Somewhat to his surprise, and much to his delight, Roderick Vawdrey escaped that maternal lecture which he was wont undutifully to describe as a “wigging.” When he entered the drawing-room in full dress just about ten minutes before the first of the guests was announced, Lady Jane received him with a calm affectionateness, and asked him no questions about his disposal of the afternoon. Perhaps this unusual clemency was in honour of his twenty-first birthday, Rorie thought. A man could not come of age more than once in his life. He was entitled to some favour.
The dinner-party was as other dinners at Briarwood; all the arrangements perfect; the menu commendable, if not new; the general result a little dull.
The Ashbourne party were among the first to arrive; the Duke portly and affable; the Duchess delighted to welcome her favourite nephew; Lady Mabel looking very fragile, flower-like, and graceful, in her pale blue gauze dinner-dress. Lady Mabel affected the palest tints, half-colours, which were more like the shadows in a sunset sky than any earthly hues.
She took possession of Rorie at once, treating him with a calm superiority, as if he had been a younger brother.
“Tell me all about Switzerland,” she said, as they sat side by side on one of the amber ottomans. “What was it that you liked best?”
“The climbing, of course,” he answered.
“But which of all the landscapes? What struck you most? What impressed you most vividly? Your first view of Mont Blanc, or that marvellous gorge below the Tête Noire — or ——?”
“It was all uncommonly jolly. But there’s a family resemblance in Swiss mountains, don’t you know? They’re all white — and they’re all peaky. There’s a likeness in Swiss lakes, too, if you come to think of it. They’re all blue, and they’re all wet. And Swiss villages, now — don’t you think they are rather disappointing? — such a cruel plagiarism of those plaster châlets the image-men carry about the London streets, and no candle-ends burning inside to make ’em look pretty. But I liked Lucerne uncommonly, there was such a capital billiard-table at the hotel.”
“Roderick!” cried Lady Mabel, with a disgusted look. “I don’t think you have a vestige of poetry in your nature.”
“I hope I haven’t,” replied Rorie devoutly.
“You could see those sublime scenes, and never once feel your heart thrilled or your mind exalted — you can come home from your first Swiss tour and talk about billiard-tables!”
“The scenery was very nice,” said Rorie thoughtfully. “Yes; there were times, perhaps, when I was a trifle stunned by all that grand calm beauty, the silence, the solitude, the awfulness of it all; but I have hardly tune to feel the thrill when I came bump up against a party of tourists, English or American, all talking the same twaddle, and all patronising the scenery. That took the charm out of the landscape somehow, and I coiled up, as the Yankees say. And now you want me to go into second-hand raptures, and repeat my emotions, as if I were writing a tourist’s article for a magazine. I can’t do it, Mabel.”
“Well, I won’t bore you any more about it,” said Lady Mabel, “but I confess my disappointment. I thought we should have such nice long talks about Switzerland.”
“What’s the use of talking of a place? If it’s so lovely that one can’t live without it, one had better go back there.”
This was a practical way of putting things which was too much for Lady Mabel. She fanned herself gently with a great fan of cloudy looking feathers, such as Titania might have used that midsummer night near Athens. She relapsed into a placid silence, looking at Rorie thoughtfully with her calm blue eyes.
His travels had improved him. That bronze hue suited him wonderfully well. He looked more manly. He was no longer a beardless boy, to be patronised with that gracious elder-sister air of Lady Mabel’s. She felt that he was further off from her than he had been last season in London.
“How late you arrived this evening,” she said, after a pause. “I came to five-o’clock with my aunt, and found her quite anxious about you. If it hadn’t been for your telegram from Southampton, she would have fancied there was something wrong.”
“She needn’t have fidgeted herself after three o’clock,” answered Rorie coolly; “my luggage must have come home by that time.”
“I see. You sent the luggage on before, and came by a later train?”
“No, I didn’t. I stopped halfway between here and Lyndhurst to see some old friends.”
“Flattering for my aunt,” said Mabel. “I should have thought she was your oldest friend.”
“Of course she has the prior claim. But as I was going to hand myself over to her bodily at seven o’clock, to be speechified about and rendered generally ridiculous, after the manner of young men who come of age, I felt I was entitled to do what I liked in the interval.”
“And therefore you went to the Tempests’,” said Mabel, with her blue eyes sparkling. “I see. That is what you do when you do what you like.”
“Precisely. I am very fond of Squire Tempest. When I first rode to hounds it was under his wing. There’s my mother beckoning me; I am to go and do the civil to people.”
And Roderick walked away from the ottoman to the spot where his mother stood, with the Duke of Dovedale at her side, receiving her guests.
“It was a very grand party, in the way of blue blood, landed estate, diamonds, lace, satin and velvet, and self-importance. All the magnates of the soil, within accessible distance of Briarwood, had assembled to do honour to Rorie’s coming of ago. The dining-tables had been arranged in a horse-shoe, so as to accommodate fifty people in a room which, in its every-day condition, would not have been too large for thirty. The orchids and ferns upon this horse-shoe table made the finest floricultural show that had been seen for a long time. There were rare specimens from New Granada and the Philippine Islands; wondrous flowers lately discovered in the Sierra Madre; blossoms of every shape and colour from the Cordilleras; richest varieties of hue — golden yellow, glowing crimson, creamy white; rare eccentricities of form and colour beside which any other flower would have looked vulgar; butterfly flowers and pitcher-shaped flowers, that had cost as much money as prize pigeons, and seemed as worthless, save to the connoisseur in the article. The Vawdrey racing-plate, won by Roderick’s grandfather, was nowhere by comparison with those marvellous tropical blossoms, that fairy forest of fern. Everybody talked about the orchids, confessed his or her comparative ignorance of the subject, and complimented Lady Jane.
“The orchids made the hit of the evening,” Rorie said afterwards. “It was their coming of age, not mine.”
There was a moderate and endurable amount of speechifying by-and-by, when the monster double-crowned pines had been cut, and the purple grapes, almost as big as pigeons’ eggs, had gone round.
The Duke of Dovedale assured his friends that this was one of the proudest moments of his life, and that if Providence had permitted a son of his own to attain his majority, he, the Duke, could have hardly felt a deeper interest in the occasion than he felt to-day. He had — arra — arra — known this young man from childhood, and had — er — um — never found him guilty of a mean action — or — arra — discovered in him a thought unworthy of an English gentleman.
This last was felt to be a strong point, as it implied that an English gentleman must needs be much better than any other gentleman.
A continental gentleman might, of course, be guilty of an unworthy thought and yet pass current, according to the loose morality of his nation. But the English article must be flawless.
And thus the Duke meandered on for five minutes or so, and there was a subdued gush of approval, and then an uncomfortable little pause, and then Rorie rose in his place, next to the Duchess, and returned thanks.
He told them all how fond he was of them and the soil that bred them. How he meant to be a Hampshire squire, pure and simple, if he could. How he had no higher ambition than to be useful and to do good in this little spot of England which Providence had given him for his inheritance. How, if he should go into Parliament by-and-by, as he had some thoughts of attempting to do, it would be in their interests that he would join that noble body of legislators; that it would be they and their benefit he would have always nearest his heart.
“There is not a tree in the Forest that I do not love,” cried Rorie, fired with his theme, and forgetting to stammer; “and I believe there is not a tree, from the Twelve Apostles to the Knightwood Oak, or a patch of gorse from Picket Post to Stony Cross, that I do not know as well as I know the friends round me to-night. I was born in the Forest, and may I live and die and be buried here. I have just come back from seeing some of the finest scenery in Europe; yet, without blushing for my want of poetry, I will confess that the awful grandeur of those snow-clad mountains did not touch my heart so deeply as our beechen glades and primrose-carpeted bottoms close at home.” There was a burst of applause after Rorie’s speech that made all the orchids shiver, and nearly annihilated a thirty-guinea Odontoglossum Vexillarium. His talk about the Forest, irrelevant as it might be, went home to the hearts of the neighbouring landowners. But, by-and-by, in the drawing-room, when he rejoined his cousin, he found that fastidious young lady by no means complimentary.
“Your speech would have been capital half a century ago, Rorie,” she said, “and you don’t arra — arra — as poor papa does, which is something to be thankful for; but all that talk about the Forest seemed to be an anachronism. People are not rooted in their native soil nowadays, as they used to be in the old stage-coach times, when it was a long day’s journey to London. One might as well be a vegetable at once if one is to be pinned down to one particular spot of earth. Why, the Twelve Apostles,” exclaimed Mabel, innocent of irreverence, for she meant certain ancient and fast-decaying oaks so named, “see as much of life as your fine old English gentleman. Men have wider ideas nowadays. The world is hardly big enough for their ambition.”
“I would rather live in a field, and strike my roots deep down like one of those trees, than be a homeless nomad with a world-wide ambition,” answered Rorie. “I have a passion for home.”
“Then I wonder you spend so little time in it.”
“Oh, I don’t mean a home inside four walls. The Forest is my home, and Briarwood is no dearer to me than any other spot in it.”
“Not so dear as the Abbey House, perhaps?”
“Well, no. I confess that fine old Tudor mansion pleases me better than this abode of straight lines and French windows, plate glass and gilt mouldings.”
They sat side by side upon the amber ottoman, Rorie with Mabel’s blue feather fan in his hand, twirling and twisting it as he talked, and doing more damage to that elegant article in a quarter of an hour than a twelvemonth’s legitimate usage would have done. People, looking at the pretty pair, smiled significantly, and concluded that it would be a match, and went home and told less privileged people about the evident attachment between the Duke’s daughter and the young commoner. But Rorie was not strongly drawn towards his cousin this evening. It seemed to him that she was growing more and more of a paragon; and he hated paragons.
She played presently, and afterwards sang some French chansons. Both playing and singing were perfect of their kind. Rorie did not understand Chopin, and thought there was a good deal of unnecessary hopping about the piano in that sort of thing — nothing concrete, or that came to a focus; a succession of airy meanderings, a fairy dance in the treble, a goblin hunt in the bass. But the French chansons, the dainty little melodies with words of infantile innocence, all about leaves and buds, and birds’-nests and butterflies, pleased him infinitely. He hung over the piano with an enraptured air; and again his friends made note of his subjugation, and registered the fact for future discussion.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:47