Roderick Vawdrey’s ideas of what was due to a young man who attains his majority were in no wise satisfied by his birthday dinner-party. It had been pleasant enough in its way, but far too much after the pattern of all other dinner-parties to please a young man who hated all common and hackneyed things, and all the beaten tracks of life — or who, at any rate, fancied he did, which comes to nearly the same thing.
“Mother,” he began at breakfast next morning, in his loud cheery voice, “we must have something for the small tenants, and shopkeepers, and cottagers.”
“What do you mean, Roderick?”
“Some kind of entertainment to celebrate my majority. The people will expect it. Last night polished off the swells very nicely. The whole thing did you credit, mother.”
“Thank you,” said Lady Jane, with a slight contraction of her thin lips.
This October morning, so pleasant for Rorie, was rather a bitter day for his mother. She had been reigning sovereign at Briarwood hitherto; henceforth she could only live there on sufferance. The house was Rorie’s. Even the orchid-houses were his. He might take her to task if he pleased for having spent so much money on glass.
“But I must have my humble friends round me,” continued Rorie. “The young people, too — the boys and girls. I’ll tell you what, mother. We must have a lawn meet. The hounds have never met here since my grandfather’s time — fifty years ago. The Duke’s stud-groom was telling me about it last year. He’s a Hampshire man, you know, born and bred in the Forest. We’ll have a lawn meet and a hunting breakfast; and it shall be open house for everyone — high and low, rich and poor, gentle and simple. Don’t be frightened, mother,” interjected Rorie, seeing Lady Jane’s look of horror; “we won’t do any mischief. Your gardens shall be respected.”
“They are your gardens now, Roderick. You are sole master here, and can do what you please.”
“My dear mother, how can you talk like that? Do you suppose I shall ever forget who made the place what it is? The gardens have been your particular hobby, and they shall be your gardens to the end of time.”
“That is very generous of you, my dear Roderick; but you are promising too much. When you marry, your wife will be mistress of Briarwood, and it will be necessary for me to find a new home.”
“I am in no hurry to get married. It will be half-a-dozen years before I shall even think of anything so desperate.”
“I hope not, Roderick. With your position and your responsibilities you ought to marry young. Marriage — a suitable marriage, that is to say — would give you an incentive to earnestness and ambition. I want to see you follow your father’s footsteps; I want you to make a name by-and-by.”
“I’m afraid it will be a distant by-and-by,” said Rorie, with a yawn. “I don’t feel at all drawn towards the senate. I love the country, my dogs, my horses, the free fresh air, the stir and movement of life too well to pen myself up in a study and pore over blue-books, or to waste the summer evenings listening to the member for Little Peddlington laying down the law about combination drainage, or the proposed loop-line that is intended to connect his borough with the world in general. I’m afraid it isn’t in me, mother, and that you’ll be sorely disappointed if you set your heart upon my making a figure as a senator.”
“I should like to see you worthy of your father’s name,” Lady Jane said, with a regretful sigh.
“Providence hasn’t made me in the same pattern,” answered Rorie. “Look at my grandfather’s portrait over the mantelpiece, in pink and mahogany tops. What a glorious fellow he must have been. You should hear how the old people talk of him. I think I inherit his tastes, instead of my father’s. Hereditary genius crops up in curious ways, you know. Perhaps, if I have a son, he will be a heaven-born statesman, and you may have your ambition gratified by a grandson. And now about the hunting breakfast. Would this day week suit you?”
“This is your house, Roderick. It is for you to give your orders.”
“Bosh!” exclaimed the son impatiently. “Don’t I tell you that you are mistress here, and will be mistress ——”
“My dear Roderick, let us look things straight in the face,” said Lady Jane. “If I were sole mistress here there would be no hunting breakfast. It is just the very last kind of entertainment I should ever dream of giving. I am not complaining, mind. It is natural enough for you to like that kind of thing; and, as master of this house, it is your right to invite whomsoever you please. I am quite happy that it should be so, but let there be no more talk about my being mistress of this house. That is too absurd.”
Rorie felt all his most generous impulses turned to a sense of constraint and bitterness. He could say no more.
“Will you give me a list of the people you would like to be asked?” said his mother, after rather an uncomfortable silence.
“I’ll go and talk it over with the Duke,” answered Rorie. “He’ll enter into the spirit of the thing.”
Rorie found the Duke going the round of the loose-boxes, and uncle and nephew spent an hour together pleasantly, overhauling the fine stud of hunters which the Duke kept at Ashbourne, and going round the paddocks to look at the brood-mares and their foals; these latter being eccentric little animals, all head and legs, which nestled close to the mother’s side for a minute, and then took fright at their own tails, and shot off across the field, like a skyrocket travelling horizontally, or suddenly stood up on end, and executed a wild waltz in mid air.
The Duke and Roderick decided which among these leggy little beasts possessed the elements of future excellence; and after an hour’s perambulation of the paddocks they went to the house, where they found the Duchess and Lady Mabel in the morning-room; the Duchess busy making scarlet cloth cloaks for her school-children, Lady Mabel reading a German critic on Shakespeare.
Here the hunt breakfast was fully discussed. Everybody was to be asked. The Duchess put in a plea for her school-children. It would be such a treat for the little things to see the hounds, and their red cloaks and hoods would look so pretty on the lawn.
“Let them come, by all means,” said Roderick; “your school — half-a-dozen schools. I’ll have three or four tents rigged up for refreshments. There shall be plenty to eat and drink for everybody. And now I’m off to the Tempests’ to arrange about the hounds. The Squire will be pleased, I know.”
“Of course,” said Lady Mabel, “and the Squire’s daughter.”
“Dear little thing!” exclaimed Rorie, with an elder brother’s tenderness; “she’ll be as pleased as Punch. You’ll hunt, of course, Mabel?”
“I don’t know. I don’t shine in the field, as Miss Tempest does.”
“Oh, but you must come, Mab. The Duke will find you a safe mount.”
“She has a hunter I bred on purpose for her,” said the Duke; “but she’ll never be such a horsewoman as her mother.”
“She looks lovely on Mazeppa,” said Rorie; “and she must come to my hunting breakfast.”
“Of course, Rorie, if you wish I shall come.”
Rorie stayed to luncheon, and then went back to Briarwood to mount his horse to ride to the Abbey House.
The afternoon was drawing in when Rorie rode up to the old Tudor porch — a soft, sunless, gray afternoon. The door stood open, and he saw the glow of the logs on the wide hearth, and the Squire’s stalwart figure sitting in the great arm-chair, leaning forward with a newspaper across his knee, and Vixen on a stool at his feet, the dogs grouped about them.
“Shall I send my horse round to the stables, Squire?” asked Rorie.
“Do, my lad,” answered Mr. Tempest, ringing the bell, at which summons a man appeared and took charge of Roderick’s big chestnut.
“Been hunting to-day, Squire?” asked Rorie, when he had shaken hands with Mr. Tempest and his daughter, and seated himself on the opposite side of the hearth.
“No,” answered the Squire, in a voice that had a duller sound than usual. “We had the hounds out this morning at Hilberry Green, and there was a good muster, Jack Purdy says; but I felt out of sorts, and neither Vixen nor I went. It was a loss for Vixen, poor little girl.”
“It was a grief to see you ill, papa,” said Violet, nestling closer to him.
She had hardly taken any notice of Roderick to-day, shaking hands with him in an absent-minded way, evidently full of anxiety about her father. She was very pale, and looked older and more womanly than when he saw her yesterday, Roderick thought.
“I’m not ill, my dear,” said the Squire, “only a little muddled and queer in my head; been riding too hard lately, perhaps. I don’t get lighter, you know, Rorie, and a quick run shakes me more than it used. Old Martin, our family doctor, has been against my hunting for a long time; but I should like to know what kind of life men of my age would lead if they listened to the doctors. They wouldn’t let us have a decent dinner.”
“I’m so sorry!” said Rorie. “I came to ask you a favour, and now I feel as it I hardly ought to say anything about it.”
And then Roderick proceeded to tell the Squire his views about a lawn meet at Briarwood, and a hunting breakfast for rich and poor.
“It shall be done, my boy,” answered the Squire heartily. “It’s just the sort of thing you ought to do to make yourself popular. Lady June is a charming woman, you know, thoroughbred to the finger-nails; but she has kept herself a little too much to herself. There are people old enough to remember what Briarwood was in your grandfather’s time. This day week you say. I’ll arrange everything. We’ll have such a gathering as hasn’t been seen for the last twenty years.”
“Vixen must come with you,” said Rorie.
“If papa is well and strong enough to hunt.”
“My love, there is nothing amiss with me — nothing that need trouble me this day week. A man may have a headache, mayn’t he, child, without people making any fuss about it?”
“I should like you to see Dr. Martin, papa. Don’t you think he ought to see the doctor, Rorie? It’s not natural for him to be ill.”
“I’m not going to be put upon half-rations, Vixen. Martin would starve me. That’s his only idea of medical treatment. Yes, Vixen shall come, Rorie.”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:05