The Poetry Did It
An event in the life of Major Evergreen


Wilkie Collins

First published in The Spirit of the Times, December 1885, and in The English Illustrated Magazine January 1886.

This edition published by eBooks@Adelaide.

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The Poetry Did It

An event in the life of Major Evergreen

1

An employment which he enjoyed represented the bright side, and an enemy whom he abhorred personified the dark side, of Major Evergreen’s life. He had plenty of money, excellent health, and a hare-brained little niece who might have caused some anxiety to other men in his position. The major’s constitutional tranquility accepted responsibilities of all sorts with a good-humoured indifference which set them at defiance. If Miss Mabel had eloped with the footman, he would have said: ‘Well, I hope they may be happy.’ If she had come down one morning to breakfast, and had announced that she felt a vocation to be a nun, he would have answered: ‘You know best, my dear; I only beg you won’t trouble me to find the convent.’

Persons who wished to see Major Evergreen in earnest—terribly in earnest—had only to look at him when he had pen, ink, and paper before him, and was writing poetry.

This was the employment that he enjoyed; this was the occupation of every day in his life. He must have written hundreds of thousands of lines, without a single thought in them which was not unconsciously borrowed from somebody else. Every form that poetry can take was equally easy and delightful to him. Blank verse and rhyming verse; epic poems and sonnets; tragedies, satires, epigrams; passionate poetry in the manner of Byron; narrative poetry in the manner of Scott; philosophical poetry in the manner of Wordsworth; poetry of the modern type which gets into the pulpit, and reminds us of our moral duties—this wonderful man was equal to every imaginable effort in verse; and, more deplorable still, being rich, he published his works. They appeared in volumes (first edition), and disappeared as waste paper—and appeared again (second edition), and disappeared as before. The printing was perfection; the paper was expressly manufactured to make it worthy of the printing; and the happy major, closing his eyes on facts, firmly believed in his own popularity.

One day, towards the end of summer, the poet had laid down his pen, and was considering whether he should write a few hundred lines more, when his niece looked over his shoulder, and asked if she might speak to him.

Miss Mabel was little and dark, and slim and active; her brightly restless eyes were never in repose, except when she was asleep; her voice was cheerful, her manner was brisk, and her figure was plump. She was further entitled to claim general admiration by a system of dress which was the perfection of elegance, and by possessing a fortune of eighty thousand pounds. And last, not least on the list of her virtues, she read Major Evergreen’s poetry.

‘Well, Mabel, what is it?’

‘It’s about my marriage, uncle.’

‘Marry anybody you like, my dear.’

‘Even your ugly old publisher?’

‘Yes, if you prefer him.’

‘Or anybody else!’

‘Certainly, if you like him better.’

‘The fact is, uncle, you don’t care what becomes of me.’

‘I am of your way of thinking, my dear.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Do you care what becomes of you?’

‘Of course I do!’

‘Then I care too.’

There was an interval of silence. Mabel was considering what she should say next. She decided on speaking plainly, come what might of it.

‘This is serious,’ she resumed.

The major was glad to hear it.

‘I’m only afraid of one thing—I’m afraid I shall offend you.’

The major declared that it was impossible to offend him.

‘Remember what you have said, uncle! I have just had an offer of marriage.’

‘From my ugly publisher?’

‘No; from Sir John Bosworth.’

Major Evergreen—usually the laziest of men—jumped out of his chair, and walked up and down the room, transformed from a pleasant uncle who wrote poetry to a disagreeable old bachelor who was angry with his niece.

And for what reason? For this excellent reason: she had mentioned the name of the enemy whom he abhorred.

Sir John Bosworth was a gentleman who indulged in the hazardous speculations of modern life. He owned racehorses, and he built theatres; he was also proprietor of a weekly journal. In that newspaper had appeared the only review of Major Evergreen’s poems which had ever noticed them at any length. Of the tone adopted by the critic, it is merely necessary to say that it hurried away the easy-tempered major to his lawyer’s office, to bring an action for libel against Sir John Bosworth. The wise lawyer pronounced the article to be simply inhuman, but not libellous. Sir John (already under the influence of Mabel) expressed his regret in the handsomest manner; and declared that the article had been published by his editor without his knowledge. Major Evergreen submitted to circumstances—recovered his customary good spirits—and went on writing poetry more industriously than ever. But what author has succeeded in forgetting an inhuman review? To mention the name of the proprietor of the paper was to wound the poet in his tenderest place. When Sir John Bosworth paid visits to the charming niece, the unforgiving uncle was never in his way. Major Evergreen was ‘engaged in his study.’

‘I couldn’t help mentioning the name, uncle,’ Mabel pleaded. ‘I was obliged to tell you who it was that had asked me to marry him.’

The major received this apology with a word of serious advice. ‘You might have spared me the name, my dear—you might have said, That Man. I should have known whom you meant.’

Mabel accepted the suggestion. ‘I wished to tell you that I didn’t engage to marry That Man,’ she proceeded; ‘I only said I wanted time to consider. I don’t think I like him. I rather believe I want to get away from him, before he calls again.’

The major returned quietly to his chair.

‘Very right indeed,’ he said—and looked at his pen and ink. He was longing to get rid of his niece and go back to his poetry.

‘This is about the time of year,’ Mabel persisted, ‘when we go to the country.’

The major was quite willing. ‘Just as you please; they’re ready for us at Stillbrook.’

‘Stillbrook won’t do, uncle. If we go to your country house That Man will follow us. Suppose we take refuge at Oakapple Hall?’

‘With all my heart.’

‘Then I may write to Mrs Corydon?’

‘Certainly.’

Mabel went away to write a letter; and Mabel’s uncle remained, to write poetry.

2

A widow of mild and retiring character, married late in life; and possessed of one son who exactly resembled her in disposition: there is the briefly sufficient description of Mrs Corydon.

Arriving at Oakapple Hall, Major Evergreen and his niece encountered a surprise held in reserve for them by their amiable hostess. They were received at the housedoor by Mrs Corydon’s son. On the last two occasions when they had enjoyed the widow’s hospitality, Mr Cyril Corydon had been absent, pursuing his studies at Oxford. Mabel had not seen him since he had left school.

Cyril had greatly improved in the interval. Still modest and a little reserved, he was no longer awkward; he kept his hands out of his pockets, and his nails exhibited no black rims; his fair complexion was without pimples; his vacant smile of former days had meaning in it now; and, to complete the transformation, Mabel saw a slim young man who fed delicately, in place of a devouring fat boy who approached his dinner as a pig approaches a trough. She also noticed his pretty little flaxen moustache, and shy tenderness in the expression of his gentle blue eyes. Upon the whole, he reminded her of a description of a Troubadour, in one of her uncle’s poems.

Oakapple Hall, in one respect, resembled the famous abbey described by Rabelais—the inhabitants did as they pleased. When luncheon was over Major Evergreen retired to his room and his pen and ink. Mrs Corydon resumed work on an immense embroidered counterpane, which had already occupied her patient fingers for the greater part of her life. The two young people took a walk in the park: Cyril offered his arm, and Mabel started the conversation.

‘Have you really left Oxford for good?’ she began. ‘And are you sorry for it?’

‘I was sorry for it, until today.’

Cyril laid a strong emphasis on the last three words, and ventured on a look which sent his artful compliment straight to its right address. Mabel acknowledged the look by an innocent little question: ‘Do you think I am improved, since you saw me last?’

Cyril burst into an exclamation. Expressed in letters, it was only, ‘Oh!’ The manner and the tone made it eloquent, and ought to be described. But description requires appropriate words. Where, in this case, are the words? Mabel’s innocence, requiring no description, pursued its artless way: ‘Mr Corydon, you mustn’t flatter me.’ Mr Corydon immediately proceeded to flatter her.

‘Don’t call me “Mr!” You used to call me “Cyril,” in the days when I was insensible to that honour and happiness. My one ambition is to hear you call me “Cyril” now.’

‘You were a boy then, Mr Corydon: you are a young man now. I am afraid it wouldn’t be quite right.’

Cyril hit on a poetical allusion which might have fallen from the lips of the major himself. ‘Juliet didn’t hesitate,’ he remarked, ‘to call Romeo by his Christian name.’

This—for a shy man—was, as Mabel thought, getting on at rather too rapid a rate. She turned the talk back into the prosaic channels of modern life. ‘I thought your mother and you were serious people,’ she said. ‘Have you really been to the play?’

‘Only to Shakespeare,’ Cyril reminded her. ‘I was taken to the theatre, in the last vacation, by a man of high position, and large experience, whom I am proud to call my friend. His younger brother read with me under the same tutor—and I first came to know him in that way.’

‘Who is this remarkable gentleman?’

‘Sir John Bosworth.’

Mabel stood stock-still, and looked at the unsuspecting heir of Oakapple Hall. That good fellow was honestly pleased. ‘Sir John’s fame has reached you,’ he said. ‘And perhaps you may have met him in society?’

Mabel acknowledged that she had met him, and said no more. Cyril sang his praises.

‘What a man! He builds places of public amusement, he wins money on racecourses, he sits on the throne of the Press and dictates the policy of Europe—and, only think, he is My Friend!’

But Mabel’s thoughts were otherwise employed. A young person, hitherto free from any weak leanings towards superstition, she now dimly perceived the hand of Fate, mysteriously pointing to Sir John, at the very time when she had determined to dismiss him from her mind and from her list of visitors. What would be the next event? Would he discover Oakapple Hall? Preceded by his celebrity, would he obtain an introduction to Mrs Corydon, and renew his offer of marriage? With the ready inconsistency of her sex and age, Mabel began to feel a certain reluctant interest in Sir John. He assumed romantic proportions in his absence. She had left him a shadowy figure disappearing, as it were, in the background. And here he was in the front of the picture again; presenting himself through the innocent medium of this nice boy—so proud of him, so grateful to him! Her curiosity was excited by the very man whom she had despised not three days since. She encouraged poor Cyril to talk of Sir John. One of Eve’s daughters—there is nothing else to be said for her: one of Eve’s daughters.

The course of their walk had brought them back, by this time, to the house. Cyril suddenly made an apology.

‘Excuse me for one moment; I have something to show you.’ He ran into the house, and ran out again with the local newspaper in his hand.

‘Nothing that I can say of our gifted friend will be as interesting to you as this,’ he announced, and pointed to the column of the newspaper filled by the London correspondent with news from the fashionable world. There was Sir John again! ‘A brilliant circle had assembled’ at the country seat of a great nobleman, situated within an hour’s drive of Oakapple Hall—and in two days more Sir John Bosworth was expected as a welcome addition to the number of his lordship’s guests.

Mabel made the first excuse that occurred to her, and escaped from Cyril to the solitude of her own room. It was high time to consider what she had better do next.

3

Decision of character is, generally speaking, a plant of slow growth, in the human constitution. When the age is seventeen, the sex female, and the question: What am I to do next?—perplexing circumstances wait for an answer, and seldom get it. Mabel could not venture to consult her uncle—and if Mrs Corydon had an amiable weakness, it took the form of habitual reliance on other people’s advice. In this emergency, Mabel’s temper escaped from control; and Cyril’s position in the estimation of his charming friend receded, without any reason for that deplorable event which it was possible to discover. Ignorant of the ways of women—in love, with the ready inflammability of a young man who has led an innocent life—Cyril was foolish enough to ask if he had offended Mabel. He made the mistake with the utmost humility of manner and language—and was received with a toss of the head, and a reply which expressed surprise that a member of an English University should prove to be an ill-bred man.

Three days passed. Sir John Bosworth (if the newspaper could be trusted) was already established as a guest at the country seat of his noble friend. In sheer despair of recovering the ground that he had lost by any effort of his own, Cyril decided on asking the advice of the one competent and trustworthy person within his reach.

Sir John was in the house; Sir John hurried into the room in which Cyril was waiting for him, and shook hands with a cordial squeeze. This inestimable friend of Cyril’s was a tall finely-made man, rather dark than light in complexion, and a little bald; otherwise remarkable for bushy eyebrows, a strong Roman nose, and magnificent whiskers; eyes bright and striking in themselves, but a little shifty in expression at times: in one word, a most agreeable person—with a false nature, concealed from the mass of mankind under a surface of easy humour and hearty good spirits.

‘My dear boy, how glad I am to see you! You are one of us, of course? and you have come to luncheon? No? You are not invited by my lord? Come along and see him. Between ourselves, he’s a bit of a bore—and a bright young fellow like you will be a perfect godsend to the rest of us. You won’t? Now I look at you again, I see signs of something wrong. Am I rushing at rash conclusions if I suspect that my young friend is in a scrape? No explanations! At your age there is only one scrape—a woman.’

‘The loveliest girl in the world, Sir John. I am in sore need of your advice. Can we speak here without interruption?’

‘Of course we can!’

He rang the bell as he replied, and gave his orders to the servant as coolly as if he had been in his own house. He was obsequiously obeyed. The servant knew him to be the proprietor of a newspaper; and, like his betters (including some of the highest personages in the land) the footman was afraid of the Press.

Sir John administered his first dose of advice. ‘Sit down, my good fellow—take a cigar—and out with it!’

Cyril told his melancholy story. ‘She treats me cruelly,’ he said, by way of conclusion. ‘And I assure you, on my word of honour, I haven’t observed it.’

Sir John administered the second dose. ‘Exactly my case,’ he remarked coolly. ‘I am devoted to the loveliest girl in the world, and she treats me cruelly. Would you believe it?—she has left London to avoid me, and I don’t know where to find her. Do as I do: take it easy.’

‘I’m too fond of her, Sir John, to take it easy.’

‘Oh, if you come to that, I’m broken-hearted. At the same time, I don’t disguise from myself that we are both rowing in the same boat. You’re the favourite plaything of one coquette; and I the favourite plaything of another. There it is in a nutshell.’

This off-hand way of speaking of the beloved object shocked Cyril. ‘You may be right about your lady,’ he answered. ‘Excuse me for saying that you are wrong about mine.’

Sir John laughed. ‘I was as innocent once as you are,’ he said. ‘Let’s get at the facts first. Mine is quite a young one. Is yours quite a young one too?’

‘In the first lovely bloom of youth!’

‘You curious boy! Your imagination is misleading you—and you don’t know it. All girls are alike.’

Cyril indignantly struck his fist on the table. ‘There isn’t another girl in the world like my Mabel!’

Sir John suddenly became serious.

‘Mabel?’ he repeated. ‘There’s something in that name which sounds familiar to me. Not the niece of Major Evergreen, surely?’

‘Yes!’ cried simple Cyril, ‘the same. How stupid of me not to have thought of it before! She has met you in society; and she is naturally interested in a celebrated man like yourself.You would have some influence over her. Oh, Sir John, if you would only see Mabel, and say a word to her in my interests, how truly obliged to you I should be!’

The impenetrable face of the man of the world expressed nothing but perfect readiness to make himself useful. Far more experienced eyes than Cyril’s would have discovered nothing in Sir John Bosworth’s manner even remotely suggesting that the two lovers had been, all this time, talking of the same lady.

‘With pleasure!’ cried Sir John. ‘But where shall we find her?’

Cyril seized his hand. ‘You good friend!’ he exclaimed, with tears in his eyes. ‘She’s staying with my mother at our house—only a short ride from this place. When will you let me introduce you to my mother?’

‘Whenever you like.’

‘At once?’

And that excellent man smiled, and cheerfully echoed the words: ‘At once!’

4

The two gentlemen discovered Miss Mabel walking up and down the garden terrace in front of Oakapple Hall, reading a book. Good girl! It was a volume of her uncle’s poetry.

‘I felt sure you would be glad to meet Sir John Bosworth again,’ Cyril began.

His manner was a great deal too humble. Before he could get any farther, Sir John spoke for himself.

‘The happiness is all mine,’ he said in his easy way. ‘If I happen, however, to be intruding, pray don’t scruple to say so.’

Mabel raised her eyes from her book. She had only to look at Cyril, and to see what had happened. Angry, perplexed, flattered, amused—in this conflict of small emotions she was completely at a loss how to assert herself to the best advantage; and she took refuge in a cold composure which, for the time being at least, committed her to nothing. ‘I was certainly engaged in reading,’ she replied—and put a mark in her book with a sigh of resignation.

Impenetrable Sir John received the blow without flinching. ‘You led me to hope for the honour of being introduced to Mrs Corydon,’ he said to Cyril. ‘Shall we find her at home?’

He took Cyril’s arm and led him to the house. ‘That’s the way to manage her,’ he whispered. ‘I’ll bet you five to one she’s vexed at our leaving her—and ten to one that she receives us more civilly when she sees us again. Don’t look back! You’re a lost man if she discovers that you’re thinking of her. Which is the way to the drawing-room?’

Sir John Bosworth effected the conquest of Mrs Corydon at the first interview. She treated him as she was accustomed to treat her best friends. In other words, she offered to show him over the house. Oakapple Hall was a place of great age and celebrity. In the upper regions two Kings of England had slept, and the ground floor still showed traces of the passage of Oliver Cromwell and his men. Sir John made his excuses for that day. Having heard that Mabel’s uncle was in the house, he was courteously unwilling to disturb the major in the agonies of poetical composition. When he had taken his leave he whispered to Cyril, on his way to the house door: ‘I’ll lay you another wager, if you like—we shall see Miss Mabel still on the terrace.’ And they did see her.

She was seated, with her closed book on her lap, deep in thought.

Hesitating between her two lovers, she had decided at first in favour of Cyril: he had youth on his side, he was handsome, he was modest and amiable. If he had happened to appear on the terrace, at that moment, he would have been the man preferred. But he was indoors, in attendance on his friend; and he left Mabel time to remember that there was a weak side to his character. In Cyril’s place would Sir John have consulted another man, and have brought him to visit her, without once suspecting that he might be a rival in disguise? Mabel was already leaning to the side of Sir John, when she heard footsteps on the walk—and, looking up, saw the man himself approaching her, alone.

In the present state of her inclinations, she was disposed, as an accomplished flirt, to begin by trifling with him. He saw her intention in the bright malice of her eyes, and put an obstacle in her way. Taking the book off her lap, he assumed to be interested in her reading.

‘Tired of poetry, Miss Mabel?’

‘Never tired of it, Sir John.’

‘You read a great deal of poetry.’

‘I believe I have read all the English poets.’

‘Including the major. Do you find him equal to the others?’

‘My uncle reminds me of the others—always pleasantly.’

Sir John opened the book, at that part of it in which a mark had been left, and read the title of the poem: The Rival Minstrels: a Contest in Verse.

‘Is it very interesting?’

His tone irritated Mabel. ‘It is perfectly charming,’ she answered—‘and reminds me of Walter Scott. Two minstrels are in love with the same fair lady; she challenges them to an exhibition of their art; they are each to address her in verse; and she offers her hand to the poet whose lines she most admires. Ah, what a position women occupied in those days!’

‘You would like to have been that fair lady, I suppose?’

‘I should indeed! Especially,’ she added with a saucy smile, ‘if you were a minstrel.’

‘I never wrote anything in my life—except letters. A proprietor of a newspaper, Miss Mabel, leaves prose and verse to his editor and his contributors. Are you looking for anything?’

‘I am looking for Mr Corydon. Where is he?’ Mabel asked, with an appearance of deepest interest.

Sir John determined to stop the coming flirtation in another way.

‘Staying in the house,’ he answered gravely, ‘by my advice.’

‘And why does he want your advice?’

‘Because he is under my protection. I feel the truest regard for him, and the sincerest sympathy with him in his present trying situation.’

Sir John knew his young lady well. His object was to puzzle her by presenting himself in an angry and jealous character entirely new to her experience—to keep her flighty mind by this means employed in trying to understand him, when he was obliged to leave her—to return the next day, and, by means of humble excuses and ardent entreaties for a reconciliation, to place poor Cyril’s mild and modest fidelity in a light of comparison which it would be little likely to endure.

Thus far he had succeeded. Mabel listened, and looked at him, and said, ‘I don’t understand you.’

‘I will make myself understood,’ Sir John rejoined. ‘Have you forgotten the offer of marriage which I ventured to address to you in London? You didn’t say No; you told me you wished for time to consider. I called again, to hear what your decision might be; and I found that you had not only gone away into the country, without a word of apology, but had left strict instructions that the place of your retreat was not to be mentioned to anybody. If this was not a deliberate insult, it was something extremely like it. When I told you just now that Mr Corydon was under my protection, I meant that I would not allow that excellent young man to be treated as you have treated me.’

Mabel’s indignation was equal to the one possible reply to this.

‘Make your mind easy,’ she said; ‘Mr Corydon is in no danger of being treated as I have treated you.’

‘I sincerely hope for my young friend’s sake,’ Sir John answered, ‘that you really mean what you say.’

Mabel got more and more angry. ‘Mr Corydon is charming!’ she burst out. ‘Mr Corydon is a young man whom I esteem and admire!’

‘Allow me to thank you, Miss Mabel, for your candour. You relieve me from the anxiety that I have been feeling on my friend’s account. If you will only say to him what you have just said to me I shall retire, happy in the conviction that my intercession in Mr Corydon’s favour has been crowned with success. Good morning.’

5

Left by herself, Mabel felt the composing influence of solitude. Little by little, her cheeks recovered their every-day delicacy of colour; her eyebrows took their proper places on her forehead; and her pulse returned to the customary moderation of its beat. She was able to listen to the gentle promptings of her own vanity; and, as a matter of course, she began to look at Sir John’s insolence from a new point of view. He, the self-possessed man of the world, had completely forgotten himself, and there could be but one reason for it. ‘Mad with jealousy,’ she concluded complacently. ‘How fond he must be of me!’

Who was this, approaching slowly from the house with steps that hesitated? This was the fatal young man who was under Sir John’s protection, and who had repaid the obligation by rousing emotions of jealous rage in Sir John’s breast. Mabel was not sure whether she despised him or pitied him. In this difficulty, she took a middle course, and only said, ‘What do you want?’

‘May I not have the happiness of speaking to you?’

‘It depends, Mr Corydon, on what you have to say. I forbid you to speak of Sir John Bosworth; I won’t hear you if you speak of yourself; and I shall retire to my room if you speak to me. Have you any harmless remarks to make? Suppose you try the weather?’

Humble Cyril looked up at the sky. ‘Beautiful weather,’ he said submissively.

‘Or politics?’ Miss Mabel continued.

‘Conservative,’ Cyril answered, as if he was saying his catechism.

‘Or literature?’

‘I haven’t got any.’

‘What do you mean by that?’

‘I mean, I wish I was as well read as you are. Oh, Miss Mabel, don’t be so hard on a poor fellow who loves you with all his heart. I didn’t mean any harm when I asked Sir John —’

‘Be quiet!’

‘If there is any sort of atonement that I can make—if you could only tell me what a young lady wants—I mean, what she looks for in a young man —’

‘She looks, Mr Corydon, for what she doesn’t find in you.’

‘May I ask what that is?’

‘May I ask if you object to the form of vulgarity which is called—Slang?’

‘I object to nothing from You. Pray tell me in what I am deficient.’

‘Pluck!’

She looked at him with a moment’s saucy attention—bowed, and returned to the house. Even Cyril discovered that she was not positively angry this time.

6

Sir John Bosworth appeared again on the next day—with an excellent reason for returning so soon. He had not yet been shown over Oakapple Hall.

On this occasion, the servant conducted him to the music-room. Mabel was at the piano; and Cyril was turning the leaves of the music for her. Sir John had only to look at them, and to suspect that his modest young friend had been gaining ground in his absence. He approached the piano with his genial smile, and examined the music. ‘Maiden Musings’ was the title; and, in one respect at least, the composer had deserved well of the public of the present day—he had given them plenty of notes for their money. ‘Go on, please,’ said the amiable visitor. Mabel went on. Notes that thundered, notes that shrieked, notes in cataracts of sound represented the maiden’s musings. ‘What were those remarks,’ Sir John asked when it was over, ‘that Mozart made on the subject of melody? Cyril, my dear fellow, have you got Kelly’s Reminiscences in the library? Kelly was Mozart’s pupil. Do try to find the book.’

Before he complied with this request, Cyril looked at Mabel, and received a look in return. Then, and only then, he left the room. Sir John saw that he had not a moment to lose. The door was barely closed on his young rival, before he possessed himself of Mabel’s hand, and said, ‘Oh, forgive me!’

She released her hand, and assumed an icy composure. ‘I confess I am a little surprised to see you again,’ she remarked.

‘You see a man crushed by sorrow and shame,’ Sir John proceeded. ‘Some devil must have possessed me when I spoke to you yesterday. I have not had one quiet moment since. You are literally the one hope of my life. Try, pray try to imagine what I felt, when I had every reason to fear that I had lost you—and to what a man!’

‘A very agreeable man, Sir John.’

‘Torture me, if you like; I have deserved it. But don’t tell me that you—with your bright intelligence, your tact and delicacy, your superiority to the little weaknesses and vanities of ordinary women—can feel a serious attachment to such a person as Cyril Corydon. No! Despise me as you may, Mabel; destroy all the hopes that I have centred in you; doom me to be a wretched man for the rest of my life—there is one thing you can not do: I defy you to lower yourself in my estimation. You have been the one woman in the world to me since I first saw you; and the one woman you will remain to the day of my death!’

He caught her by the hand again: it trembled in his hand; her ready tongue had literally nothing to say. The power of nonsense, in every form which it can take, is one of the great moral forces to which humanity instinctively submits. When Cyril returned (without having discovered the book) Sir John’s nonsense, admirably spoken, had answered Sir John’s purpose. Placed between her two admirers, Mabel was not able to determine which she really preferred.

‘There’s no such book in the library,’ Cyril announced. ‘If he wanted to get rid of me, don’t you think, Miss Mabel, he might have said so plainly?’

For the moment Sir John was thunderstruck. Was this the same confiding helpless young gentleman who had brought him to Oakapple Hall? He recovered himself directly.

‘My dear boy, is there gout in your family?’ he asked. ‘I am at a loss to understand this extraordinary outbreak of temper—unless there is a first fit coming on, at an unusually early age.’

Cyril passed this question over without notice. His fair complexion reddened with anger. Never had love wrought such a transformation in a man since the time of Cymon.

‘I saw you take Miss Mabel’s hand just now, when I came in,’ he declared stoutly. ‘I consider that to be a liberty.’

Sir John’s satirical composure was not disturbed even by this . ‘May I inquire, merely as a matter of curiosity, whether you claim a right of property in this young lady’s hand?’

‘Yes, I do! I have reason to hope that this young lady will do me the honour of marrying me.’

‘So have I!’

‘I have a prior claim on her, Sir John.’

‘Nothing of the sort. I asked Miss Mabel to marry me last week.’

Cyril turned indignantly to Mabel. ‘Is that true?’

Sir John cautioned her. ‘You’re not bound to answer,’ he said.

‘She is bound!’

‘No, Cyril—no.’

‘Do you hear him, Mabel?’

Sir John pointed to Cyril’s flaming cheeks. ‘Do you see him, Mabel?’

She burst out laughing. This disconcerted both the men: there was an awful pause. ‘Must I decide between you,’ she asked, ‘without any time to think first?’ Neither the one nor the other offered her time to think first. Mabel’s eyes suddenly brightened: a new idea had occurred to her. She turned to Sir John.

‘I see a way out of the difficulty,’ she said. ‘Do you remember my uncle’s poem—the Contest of the Minstrels? Suppose you and Mr Corydon each address me in a little poem of your own composing—and suppose I imitate the fair lady of the ballad, and choose the minstrel whose verse I like best?’

Cyril was reduced to silence. Even Sir John could only say: ‘You’re joking.’

She was joking. But the consternation visible in the faces of the two men roused the spirit of mischief in her. ‘I’m quite in earnest,’ she answered. ‘If you wish me to decide between you, you have heard the only terms on which I consent. The day is before you: do your best.’

As she opened the door to leave them, Mrs Corydon came in. The amiable old lady said she was at Sir John’s service when he wished to see the house.

7

Major Evergreen proved to be useless, on this occasion, as a means for making an excuse; he had gone out for a walk. All the rooms to Oakapple Hall were open to Sir John. He heard how the two Kings had slept in the house, how Oliver Cromwell had battered the house, how one part of it was built in one century, and another part in another. He was not even spared the interesting spectacle of Major Evergreen’s study. ‘So characteristic of a poet,’ Mrs Corydon said; ‘look at the manuscripts all scattered about!’ Sir John looked at the manuscripts. Mrs Corydon left him, and led the way to the window. ‘And now look at the view!’ Sir John looked at the view.

Released at last, he had leisure to consider whether he should humour Mabel’s absurd caprice, or decline to make himself ridiculous, and leave her to recover her senses. He was a man greedy for money, as well as a man in love. Remembering that she had a handsome fortune, and that a rival younger than himself was also courting her, he made his way to the library.

At one of the writing-tables, Cyril was sitting forlorn, surrounded by morsels of torn paper. ‘What have you done?’ the elder minstrel asked of the younger. The melancholy answer was, ‘Nothing!’ Cyril’s voice sounded as if he was a child again, and was ready to cry.

Sir John sat down at a second table, in a distant part of the room, and began to write. The quiet in the library was only disturbed, now and then, by the heavy sighs of Cyril, and the sound of paper being torn up.

8

There was a knock at the door. A fresh young voice asked gaily: ‘May I come in?’

‘Don’t let me disturb you,’ said Mabel. ‘The fair ladies of past times were remarkable for their patience—especially with minstrels. I can wait.’

She looked at Cyril, who was seated nearest to her. Too cruelly mortified to speak, he took her hand, and put it on his hot forehead: he pointed to the mass of torn paper all round him. The tears rose in his eyes—he opened the door and went out.

Mabel’s face lost its expression of malicious enjoyment. She looked ashamed of herself; and she said softly: ‘Poor fellow!’

Sir John crossed the room, with a smile of conscious superiority. He was not a man who did anything by halves. Having decided on humouring the young lady, he presented his poetic offering with chivalrous humility, dropping on one knee.

Mabel read his verses. They had one great merit—there were very few of them.

They say she’s dark; yes, like the night

Whose beauty shines from starry skies:

Oh, my sweet saint, how darkly bright

The mellow radiance of those eyes!

I love in you the tender light—

The light the gaudy day denies.

‘Very pretty,’ Mabel said—‘and reminds me of Byron. Did you ever read his Hebrew Melodies?’

‘Never!’ Sir John declared fervently. ‘Allow me, my angel, to kiss your hand, and claim your promise.’

At that critical moment, Major Evergreen returned from his walk, and entered the library in search of a book. He stood petrified at the sight of the enemy whom he abhorred. ‘That Man!’ he cried—and ran out of the room with a furious look at his niece.

She ran out after him. Sir John followed on tiptoe, and listened at the half-opened door.

‘There’s more excuse for me, uncle, than you think,’ Mabel pleaded. ‘Sir John Bosworth has one merit which you really ought to allow. He is a poet like yourself—he has just written this.’

She began to read the verses:

They say she’s dark; yes, like the night

Whose beauty shines from starry skies——

Her uncle snatched the paper out of her hand. ‘My Poetry!’ he shouted.

Before his niece could stop him, he was back again in the library. ‘Thief!’ he called out at the top of his voice.

Mabel made a vain attempt to quiet him. She had forgotten the inhuman review. Not so the major. Even at that trying moment he could have repeated the most atrocious insults inflicted on him in the newspaper without missing a word.

‘The scoundrel has been among My Manuscripts!’ cried the infuriated poet. ‘I’ve longed to murder him for the last six months. And now I’ll do it!’

It was useless to search the room. Sir John Bosworth had made his escape.

At a later period, when Mabel was asked why she had married Cyril instead of Sir John, she used to answer——

‘The Poetry did it.’

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