First published in London Society, May 1882.
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“Bob!” I shouted.
A rapid crescendo of snores ending in a prolonged gasp. “Wake up, Bob!”
“What the deuce is the row?” said a very sleepy voice. “It’s nearly breakfast-time,” I explained.
“Bother breakfast-time!” said the rebellious spirit in the bed. “And here’s a letter, Bob,” said I.
“Why on earth couldn’t you say so at once? Come on with it;” on which cordial invitation I marched into my brother’s room, and perched myself upon the side of his bed.
“Here you are,” said I. “Indian stamp—Brindisi postmark. Who is it from?”
“Mind your own business, Stumpy,” said my brother, as he pushed back his curly tangled locks and, after rubbing his eyes, proceeded to break the seal. Now if there is one appellation for which above all others I have a profound contempt, it is this one of “Stumpy.” Some miserable nurse, impressed by the relative proportions of my round grave face and little mottled legs, had dubbed me with the odious nickname in the days of my childhood. I am not really a bit more stumpy than any other girl of seventeen. On the present occasion I rose in all the dignity of wrath, and was about to dump my brother on the head with the pillow by way of remonstrance, when a look of interest in his face stopped me.
“Who do you think is coming, Nelly?” he said. “An old friend of yours.”
“What! from India? Not Jack Hawthorne?”
“Even so,” said Bob. “Jack is coming back and going to stay with us. He says he will be here almost as soon as his letter. Now don’t dance about like that. You’ll knock down the guns, or do some damage. Keep quiet like a good girl, and sit down here again.” Bob spoke with all the weight of the two-and-twenty summers which had passed over his towsy head, so I calmed down and settled into my former position.
“Won’t it be jolly?” I cried. “But, Bob, the last time he was here he was a boy, and now he is a man. He won’t be the same Jack at all.”
“Well, for that matter,” said Bob, “you were only a girl then—a nasty little girl with ringlets, while now—”
“What now?” I asked.
Bob seemed actually on the eve of paying me a compliment. “Well, you haven’t got the ringlets, and you are ever so much bigger, you see, and nastier.”
Brothers are a blessing for one thing. There is no possibility of any young lady getting unreasonably conceited if she be endowed with them.
I think they were all glad at breakfast-time to hear of Jack Hawthorne’s promised advent. By “all” I mean my mother and Elsie and Bob. Our cousin Solomon Barker looked anything but overjoyed when I made the announcement in breathless triumph. I never thought of it before, but perhaps that young man is getting fond of Elsie, and is afraid of a rival; otherwise I don’t see why such a simple thing should have caused him to push away his egg, and declare that he had done famously, in an aggressive manner which at once threw doubt upon his proposition. Grace Maberly, Elsie’s friend, seemed quietly contented, as is her wont.
As for me, I was in a riotous state of delight. Jack and I had been children together. He was like an elder brother to me until he became a cadet and left us. How often Bob and he had climbed old Brown’s apple-trees, while I stood beneath and collected the spoil in my little white pinafore! There was hardly a scrape or adventure which I could remember in which Jack did not figure as a prominent character. But he was “Lieutenant” Hawthorne now, had been through the Afghan War, and was, as Bob said, “quite the warrior.” What ever would he look like? Somehow the “warrior” had conjured up an idea of Jack in full armour with plumes on his head, thirsting for blood, and hewing at somebody with an enormous sword. After doing that sort of thing I was afraid he would never descend to romps and charades and the other stock amusements of Hatherley House.
Cousin Sol was certainly out of spirits during the next few days. He could be hardly persuaded to make a fourth at lawn-tennis, but showed an extraordinary love of solitude and strong tobacco. We used to come across him in the most unexpected places, in the shrubbery and down by the river, on which occasions, if there was any possibility of avoiding us, he would gaze rigidly into the distance, and utterly ignore feminine shouts and the waving of parasols. It was certainly very rude of him. I got hold of him one evening before dinner, and drawing myself up to my full height of five feet four and a half inches, I proceeded to give him a piece of my mind, a process which Bob characterises as the height of charity, since it consists in my giving away what I am most in need of myself.
Cousin Sol was lounging in a rocking-chair with the Times before him, gazing moodily over the top of it into the fire. I ranged up alongside and poured in my broadside.
“We seem to have given you some offence, Mr. Barker,” I remarked, with lofty courtesy.
“What do you mean, Nell?” asked my cousin, looking up at me in surprise. He had a very curious way of looking at me, had cousin Sol.
“You appear to have dropped our acquaintance,” I remarked; and then suddenly descending from my heroics, “You are stupid, Sol! What’s been the matter with you?”
“Nothing, Nell, at least, nothing of any consequence. You know my medical examination is in two months, and I am reading for it.
“O,” said I, in a bristle of indignation, “if that’s it, there’s no more to be said. Of course if you prefer bones to your female relations, it’s all right. There are young men who would rather make themselves agreeable than mope in corners and learn how to prod people with knives.” With which epitome of the noble science of surgery I proceeded to straighten some refractory antimacassars with unnecessary violence.
I could see Sol looking with an amused smile at the angry little blue-eyed figure in front of him. “Don’t blow me up, Nell,” he said, “I have been plucked once, you know. Besides,” looking grave, “you’ll have amusement enough when this—what is his name?—Lieutenant Hawthorne comes.”
“Jack won’t go and associate with mummies and skeletons, at any rate,” I remarked.
“Do you always call him Jack?” asked the student. “Of course I do. John sounds so stiff.”
“O, it does, does it?” said my companion doubtfully.
I still had my theory about Elsie running in my head. I thought I might try and set the matter in a more cheerful light. Sol had got up, and was staring out of the open window. I went over to him and glanced up timidly into his usually good-humoured face, which was now looking very dark and discontented. He was a shy man as a rule, but I thought that with a little leading he might be brought to confess.
“You’re a jealous old thing,” I remarked.
The young man coloured and looked down at me.
“I know your secret,” said I boldly.
“What secret?” said he, colouring even more.
“Never you mind. I know it. Let me tell you this,” I added, getting bolder, “that Jack and Elsie never got on very well. There is far more chance of Jack’s falling in love with me. We were always friends.”
If I had stuck the knitting-needle which I held in my hand into cousin Sol he could not have given a greater jump. “Good heavens!” he said, and I could see his dark eyes staring at me through the twilight. “Do you really think that it is your sister that I care for?”
“Certainly,” said I stoutly, with a feeling that I was nailing my colours to a mast.
Never did a single word produce such an effect. Cousin Sol wheeled round with a gasp of astonishment, and sprang right out of the window. He always had curious ways of expressing his feelings, but this one struck me as being so entirely original that I was utterly bereft of any idea save that of wonder. I stood staring out into the gathering darkness. Then there appeared looking in at me from the lawn a very much abashed and still rather astonished face. “It’s you I care for, Nell,” said the face, and at once vanished, while I heard the noise of somebody running at the top of his speed down the avenue. He certainly was a most extraordinary young man.
Things went on very much the same at Hatherley House in spite of cousin Sol’s characteristic declaration of affection. He never sounded me as to my sentiments in regard to him, nor did he allude to the matter for several days. He evidently thought that he had done all which was needed in such cases. He used to discompose me dreadfully at times, however, by coming and planting himself opposite me, and staring at me with a stony rigidity which was absolutely appalling.
“Don’t do that, Sol,” I said to him one day; “you give me the creeps all over.”
“Why do I give you the creeps, Nelly?” said he. “Don’t you like me?”
“O yes. I like you well enough,” said I. “I like Lord Nelson, for that matter; but I shouldn’t like his monument to come and stare at me by the hour. It makes me feel quite all-overish.”
“What on earth put Lord Nelson into your head?” said my cousin.
“I’m sure I don’t know.”
“Do you like me the same way you like Lord Nelson, Nell?”
“Yes,” I said, “only more.” With which small ray of encouragement poor Sol had to be content, as Elsie and Miss Maberley came rustling into the room and put an end to our tete-a-tete.
I certainly did like my cousin. I knew what a simple true nature lay beneath his quiet exterior. The idea of having Sol Barker for a lover, however—Sol, whose very name was synonymous with bashfulness—was too incredible. Why couldn’t he fall in love with Grace or with Elsie? They might have known what to do with him; they were older than I, and could encourage him, or snub him, as they thought best. Gracie, however, was carrying on a mild flirtation with my brother Bob, and Elsie seemed utterly unconscious of the whole matter. I have one characteristic recollection of my cousin which I cannot help introducing here, though it has nothing to do with the thread of the narrative. It was on the occasion of his first visit to Hatherley House. The wife of the Rector called one day, and the responsibility of entertaining her rested with Sol and myself. We got on very well at first. Sol was unusually lively and talkative. Unfortunately a hospitable impulse came upon him; and in spite of many warning nods and winks, he asked the visitor if he might offer her a glass of wine. Now, as ill luck would have it, our supply had just been finished, and though we had written to London, a fresh consignment had not yet arrived. I listened breathlessly for the answer, trusting she would refuse; but to my horror she accepted with alacrity. “Never mind ringing, Nell,” said Sol, “I’ll act as butler;” and with a confident smile he marched into the little cupboard in which the decanters were usually kept. It was not until he was well in that he suddenly recollected having heard us mention in the morning that there was none in the house. His mental anguish was so great that he spent the remainder of Mrs. Salter’s visit in the cupboard, utterly refusing to come out until after her departure. Had there been any possibility of the winepress having another egress, or leading anywhere, matters would not have been so bad; but I knew that old Mrs. Salter was as well up in the geography of the house as I was myself. She stayed for three-quarters of an hour waiting for Sol’s reappearance, and then went away in high dudgeon. “My dear,” she said, recounting the incident to her husband, and breaking into semi-scriptural language in the violence of her indignation, “the cupboard seemed to open and swallow him!”
“Jack is coming down by the two o’clock train,” said Bob one morning, coming in to breakfast with a telegram in his hand.
I could see Sol looking at me reproachfully; but that did not prevent me from showing my delight at the intelligence. “We’ll have awful fun when he comes,” said Bob. “We’ll drag the fish-pond, and have no end of a lark. Won’t it be jolly, Sol?”
Sol’s opinion of its jollity was evidently too great to be expressed in words; for he gave an inarticulate grunt as answer.
I had a long cogitation on the subject of Jack in the garden that morning. After all, I was becoming a big girl, as Bob had forcibly reminded me. I must be circumspect in my conduct now. A real live man had actually looked upon me with the eyes of love. It was all very well when I was a child to have Jack following me about and kissing me; but I must keep him at a distance now. I remembered how he presented me with a dead fish once which he had taken out of the Hatherley Brook, and how I treasured it up among my most precious possessions, until an insidious odour in the house had caused the mother to send an abusive letter to Mr. Burton, who had pronounced our drainage to be all that could be desired. I must learn to be formal and distant. I pictured our meeting to myself, and went through a rehearsal of it. The holly-bush represented Jack, and I approached it solemnly, made it a stately curtsey, and held out my hand with, “So glad to see you, Lieutenant Hawthorne!” Elsie came out while I was doing it, but made no remark. I heard her ask Sol at luncheon, however, whether idiocy generally ran in families, or was simply confined to individuals; at which poor Sol blushed furiously, and became utterly incoherent in his attempts at an explanation.
Our farmyard opens upon the avenue about half-way between Hatherley House and the lodge. Sol and I and Mr. Nicholas Cronin, the son of a neighbouring squire, went down there after lunch. This imposing demonstration was for the purpose of quelling a mutiny which had broken out in the henhouse. The earliest tidings of the rising had been conveyed to the house by young Bayliss, son and heir of the henkeeper, and my presence had been urgently requested. Let me remark in parenthesis that fowls were my special department in domestic economy, and that no step was ever taken in their management without my advice and assistance. Old Bayliss hobbled out upon our arrival, and informed us of the full extent of the disturbance. It seems that the crested hen and the Bantam cock had developed such length of wing that they were enabled to fly over into the park; and that the example of these ringleaders had been so contagious, that even such steady old matrons as the bandy-legged Cochin China had developed roving propensities, and pushed their way into forbidden ground. A council of war was held in the yard, and it was unanimously decided that the wings of the recalcitrants must be clipped.
What a scamper we had! By “we” I mean Mr. Cronin and myself; while cousin Sol hovered about in the background with the scissors, and cheered us on. The two culprits clearly knew that they were wanted; for they rushed under the hayricks and over the coops, until there seemed to be at least half a dozen crested hens and Bantam cocks dodging about in the yard. The other hens were mildly interested in the proceedings, and contented themselves with an occasional derisive cluck, with the exception of the favourite wife of the Bantam, who abused us roundly from the top of the coop. The ducks were the most aggravating portion of the community; for though they had nothing to do with the original disturbance, they took a warm interest in the fugitives, waddling behind them as fast as their little yellow legs would carry them, and getting in the way of the pursuers.
“We have it!” I gasped, as the crested hen was driven into a corner. “Catch it, Mr. Cronin! O, you’ve missed it! you’ve missed it! Get in the way, Sol. O dear, it’s coming to me!”
“Well done, Miss Montague!” cried Mr. Cronin, as I seized the wretched fowl by the leg as it fluttered past me, and proceeded to tuck it under my arm to prevent any possibility of escape. “Let me carry it for you.”
“No, no; I want you to catch the cock. There it goes! There—behind the hayrick. You go to one side, and I’ll go to the other.” “It’s going through the gate!” shouted Sol.
“Shoo!” cried I. “Shoo! O, it’s gone!” and we both made a dart into the park in pursuit, tore round the corner into the avenue, and there I found myself face to face with a sunburned young man in a tweed suit, who was lounging along in the direction of the house.
There was no mistaking those laughing grey eyes, though I think if I had never looked at him some instinct would have told me that it was Jack. How could I be dignified with the crested hen tucked under my arm? I tried to pull myself up; but the miserable bird seemed to think that it had found a protector at last, for it began to cluck with redoubled vehemence. I had to give it up in despair, and burst into a laugh, while Jack did the same.
“How are you, Nell?” he said, holding out his hand; and then in an astonished voice, “Why, you’re not a bit the same as when I saw you last!”
“Well, I hadn’t a hen under my arm then,” said I.
“Who would have thought that little Nell would have developed into a woman?” said Jack, still lost in amazement. “You didn’t expect me to develop into a man, did you?” said I in high indignation; and then, suddenly dropping all reserve, “We’re awfully glad you’ve come, Jack. Never mind going up to the house. Come and help us to catch that Bantam cock.”
“Right you are,” said Jack in his old cheery way, still keeping his eyes firmly fixed upon my countenance. “Come on!” and away the three of us scampered across the park, with poor Sol aiding and abetting with the scissors and the prisoner in the rear. Jack was a very crumpled-looking visitor by the time he paid his respects to the mother that afternoon, and my dreams of dignity and reserve were scattered to the winds.
We had quite a party at Hatherley House that May. There were Bob, and Sol, and Jack Hawthorne, and Mr. Nicholas Cronin; then there were Miss Maberley, and Elsie, and mother, and myself. On an emergency we could always muster half a dozen visitors from the houses round, so as to have an audience when charades or private theatricals were attempted. Mr. Cronin, an easy-going athletic young Oxford man, proved to be a great acquisition, having wonderful powers of organisation and execution. Jack was not nearly as lively as he used to be, in fact we unanimously accused him of being in love; at which he looked as silly as young men usually do on such occasions, but did not attempt to deny the soft impeachment.
“What shall we do today?” said Bob one morning. “Can anybody make a suggestion?”
“Drag the pond,” said Mr. Cronin.
“Haven’t men enough,” said Bob; “anything else?”
“We must get up a sweepstakes for the Derby,” remarked Jack. “O, there’s plenty of time for that. It isn’t run till the week after next. Anything else?”
“Lawn-tennis,” said Sol dubiously.
“You might make a picnic to Hatherley Abbey,” said I. “Capital!” cried Mr. Cronin. “The very thing. What do you think, Bob?”
“First class,” said my brother grasping eagerly at the idea.
Picnics are very dear to those who are in the first stage of the tender passion.
“Well, how are we to go, Nell?” asked Elsie.
“I won’t go at all,” said I; “I’d like to awfully, but I have to plant those ferns Sol got me. You had better walk. It is only three miles and young Bayliss can be sent over with the basket of provisions.”
“You’ll come, Jack?” said Bob.
Here was another impediment. The Lieutenant had twisted his ankle yesterday. He had not mentioned it to any one at the time; but it was beginning to pain him now.
“Couldn’t do it, really,” said Jack. “Three miles there and three back!”
“Come on. Don’t be lazy,” said Bob.
“My dear fellow,” answered the Lieutenant, “I have had walking enough to last me the rest of my life. If you had seen how that energetic general of ours bustled me along from Cabul to Candahar, you’d sympathise with me.”
“Leave the veteran alone,” said Mr. Nicholas Cronin. “Pity the war-worn soldier,” remarked Bob.
“None of your chaff,” said Jack. “I’ll tell you what I’ll do,” he added, brightening up. “You let me have the trap, Bob, and I’ll drive over with Nell as soon as she has finished planting her ferns. We can take the basket with us. You’ll come, won’t you, Nell?”
“All right,” said I. And Bob having given his assent to the arrangement, and everybody being pleased, except Mr. Solomon Barker, who glared with mild malignancy at the soldier, the matter was finally settled, and the whole party proceeded to get ready, and finally departed down the avenue.
It was an extraordinary thing how that ankle improved after the last of the troop had passed round the curve of the hedge. By the time the ferns were planted and the gig got ready Jack was as active and lively as ever he was in his life.
“You seem to have got better very suddenly,” I remarked, as we drove down the narrow winding country lane.
“Yes,” said Jack. “The fact is, Nell, there never was anything the matter with me. I wanted to have a talk with you.”
“You don’t mean to say you would tell a lie in order to have a talk with me?” I remonstrated.
“Forty,” said Jack stoutly.
I was too lost in contemplation of the depths of guile in Jack’s nature to make any further remark. I wondered whether Elsie would be flattered or indignant were anyone to offer to tell so many lies in her behalf.
“We used to be good friends when we were children, Nell,” remarked my companion.
“Yes,” said I, looking down at the rug which was thrown over my knees. I was beginning to be quite an experienced young lady by this time, you see, and to understand certain inflections of the masculine voice, which are only to be acquired by practice.
“You don’t seem to care for me now as much as you did then,” said Jack.
I was still intensely absorbed in the leopard’s skin in front of me.
“Do you know, Nelly,” continued Jack, “that when I have been camping out in the frozen passes of the Himalayas, when I have seen the hostile array in front of me; in fact,” suddenly dropping into bathos, “all the time I was in that beastly hole Afghanistan, I used to think of the little girl I had left in England.”
“Indeed!” I murmured.
“Yes,” said Jack, “I bore the memory of you in my heart, and then when I came back you were a little girl no longer. I found you a beautiful woman, Nelly, and I wondered whether you had forgotten the days that were gone.”
Jack was becoming quite poetical in his enthusiasm. By this time he had left the old bay pony entirely to its own devices, and it was indulging in its chronic propensity of stopping and admiring the view.
“Look here, Nelly,” said Jack, with a gasp like a man who is about to pull the string of his shower-bath, “one of the things you learn in campaigning is to secure a good thing whenever you see it. Never delay or hesitate, for you never know that some other fellow may not carry it off while you are making up your mind.”
“It’s coming now,” I thought in despair, “and there’s no window for Jack to escape by after he has made the plunge.” I had gradually got to associate the ideas of love and jumping out of windows, ever since poor Sol’s confession.
“Do you think, Nell,” said Jack, “that you could ever care for me enough to share my lot for ever? could you ever be my wife, Nell?”
He didn’t even jump out of the trap. He sat there beside me, looking at me with his eager gray eyes, while the pony strolled along, cropping the wild flowers on either side of the road. It was quite evident that he intended having an answer. Somehow as I looked down I seemed to see a pale shy face looking in at me from a dark background, and to hear Sol’s voice as he declared his love. Poor fellow! he was first in the field at any rate.
“Could you, Nell?” asked Jack once more.
“I like you very much, Jack,” said I, looking up at him nervously; “but”—how his face changed at that monosyllable!—“I don’t think I like you enough for that. Besides, I’m so young, you know. I suppose I ought to be very much complimented and that sort of thing by your offer; but you mustn’t think of me in that light any more.”
“You refuse me, then?” said Jack, turning a little white. “Why don’t you go and ask Elsie?” cried I in despair. “Why should you all come to me?”
“I don’t want Elsie,” cried Jack, giving the pony a cut with his whip which rather astonished that easy-going quadruped. “What do you mean by ‘all,’ Nell?”
“I see how it is,” said Jack bitterly; “I’ve noticed how that cousin of yours has been hanging round you ever since I have been here. You are engaged to him.”
“No, I’m not,” said I.
“Thank God for that!” responded Jack devoutly. “There is some hope yet. Perhaps you will come to think better of it in time. Tell me, Nelly, are you fond of that fool of a medical student?”
“He isn’t a fool,” said I indignantly, “and I am quite as fond of him as I shall ever be of you.”
“You might not care for him much and still be that,” said Jack sulkily; and neither of us spoke again until a joint bellow from Bob and Mr. Cronin announced the presence of the rest of the company.
If the picnic was a success, it was entirely due to the exertions of the latter gentleman. Three lovers out of four was an undue proportion, and it took all his convivial powers to make up for the shortcomings of the rest. Bob seemed entirely absorbed in Miss Maberley’s charms, poor Elsie was left out in the cold, while my two admirers spent their time in glaring alternately at me and at each other. Mr. Cronin, however, fought gallantly against the depression, making himself agreeable to all, and exploring ruins or drawing corks with equal vehemence and energy.
Cousin Sol was particularly disheartened and out of spirits. He thought, no doubt, that my solitary ride with Jack had been a prearranged thing between us. There was more sorrow than anger in his eyes, however, while Jack, I regret to say, was decidedly ill-tempered. It was this fact which made me choose out my cousin as my companion in the ramble through the woods which succeeded our lunch. Jack had been assuming a provoking air of proprietorship lately, which I was determined to quash once for all. I felt angry with him, too, for appearing to consider himself ill used at my refusal, and for trying to disparage poor Sol behind his back. I was far from loving either the one or the other, but somehow my girlish ideas of fair play revolted at either of them taking what I considered an unfair advantage. I felt that if Jack had not come I should, in the fulness of time, have ended by accepting my cousin; on the other hand, if it had not been for Sol, I might never have refused Jack. At present I was too fond of them both to favour either. “How in the world is it to end?” thought I. I must do something decisive one way or the other; or perhaps the best thing would be to wait and see what the future might bring forth.
Sol seemed mildly surprised at my having selected him as my companion, but accepted the offer with a grateful smile. His mind seemed to have been vastly relieved.
“So I haven’t lost you yet, Nell,” he murmured, as we branched off among the great tree-trunks and heard the voices of the party growing fainter in the distance.
“Nobody can lose me,” said I, “for nobody has won me yet. For goodness’ sake don’t talk about it any more. Why can’t you talk like your old self two years ago, and not be so dreadfully sentimental?”
“You’ll know why some day, Nell,” said the student reproachfully. “Wait until you are in love yourself, and you will understand it.”
I gave a little incredulous sniff.
“Sit here, Nell,” said cousin Sol, manoeuvring me into a little bank of wild strawberries and mosses, and perching himself upon a stump of a tree beside me. “Now all I ask you to do is to answer one or two questions, and I’ll never bother you any more.”
I sat resignedly, with my hands in my lap.
“Are you engaged to Lieutenant Hawthorne?”
“No!” said I energetically.
“Are you fonder of him than of me?”
“No, I’m not.”
Sol’s thermometer of happiness up to a hundred in the shade at the least.
“Are you fonder of me than of him, Nelly?” in a very tender voice.
Thermometer down below zero again.
“Do you mean to say that we are exactly equal in your eyes?”
“But you must choose between us some time, you know,” said cousin Sol with mild reproach in his voice.
“I do wish you wouldn’t bother me so!” I cried, getting angry, as women usually do when they are in the wrong. “You don’t care for me much or you wouldn’t plague me. I believe the two of you will drive me mad between you.”
Here there were symptoms of sobs on my part, and utter consternation and defeat among the Barker faction.
“Can’t you see how it is, Sol?” said I, laughing through my tears at his woe-begone appearance. “Suppose you were brought up with two girls and had got to like them both very much, but had never preferred one to the other and never dreamed of marrying either, and then all of a sudden you are told you must choose one, and so make the other very unhappy, you wouldn’t find it an easy thing to do, would you?”
“I suppose not,” said the student.
“Then you can’t blame me.”
“I don’t blame you, Nelly,” he answered, attacking a great purple toadstool with his stick. “I think you are quite right to be sure of your own mind. It seems to me,” he continued, speaking rather gaspily, but saying his mind like the true English gentleman that he was, “it seems to me that Hawthorne is an excellent fellow. He has seen more of the world than I have, and always does and says the right thing in the right place, which certainly isn’t one of my characteristics. Then he is well born and has good prospects. I think I should be very grateful to you for your hesitation, Nell, and look upon it as a sign of your good-heartedness.”
“We won’t talk about it any more,” said I, thinking in my heart what a very much finer fellow he was than the man he was praising. “Look here, my jacket is all stained with horrid fungi and things. We’d better go after the rest of the party, hadn’t we? I wonder where they are by this time?”
It didn’t take very long to find that out. At first we heard shouting and laughter coming echoing through the long glades, and then, as we made our way in that direction, we were astonished to meet the usually phlegmatic Elsie careering through the wood at the top of her speed, her hat off, and her hair streaming in the wind. My first idea was that some frightful catastrophe had occurred—brigands possibly, or a mad dog—and I saw my companion’s big hand close round his stick; but on meeting the fugitive it proved to be nothing more tragic than a game of hide-and-seek which the indefatigable Mr. Cronin had organised. What fun we had, crouching and running and dodging among the Hatherley oaks! and how horrified the prim old abbot who planted them would have been, and the long series of black-coated brethren who have muttered their orisons beneath the welcome shade! Jack refused to play on the excuse of his weak ankle, and lay smoking under a tree in high dudgeon, glaring in a baleful and gloomy fashion at Mr. Solomon Barker; while the latter gentleman entered enthusiastically into the game, and distinguished himself by always getting caught, and never by any possibility catching anybody else.
Poor Jack! He was certainly unfortunate that day. Even an accepted lover would have been rather put out, I think, by an incident which occurred during our return home. It was agreed that all of us should walk, as the trap had been already sent off with the empty basket, so we started down Thorny Lane and through the fields. We were just getting over a stile to cross old Brown’s ten-acre lot, when Mr. Cronin pulled up, and remarked that he thought we had better get into the road.
“Road?” said Jack. “Nonsense! We save a quarter of a mile by the field.”
“Yes, but it’s rather dangerous. We’d better go round.”
“Where’s the danger?” said our military man, contemptuously twisting his moustache.
“O, nothing,” said Cronin. “That quadruped in the middle of the field is a bull, and not a very good-tempered one either. That’s all. I don’t think that the ladies should be allowed to go.”
“We won’t go,” said the ladies in chorus.
“Then come round by the hedge and get into the road,” suggested Sol.
“You may go as you like,” said Jack rather testily; “but I am going across the field.”
“Don’t be a fool, Jack,” said my brother.
“You fellows may think it right to turn tail at an old cow, but I don’t. It hurts my self-respect, you see, so I shall join you at the other side of the farm.” With which speech Jack buttoned up his coat in a truculent manner, waved his cane jauntily, and swaggered off into the ten-acre lot.
We clustered about the stile and watched the proceedings with anxiety. Jack tried to look as if he were entirely absorbed in the view and in the probable state of the weather, for he gazed about him and up into the clouds in an abstracted manner. His gaze generally began and ended, however, somewhere in the direction of the bull. That animal, after regarding the intruder with a prolonged stare, had retreated into the shadow of the hedge at one side, while Jack was walking up the long axis of the field.
“It’s all right,” said I. “It’s got out of his way.”
“I think it’s leading him on,” said Mr. Nicholas Cronin. “It’s a vicious cunning brute.”
Mr. Cronin had hardly spoken before the bull emerged from the hedge, and began pawing the ground, and tossing its wicked black head in the air. Jack was in the middle of the field by this time, and affected to take no notice of his companion, though he quickened his pace slightly. The bull’s next manoeuvre was to run rapidly round in two or three small circles; and then it suddenly stopped, bellowed, put down its head, elevated its tail, and made for Jack at the very top of its speed.
There was no use pretending to ignore its existence any longer. Jack faced round and gazed at it for a moment. He had only his little cane in his hand to oppose to the half ton of irate beef which was charging towards him. He did the only thing that was possible, namely to make for the hedge at the other side of the field.
At first Jack hardly condescended to run, but went off with a languid contemptuous trot, a sort of compromise between his dignity and his fear, which was so ludicrous that, frightened as we were, we burst into a chorus of laughter. By degrees, however, as he heard the galloping of hoofs sounding nearer and nearer, he quickened his pace, until ultimately he was in full flight for shelter, with his hat gone and his coat-tails fluttering in the breeze, while his pursuer was not ten yards behind him. If all Ayoub Khan’s cavalry had been in his rear, our Afghan hero could not have done the distance in a shorter time. Quickly as he went, the bull went quicker still, and the two seemed to gain the hedge almost at the same moment. We saw Jack spring boldly into it, and the next moment he came flying out at the other side as if he had been discharged from a cannon, while the bull indulged in a series of triumphant bellows through the hole which he had made. It was a relief to us all to see Jack gather himself up and start off for home without a glance in our direction. He had retired to his room by the time we arrived, and did not appear until breakfast next morning, when he limped in with a very crestfallen expression. None of us was hard-hearted enough to allude to the subject, however, and by judicious treatment we restored him before lunch-time to his usual state of equanimity.
It was a couple of days after the picnic that our great Derby sweepstakes was to come off. This was an annual ceremony never omitted at Hatherley House, where, between visitors and neighbours, there were generally quite as many candidates for tickets as there were horses entered.
“The sweepstakes, ladies and gentlemen, comes off to-night,” said Bob in his character of head of the house. “The subscription is ten shillings. Second gets quarter of the pool, and third has his money returned. No one is allowed to have more than one ticket, or to sell his ticket after drawing it. The drawing will be at seven thirty.” All of which Bob delivered in a very pompous and official voice, though the effect was rather impaired by a sonorous “Amen!” from Mr. Nicholas Cronin.
I must now drop the personal style of narrative for a time. Hitherto my little story has consisted simply in a series of extracts from my own private journal; but now I have to tell of a scene which only came to my ears after many months.
Lieutenant Hawthorne, or Jack, as I cannot help calling him, had been very quiet since the day of the picnic, and given himself up to reverie. Now, as luck would have it, Mr. Solomon Barker sauntered into the smoking-room after luncheon on the day of the sweepstakes, and found the Lieutenant puffing moodily in solitary grandeur upon one of the settees. It would have seemed cowardly to retreat, so the student sat down in silence, and began turning over the pages of the Graphic. Both the rivals felt the situation to be an awkward one. They had been in the habit of studiously avoiding each other’s society, and now they found themselves thrown together suddenly, with no third person to act as a buffer. The silence began to be oppressive. The Lieutenant yawned and coughed with over-acted nonchalance, while honest Sol felt very hot and uncomfortable, and continued to stare gloomily at the paper in his hand. The ticking of the clock, and the click of the billiard-balls across the passage, seemed to grow unendurably loud and monotonous. Sol glanced across once; but catching his companion’s eye in an exactly similar action, the two young men seemed simultaneously to take a deep and all-absorbing interest in the pattern of the cornice.
“Why should I quarrel with him?” thought Sol to himself. “After all, I want nothing but fair play. Probably I shall be snubbed; but I may as well give him an opening.”
Sol’s cigar had gone out; the opportunity was too good to be neglected.
“Could you oblige me with a fusee, Lieutenant?” he asked. The Lieutenant was sorry—extremely sorry—but he was not in possession of a fusee.
This was a bad beginning. Chilly politeness was even more repulsing than absolute rudeness. But Mr. Solomon Barker, like many other shy men, was audacity itself when the ice had once been broken. He would have no more bickerings or misunderstandings. Now was the time to come to some definite arrangement. He pulled his armchair across the room, and planted himself in front of the astonished soldier.
“You’re in love with Miss Nelly Montague,” he remarked. Jack sprang off the settee with as much rapidity as if Farmer Brown’s bull were coming in through the window.
“And if I am, sir,” he said, twisting his tawny moustache, “what the devil is that to you?”
“Don’t lose your temper,” said Sol. “Sit down again, and talk the matter over like a reasonable Christian. I am in love with her too.”
“What the deuce is the fellow driving at?” thought Jack, as he resumed his seat, still simmering after his recent explosion.
“So the long and the short of it is that we are both in love with her,” continued Sol, emphasising his remarks with his bony forefinger.
“What then?” said the Lieutenant, showing some symptoms of a relapse. “I suppose that the best man will win, and that the young lady is quite able to choose for herself. You don’t expect me to stand out of the race just because you happen to want the prize, do you?”
“That’s just it,” cried Sol. “One of us will have to stand out. You’ve hit the right idea there. You see, Nelly—Miss Montague, I mean—is, as far as I can see, rather fonder of you than of me, but still fond enough of me not to wish to grieve me by a positive refusal.”
“Honesty compels me to state,” said Jack, in a more conciliatory voice than he had made use of hitherto, “that Nelly—Miss Montague, I mean—is rather fonder ofyou than of me; but still, as you say, fond enough of me not to prefer my rival openly in my presence.”
“I don’t think you’re right,” said the student. “In fact I know you are not; for she told me as much with her own lips. However, what you say makes it easier for us to come to an understanding. It is quite evident that as long as we show ourselves to be equally fond of her, neither of us can have the slightest hope of winning her.”
“There’s some sense in that,” said the Lieutenant reflectively; “but what do you propose?”
“I propose that one of us stand out, to use your own expression. There is no alternative.”
“But who is to stand out?” asked Jack.
“Ah, that is the question.”
“I can claim to have known her longest.”
“I can claim to have loved her first.”
Matters seemed to have come to a deadlock. Neither of the young men was in the least inclined to abdicate in favour of his rival.
“Look here,” said the student, “let us decide the matter by lot.” This seemed fair, and was agreed to by both. A new difficulty arose, however. Both of them felt sentimental objections towards risking their angel upon such a paltry chance as the turn of a coin or the length of a straw. It was at this crisis that an inspiration came upon Lieutenant Hawthorne.
“I’ll tell you how we will decide it,” he said. “You and I are both entered for our Derby sweepstakes. If your horse beats mine, I give up my chance; if mine beats yours, you leave Miss Montague for ever. Is that a bargain?”
“I have only one stipulation to make,” said Sol. “It is ten days yet before the race will be run. During that time neither of us must attempt to take an unfair advantage of the other. We shall both agree not to press our suit until the matter is decided.”
“Done!” said the soldier.
“Done!” said Solomon.
And they shook hands upon the agreement.
I had, as I have already observed, no knowledge of the conversation which had taken place between my suitors. I may mention incidentally that during the course of it I was in the library, listening to Tennyson, read aloud in the deep musical voice of Mr. Nicholas Cronin. I observed, however, in the evening that these two young men seemed remarkably excited about their horses, and that neither of them was in the least inclined to make himself agreeable to me, for which crime I am happy to say that they were both punished by drawing rank outsiders. Eurydice, I think, was the name of Sol’s; while Jack’s was Bicycle. Mr. Cronin drew an American horse named Iroquois, and all the others seemed fairly well pleased. I peeped into the smoking-room before going to bed, and was amused to see Jack consulting the sporting prophet of the Field, while Sol was deeply immersed in the Gazette. This sudden mania for the Turf seemed all the more strange, since I knew that if my cousin could distinguish a horse from a cow, it was as much as any of his friends would give him credit for.
The ten succeeding days were voted very slow by various members of the household. I cannot say that I found them so. Perhaps that was because I discovered something very unexpected and pleasing in the course of that period. It was a relief to be free of any fear of wounding the susceptibilities of either of my former lovers. I could say what I chose and do what I liked now; for they had deserted me completely, and handed me over to the society of my brother Bob and Mr. Nicholas Cronin. The new excitement of horse-racing seemed to have driven their former passion completely out of their minds. Never was a house so deluged with special tips and every vile print which could by any possibility have a word bearing upon the training of the horses or their antecedents. The very grooms in the stable were tired of recounting how Bicycle was descended from Velocipede, or explaining to the anxious medical student how Eurydice was by Orpheus out of Hades. One of them discovered that her maternal grandmother had come in third for the Ebor Handicap; but the curious way in which he stuck the half crown which he received into his left eye, while he winked at the coachman with his right, throws some doubt upon the veracity of his statement. As he remarked in a beery whisper that evening, “The bloke’ll never know the differ, and it’s worth ‘arf a dollar for him to think as it’s true.”
As the day drew nearer the excitement increased. Mr. Cronin and I used to glance across at each other and smile as Jack and Sol precipitated themselves upon the papers at breakfast, and devoured the list of the betting. But matters culminated upon the evening immediately preceding the race. The Lieutenant had run down to the station to secure the latest intelligence, and now he came rushing in, waving a crushed paper frantically over his head.
“Eurydice is scratched!” he yelled. “Your horse is done for, Barker!”
“What!” roared Sol.
“Done for—utterly broken down in training—won’t run at all!” “Let me see,” groaned my cousin, seizing the paper; and then, dropping it, he rushed out of the room, and banged down the stairs, taking four at a time. We saw no more of him until late at night, when he slunk in, looking very dishevelled, and crept quietly off to his room. Poor fellow, I should have condoled with him had it not been for his recent disloyal conduct towards myself.
Jack seemed a changed man from that moment. He began at once to pay me marked attention, very much to the annoyance of myself and of someone else in the room. He played and sang and proposed round games, and, in fact, quite usurped the role usually played by Mr. Nicholas Cronin.
I remember that it struck me as remarkable that on the morning of the Derby-day the Lieutenant should have entirely lost his interest in the race. He was in the greatest spirits at breakfast, but did not even open the paper in front of him. It was Mr. Cronin who unfolded it at last and glanced over its columns. “What’s the news, Nick?” asked my brother Bob.
“Nothing much. O yes, here’s something. Another railway accident. Collision apparently. Westinghouse brake gone wrong. Two killed, seven hurt, and—by Jove! listen to this: ‘Among the victims was one of the competitors in the equine Olympiad of today. A sharp splinter had penetrated its side, and the valuable animal had to be sacrified upon the shrine of humanity. The name of the horse is Bicycle.’ Hullo, you’ve gone and spilt your coffee all over the cloth, Hawthorne! Ah, I forgot, Bicycle was your horse, wasn’t it? Your chance is gone, I am afraid. I see that Iroquois, who started low, has come to be first favourite now.”
Ominous words, reader, as no doubt your nice discernment has taught you during, at the least, the last three pages. Don’t call me a flirt and a coquette until you have weighed the facts. Consider my pique at the sudden desertion of my admirers, think of my delight at the confession from a man whom I had tried to conceal from myself even that I loved, think of the opportunities which he enjoyed during the time that Jack and Sol were systematically avoiding me, in accordance with their ridiculous agreement. Weigh all this, and then which among you will throw the first stone at the blushing little prize of the Derby Sweep?
Here it is as it appeared at the end of three short months in the Morning Post: “August 12th.—At Hatherley Church, Nicholas Cronin, Esq., eldest son of Nicholas Cronin, Esq., of the Woodlands, Cropshire, to Miss Eleanor Montague, daughter of the late James Montague, Esq., J.P., of Hatherley House.”
Jack set off with the declared intention of volunteering for a ballooning expedition to the North Pole. He came back, however, in three days, and said that he had changed his mind, but intended to walk in Stanley’s footsteps across Equatorial Africa. Since then he has dropped one or two gloomy allusions to forlorn hopes and the unutterable joys of death; but on the whole he is coming round very nicely and has been heard to grumble of late on such occasions as the under-doing of the mutton and the over-doing of the beef, which may be fairly set down as a very healthy symptom.
Sol took it more quietly, but I fear the iron went deeper into his soul. However, he pulled himself together like a dear brave fellow as he is, and actually had the hardihood to propose the bridesmaids, on which occasion he became inextricably mixed up in the labyrinth of words. He washed his hands of the mutinous sentence, however, and resumed his seat in the middle of it, overwhelmed with blushes and applause. I hear that he has confided his woes and his disappointments to Grace Maberley’s sister, and met with the sympathy which he expected. Bob and Gracie are to be married in a few months, so possibly there may be another wedding about that time.
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