is not a passion of mine,’ she answered. ‘I hope you will take a house in town at the beginning of next year.’
She passed on into the hall, after having honoured me with the coldest possible shake-hands. We saw no more of her until nearly dinner-time, when she came down to the drawing-room, dressed in white, and looking deliciously pale and cool in the sultry weather. Milly had spent the afternoon in going round the gardens and home-farm with her father, and had thoroughly enjoyed the delight of a couple of hours alone with him. She gave him up now to Mrs. Darrell, who devoted all her attention to him for the rest of the evening; while Julian Stormont, Milly, and I loitered about the garden, and played a desultory game of croquet.
It was not until the next morning that Mr. Egerton’s name was mentioned, although it had been in my thoughts, and I cannot doubt in Milly’s, ever since Mr. Darrell’s arrival. We were in the drawing-room after breakfast, not quite decided what to do with the day, when Mr. Darrell came into the room dressed for a ride with his wife. He went over to the window by which Milly was standing.
‘You have quite given up riding, Ellis tells me, my dear,’ he said.
‘I have not cared to ride while you were away, papa, as Mary does not ride.’
‘Miss Crofton might have learnt to ride; there would always be a horse at her disposal.’
‘We like walking better,’ Milly said, blushing a little, and fidgeting nervously with one of the buttons on her father’s coat. ‘I used to feel in the way, you know, when I rode with you and Mrs. Darrell.’
‘That was your own fault, Milly,’ he answered, with a displeased look.
‘I suppose it was. But I think Augusta felt it too. O, by the bye, papa, I did not tell you quite all the news when we were out together yesterday.’
‘No; I forgot to mention that Mr. Egerton has come back.’
‘Yes; he came back last winter.’
‘You never said so in your letters.’
‘Didn’t I? I suppose that was because I knew you were rather prejudiced against him; and one can’t explain away that kind of thing in a letter.’
‘You would find it very difficult to explain away my dislike of Angus Egerton, either in or out of a letter. Have you seen much of him?’
‘A good deal. He has been at the Rectory very often when Mary and I have been invited there. The Collingwoods are very fond of him. I am sure — I think — you will like him, papa, when you come to see a little of him. He is going to call upon you.’
‘He can come if he pleases,’ Mr. Darrell answered with an indifferent air; ‘I shall not be uncivil to him. But I am rather sorry that he has made such a favourable impression upon you, Milly.’
She was still playing with the buttons of his coat, looking downward, her dark eyes quite veiled by their long lashes.
‘I did not say that, papa,’ she murmured shyly.
‘But I am sure of it from your manner. Has he done anything towards the improvement of Cumber?’
‘O yes; he has put new roofs to some part of the stables; and the land is in better order, they say; and the gardens are kept nicely now.’
‘Does he live alone at the Priory?’
‘Quite alone, papa.’
‘He must find it rather a dull business, I should think.’
‘Mr. Collingwood says he is very fond of study, and that he has a wonderful collection of old books. He is a great smoker too, I believe; he walks a good deal; and he hunted all last winter. They say he is a tremendous rider.’
Augusta Darrell came in at this moment, ready for her ride. Her slim willowy figure looked to great advantage in the plain tight-fitting cloth habit; and the little felt hat with its bright scarlet feather gave a coquettish expression to her face. She tapped her husband lightly on the arm with her riding-whip.
‘Now, William, if your are quite ready.’
‘My dearest, I have been waiting for the last half-hour.’
They went off to their horses. Milly followed them to the terrace, and watched them as they rode away.
We spent the morning out-of-doors sketching, with Julian Stormont in attendance upon us. At two o’clock we all meet at luncheon.
After luncheon Milly and I went to the drawing-room, while Mrs. Darrell and Mr. Stormont strolled upon the terrace. My dear girl had a sort of restless manner to-day, and went from one occupation to another, now sitting for a few minutes at the piano, playing brief snatches of pensive melody, now taking up a book, only to throw it down again with a little weary sigh. She seated herself at a table presently, and began to arrange the sketches in her portfolio. While she was doing this a servant announced Mr. Egerton. She rose hurriedly, blushing as I had rarely seen her blush before, and looking towards the open window near her, almost as if she would have liked to make her escape from the room. It was the first time Angus Egerton had been at Thornleigh Manor since she was a little child.
‘Tell papa that Mr. Egerton is here, Filby,’ she said to the servant. ‘I think you will find him in the library.’
She had recovered her self-possession in some measure by the time she came forward to shake hands with the visitor; and in a few minutes we were talking in the usual easy friendly way.
‘You see, I have lost no time in calling upon your papa, Miss Darrell,’ he said presently. ‘I am not too proud to show him how anxious I am to regain his friendship, if, indeed, I ever possessed it.’
Mr. Darrell came into the room as he was speaking; and however coldly he might have intended to receive the master of Cumber Priory, his manner soon softened and grew more cordial. There was a certain kind of charm about Angus Egerton, not very easily to be described, which I think had a potent influence upon all who knew him.
I fancied that Mr. Darrell felt this, and struggled against it, and ended by giving way to it. I saw that he watched his daughter closely, even anxiously, when she was talking to Angus Egerton, as if he had already some suspicion about the state of her feelings with regard to him. Mr. Egerton had caught sight of the open portfolio, and had insisted on looking over the sketches — not the first of Milly’s that he had seen by a great many. I noticed the grave, almost tender, smile with which he looked at the little artistic ‘bits’ out of Cumber Wood. He went on talking to Mr. Darrell all the time he was looking at these sketches; talking of the neighbourhood and the changes that had come about of late years, and a little of the Priory, and his intentions with regard to improvements.
‘I can only creep along at a snail’s pace,’ he said; ‘for I am determined not to get into debt, and I won’t sell.’
‘I wonder you never tried to let the priory in all those years that you were abroad,’ suggested Mr. Darrell.
Mr. Egerton shook his head, with a smile.
‘I couldn’t bring myself to that,’ he said, ‘though I wanted money badly enough. There has never been a strange master at Cumber since it belonged to the Egertons. I daresay it’s a foolish piece of sentimentality on my part; but I had rather fancy the old place rotting slowly to decay than in the occupation of strangers.’
He was standing by the table where the open portfolio lay, with Milly by his side, and one of the sketches in his hands, when Mrs. Darrell came in at the window nearest to this little group, and stood on the threshold looking at him. I think I was the only person who saw her face at that moment. It was so sudden a look that came upon it, a look half terror, half pain, and it passed away so quickly, that I had scarcely time to distinguish the expression before it was gone; but it was a look that brought back to my memory the almost forgotten scene in the little study at Cumber Priory, and set me wondering what it could be that made the sight of Angus Egerton, either on canvas or in the flesh, a cause of agitation to Milly’s stepmother.
In the next moment Mr. Darrell was presenting his visitor to his wife; and as the two acknowledged the introduction, I stole a glance at Mr. Egerton’s face. It was paler than usual; and the expression of Mrs. Darrell’s countenance seemed in a manner reflected in it. It was not possible that such looks could be without some significance. I felt convinced that these two people had met before.
There was a change in Mr. Egerton’s manner from the moment of that introduction. He laid down Milly’s sketch without another word, and stood with his eyes fixed on Augusta Darrell’s face with a strange half-bewildered look, like a man who doubts the evidence of his own senses. Mrs. Darrell, on the contrary, seemed, after that one look which I had seen, quite at her ease, and rattled on gaily about the delight of travelling in the Tyrol, as compared to the dulness of life at Thornleigh.
‘I hope you will enliven us a little, Mr. Egerton,’ she said. ‘It is quite an agreeable surprise to find a new neighbour.’
‘I ought to be very much flattered by that remark; but I doubt my power to add to the liveliness of this part of the world. And I do not think I shall stay much longer at Cumber.’
Milly glanced up at him with a surprised look.
‘Mrs. Collingwood told us you were quite settled at the Priory,’ she said, ‘and that you intended to spend the rest of your days as a country squire.’
‘I may have dreamed such a dream sometimes, Miss Darrell; but there are dreams that never fulfil themselves.’
He had recovered himself by this time, and spoke in his accustomed tone. Mr. Darrell asked him to dinner on an early day, when I knew the Rectory people were coming to us, and the invitation was accepted.
Julian Stormont had followed Mrs. Darrell in from the terrace, and had remained in the background, a very attentive listener and observer during the conversation that followed.
‘So that is Angus Egerton,’ he said, when our visitor had left us.
‘Yes, Julian. O, by the bye, I forgot to introduce you; you came in so quietly,’ answered Mr. Darrell.
‘I can’t say I particularly care about the honour of knowing that gentleman,’ said Mr. Stormont in a half-contemptuous tone.
‘Why not?’ Milly asked quickly.
‘Because I never heard any goof of him.’
‘But he has reformed, it seems,’ said Mr. Darrell, ‘and is leading quite a steady life at Cumber, the Collingwoods tell me. Augusta and I called at the Rectory this morning, and the Rector and his wife talked a good deal of him. I was rather pleased with him, I confess, just now.’
Milly looked up at her father gratefully. Poor child! how innocently and unconsciously she betrayed her secret! and how little she thought of the jealous eyes that were watching her! I saw Julian Stormont’s face darken with an angry look, and I knew that he had already discovered the state of Milly’s feelings in relation to Angus Egerton.
He was still with us when Mr. Egerton came to dinner two days later. I shall never forget that evening. The day was oppressively warm, with that dry sultry heat of which there had been so much during the latter part of the summer; and as the afternoon advanced, the air grew still, that palpable stillness which so often comes before a thunder-storm. Milly had been full of life and vivacity all day, flitting from room to room with a kind of joyous restlessness. She took unusual pains with her toilette for so simple a party, and came into my room looking like Titania in her gauzy white dress, with half-blown blush-roses in her hair, and more roses in a bouquet at her waist.
Mr. Egerton came in a little later than the party from the Rectory, and after shaking hands with Mr. Darrell, made his way at once to the place where Milly and I were sitting.
‘Any more sketching since I was here last, Miss Darrell?’ he asked.
‘No. I have been doing nothing for the last day or two.’
‘Do you know I have been thinking of your work in that way a good deal since I called here. I am stronger in criticism than in execution, you know. I think I was giving you a little lecture on your shortcomings, wasn’t I?’
‘Yes; but you left off so abruptly in the middle of it, that I don’t fancy it was very profitable to me,’ Milly answered in rather a piqued tone.
‘Did I really? O yes, I remember. I was quite startled by Mrs. Darrell’s appearance. She is so surprisingly like a lady I knew a long time ago.’
‘That is rather a curious coincidence,’ I said.
‘How a coincidence?’ asked Mr. Egerton.
‘Mrs. Darrell said almost the same thing about your portrait when we were at Cumber one day. It reminded her of some one she had known long ago.’
‘What an excellent memory you have for small events, Miss Crofton!’ said a voice close behind me.
It was Mrs. Darrell’s. She had come across the room towards us, unobserved by me, at any rate. Whether Angus Egerton had seen her or not, I do not know. He rose to shake hands with her, and then went on talking about Milly’s sketching.
Mr. Collingwood took Mrs. Darrell in to dinner, and Mr. Egerton gave his arm to Milly, and was seated next her at the prettily decorated table, upon which there was always a wealth of roses at this time of year. I saw Augusta Darrell’s eye wander restlessly in that direction many times during dinner, and I felt that the dear girl I loved so fondly was in an atmosphere of falsehood. What was the nature of the past acquaintance between those two people? and why was it tacitly denied by both of them? If it had been an ordinary friendship, there could have been no reason for this concealment and suppression. I had never quite made up my mind to trust Angus Egerton, though I liked and admired him; and this mysterious relation between him and Augusta Darrell was a sufficient cause for serious distrust.
‘I wish she cared for him less,’ I said to myself, as I glanced at Milly’s bright happy face.
When we went back to the drawing-room after dinner, the Miss Collingwoods had a great deal to say to Milly about a grand croquet-match which was to take place in a week or two at Pensildon, Sir john and Lady Pensildon’s place, fourteen miles from Thornleigh. The Rector’s daughters, both of whom were several years older than Milly, were passionately fond of croquet and everything in the way of gaiety, and were full of excitement about this coming event, discussing what they were going to wear, and what Milly was going to wear, on the occasion. While they were engaged in this way, Mrs. Collingwood told me a long story about one of her poor parishioners, always an inexhaustible subject with her. This arrangement left Mrs. Darrell unoccupied; and after standing at one of the open windows looking listlessly out, she sauntered out upon the terrace, her favourite lounge always in this summer weather. I saw her repass the windows a few minutes afterwards, in earnest conversation with Angus Egerton. This was some time before the other gentlemen left the dining-room; and they were still walking slowly up and down when Mr. Darrell and the Rector came to the drawing-room. The storm had not yet come, and it was bright moonlight. Mr. Darrell went out and brought his wife in, with some gentle reproof on her imprudence in remaining out of doors so late in her thin muslin dress.
After this there came some music. Augusta Darrell sang some old English ballads which I had never heard her sing before — simple pathetic melodies, which, I think, brought tears to the eyes of all of us.
Mr. Egerton sat near one of the open windows, with his face in shadow, while she was singing; and as she began the last of these old songs he rose with a half-impatient gesture, and went out upon the terrace. If I watched him closely, and others in relation to him, at this time, it was from no frivolous or impertinent curiosity, but because I felt very certain that my darling’s happiness was at stake. I saw her little disappointed look when he remained at the farther end of the room, talking to the gentlemen, all the rest of that evening, instead of contriving by some means to be near her, as he always had done during our pleasant evenings at the Rectory.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:05