A fine-framed dark-mustachioed gentleman, in dressing-gown and slippers, was sitting there in the damp without a hat on. With one hand he was tightly grasping his forehead, the other hung over his knee. The attitude bespoke with sufficient clearness a mental condition of anguish. He was quite a different being from any of the men to whom her eyes were accustomed. She had never seen mustachios before, for they were not worn by civilians in Lower Wessex at this date. His hands and his face were white — to her view deadly white — and he heeded nothing outside his own existence. There he remained as motionless as the bushes around him; indeed, he scarcely seemed to breathe.
Having imprudently advanced thus far, Margery’s wish was to get back again in the same unseen manner; but in moving her foot for the purpose it grated on the gravel. He started up with an air of bewilderment, and slipped something into the pocket of his dressing-gown. She was almost certain that it was a pistol. The pair stood looking blankly at each other.
‘My Gott, who are you?’ he asked sternly, and with not altogether an English articulation. ‘What do you do here?’
Margery had already begun to be frightened at her boldness in invading the lawn and pleasure-seat. The house had a master, and she had not known of it. ‘My name is Margaret Tucker, sir,’ she said meekly. ‘My father is Dairyman Tucker. We live at Silverthorn Dairy-house.’
‘What were you doing here at this hour of the morning?’
She told him, even to the fact that she had climbed over the fence.
‘And what made you peep round at me?’
‘I saw your elbow, sir; and I wondered what you were doing?’
‘And what was I doing?’
‘Nothing. You had one hand on your forehead and the other on your knee. I do hope you are not ill, sir, or in deep trouble?’ Margery had sufficient tact to say nothing about the pistol.
‘What difference would it make to you if I were ill or in trouble? You don’t know me.’
She returned no answer, feeling that she might have taken a liberty in expressing sympathy. But, looking furtively up at him, she discerned to her surprise that he seemed affected by her humane wish, simply as it had been expressed. She had scarcely conceived that such a tall dark man could know what gentle feelings were.
‘Well, I am much obliged to you for caring how I am,’ said he with a faint smile and an affected lightness of manner which, even to her, only rendered more apparent the gloom beneath. ‘I have not slept this past night. I suffer from sleeplessness. Probably you do not.’
Margery laughed a little, and he glanced with interest at the comely picture she presented; her fresh face, brown hair, candid eyes, unpractised manner, country dress, pink hands, empty wicker-basket, and the handkerchief over her bonnet.
‘Well,’ he said, after his scrutiny, ‘I need hardly have asked such a question of one who is Nature’s own image . . . Ah, but my good little friend,’ he added, recurring to his bitter tone and sitting wearily down, ‘you don’t know what great clouds can hang over some people’s lives, and what cowards some men are in face of them. To escape themselves they travel, take picturesque houses, and engage in country sports. But here it is so dreary, and the fog was horrible this morning!’
‘Why, this is only the pride of the morning!’ said Margery. ‘By-and-by it will be a beautiful day.’
She was going on her way forthwith; but he detained her — detained her with words, talking on every innocent little subject he could think of. He had an object in keeping her there more serious than his words would imply. It was as if he feared to be left alone.
While they still stood, the misty figure of the postman, whom Margery had left a quarter of an hour earlier to follow his sinuous course, crossed the grounds below them on his way to the house. Signifying to Margery by a wave of his hand that she was to step back out of sight, in the hinder angle of the shelter, the gentleman beckoned to the postman to bring the bag to where he stood. The man did so, and again resumed his journey.
The stranger unlocked the bag and threw it on the seat, having taken one letter from within. This he read attentively, and his countenance changed.
The change was almost phantasmagorial, as if the sun had burst through the fog upon that face: it became clear, bright, almost radiant. Yet it was but a change that may take place in the commonest human being, provided his countenance be not too wooden, or his artifice have not grown to second nature. He turned to Margery, who was again edging off, and, seizing her hand, appeared as though he were about to embrace her. Checking his impulse, he said, ‘My guardian child — my good friend — you have saved me!’
‘What from?’ she ventured to ask.
‘That you may never know.’
She thought of the weapon, and guessed that the letter he had just received had effected this change in his mood, but made no observation till he went on to say, ‘What did you tell me was your name, dear girl?’
She repeated her name.
‘Margaret Tucker.’ He stooped, and pressed her hand. ‘Sit down for a moment — one moment,’ he said, pointing to the end of the seat, and taking the extremest further end for himself, not to discompose her. She sat down.
‘It is to ask a question,’ he went on, ‘and there must be confidence between us. You have saved me from an act of madness! What can I do for you?’
‘Father is very well off, and we don’t want anything.’
‘But there must be some service I can render, some kindness, some votive offering which I could make, and so imprint on your memory as long as you live that I am not an ungrateful man?’
‘Why should you be grateful to me, sir?’
He shook his head. ‘Some things are best left unspoken. Now think. What would you like to have best in the world?’
Margery made a pretence of reflecting — then fell to reflecting seriously; but the negative was ultimately as undisturbed as ever: she could not decide on anything she would like best in the world; it was too difficult, too sudden.
‘Very well — don’t hurry yourself. Think it over all day. I ride this afternoon. You live — where?’
‘I will ride that way homeward this evening. Do you consider by eight o’clock what little article, what little treat, you would most like of any.’
‘I will, sir,’ said Margery, now warming up to the idea. ‘Where shall I meet you? Or will you call at the house, sir?’
‘Ah — no. I should not wish the circumstances known out of which our acquaintance rose. It would be more proper — but no.’
Margery, too, seemed rather anxious that he should not call. ‘I could come out, sir,’ she said. ‘My father is odd-tempered, and perhaps —’
It was agreed that she should look over a stile at the top of her father’s garden, and that he should ride along a bridle-path outside, to receive her answer. ‘Margery,’ said the gentleman in conclusion, ‘now that you have discovered me under ghastly conditions, are you going to reveal them, and make me an object for the gossip of the curious?’
‘No, no, sir!’ she replied earnestly. ‘Why should I do that?’
‘You will never tell?’
‘Never, never will I tell what has happened here this morning.’
‘Neither to your father, nor to your friends, nor to any one?’
‘To no one at all,’ she said.
‘It is sufficient,’ he answered. ‘You mean what you say, my dear maiden. Now you want to leave me. Good-bye!’
She descended the hill, walking with some awkwardness; for she felt the stranger’s eyes were upon her till the fog had enveloped her from his gaze. She took no notice now of the dripping from the trees; she was lost in thought on other things. Had she saved this handsome, melancholy, sleepless, foreign gentleman who had had a trouble on his mind till the letter came? What had he been going to do? Margery could guess that he had meditated death at his own hand. Strange as the incident had been in itself; to her it had seemed stranger even than it was. Contrasting colours heighten each other by being juxtaposed; it is the same with contrasting lives.
Reaching the opposite side of the park there appeared before her for the third time that little old man, the foot-post. As the turnpike-road ran, the postman’s beat was twelve miles a day; six miles out from the town, and six miles back at night. But what with zigzags, devious ways, offsets to country seats, curves to farms, looped courses, and triangles to outlying hamlets, the ground actually covered by him was nearer one-and-twenty miles. Hence it was that Margery, who had come straight, was still abreast of him, despite her long pause.
The weighty sense that she was mixed up in a tragical secret with an unknown and handsome stranger prevented her joining very readily in chat with the postman for some time. But a keen interest in her adventure caused her to respond at once when the bowed man of mails said, ‘You hit athwart the grounds of Mount Lodge, Miss Margery, or you wouldn’t ha’ met me here. Well, somebody hey took the old place at last.’
In acknowledging her route Margery brought herself to ask who the new gentleman might be.
‘Guide the girl’s heart! What! don’t she know? And yet how should ye — he’s only just a-come. — Well, nominal, he’s a fishing gentleman, come for the summer only. But, more to the subject, he’s a foreign noble that’s lived in England so long as to be without any true country: some of his letters call him Baron, some Squire, so that ‘a must be born to something that can’t be earned by elbow-grease and Christian conduct. He was out this morning a-watching the fog. “Postman,” ‘a said, “good-morning: give me the bag.” O, yes, ‘a’s a civil genteel nobleman enough.’
‘Took the house for fishing, did he?’
‘That’s what they say, and as it can be for nothing else I suppose it’s true. But, in final, his health’s not good, ‘a b’lieve; he’s been living too rithe. The London smoke got into his wyndpipe, till ‘a couldn’t eat. However, I shouldn’t mind having the run of his kitchen.’
‘And what is his name?’
‘Ah — there you have me! ’Tis a name no man’s tongue can tell, or even woman’s, except by pen-and-ink and good scholarship. It begins with X, and who, without the machinery of a clock in’s inside, can speak that? But here ’tis — from his letters.’ The postman with his walking-stick wrote upon the ground,
‘BARON VON XANTEN’
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09