There was consternation in the domestic camp of Mr Justice Bligh on the banks of the Thames. It was a Sunday morning in early summer. Three-fourths of the family sat in ominous silence before the mockery of a well-spread breakfast-table: Sir James and Lady Bligh and their second son, Granville. The eldest son — the missing complement of this family of four — was abroad. For many months back, and, in fact, down to this very minute, it had been pretty confidently believed that the young man was somewhere in the wilds of Australia; no one had quite known where, for the young man, like most vagabond young men, was a terribly meagre corespondent; nor had it ever been clear why any one with leisure and money, and of no very romantic turn, should have left the beaten track of globe-trotters, penetrated to the wilderness, and stayed there — as Alfred Bligh had done. Now, however, all was plain. A letter from Brindisi, just received, explained everything; Alfred’s movements, so long obscure, were at last revealed, and in a lurid light — that, as it were, of the bombshell that had fallen and burst upon the Judge’s breakfast-table. For Alfred was on his way to England with an Australian wife; and this letter from Brindisi, was the first that his people had heard of it, or of her.
‘Of course,’ said Lady Bligh, in her calm and thoughtful manner, ‘it was bound to happen sooner or later. It might have happened very much sooner; and, indeed, I often wished that it would; for Alfred must be-what? Thirty?’
‘Quite,’ said Granville; ‘I am nearly that myself.’
‘Well, then,’ said Lady Bligh gently, looking tenderly at the Judge (whose grave eyes rested upon the sunlit lawn outside), ‘from one point of view — a selfish one — we ought to consider ourselves the most fortunate of parents. And this news should be a matter for rejoicing, as it would be, if — if it were only less sudden, and wild, and — and ——’
Her voice trembled; she could not go on.
‘And alarming,’ added Granville briskly, pulling himself together and taking an egg.
Then the Judge spoke.
‘I should like,’ he said, ‘to hear the letter read slowly from beginning to end. Between us, we have not yet given it a fair chance; we have got only the drift of it; we may have overlooked something. Granville, perhaps you will read the letter aloud to your mother and me?’
Granville, who had just laid open his egg with great skill, experienced a moment’s natural annoyance at the interruption. To stop to read a long letter now was, he felt, treating a good appetite shabbily, to say nothing of the egg. But this was not a powerful feeling; he concealed it. He had a far stronger appetite than the mere relish for food; the intellectual one. Granville had one of the nicest intellects at the Junior Bar. His intellectual appetite was so hearty, and even voracious, that it could be gratified at all times and places, and not only by the loaves and fishes of full-bodied wit, but by the crumbs and fishbones of legal humour — such as the reading aloud of indifferent English and ridiculous sentiments in tones suitable to the most chaste and classic prose. This he had done in court with infinite gusto, and he did it now as he would have done it in court.
‘“My dear Mother”’ (he began reading, through a single eyeglass that became him rather well) — ’“Before you open this letter you’ll see that I’m on my way home! I am sorry I haven’t written you for so long, and very sorry I didn’t before I sailed. I should think when I last wrote was from Bindarra. But I must come at once to my great news — which Heaven knows how I’m to tell you, and how you’ll take it when I do. Well, I will, in two words — the fact is, I’m married! My wife is the daughter of ‘the boss of Bindarra’— in other words, a ‘squatter’ with a ‘run’ (or territory) as big as a good many English counties.”’
The crisp forensic tones were dropped for an explanatory aside. ‘He evidently means— father’ (Granville nearly said ‘my lord,’ through force of habit), ‘that his father-in-law is the squatter; not his wife, which is what he says. He writes in such a slipshod style. I should also think he means that the territory in question is equal in size to certain English counties, individually (though this I venture to doubt), and not — what you would infer — to several counties put together. His literary manner was always detestable, poor old chap; and, of course, Australia was hardly likely to improve it.’
The interpolation was not exactly ill-natured; but it was received in silence; and Granville’s tones, as he resumed the reading, were even more studiously unsympathetic than before.
‘“Of my Bride I will say very little; for you will see her in a week at most. As for myself, I can only tell you, dear Mother, that I am the very luckiest and happiest man on earth!”’ (‘A brave statement,’ Granville murmured in parenthesis; ‘but they all make it.’) ‘“She is typically Australian, having indeed been born and bred in the Bush, and is the first to admit it, being properly proud of her native land; but, if you knew the Australians as I do, this would not frighten you. Far from it, for the typical Australian is one of the very highest if not the highest development of our species.”’ (Granville read that sentence with impressive gravity, and with such deference to the next as to suggest no kind of punctuation, since the writer had neglected it.) ‘“But as you, my dear Mother, are the very last person in the world to be prejudiced by mere mannerisms, I won’t deny that she has one or two —though, mind you, I like them! And, at least, you may look forward to seeing the most beautiful woman you ever saw in your life — though I say it.
‘“Feeling sure that you will, as usual, be ‘summering’ at Twickenham, I make equally sure that you will be able and willing to find room for us; at the same time, we will at once commence looking out for a little place of our own in the country, with regard to which we have plans which will keep till we see you. But, while we are with you, I thought I would be able to show my dear girl the principal sights of the Old Country, which, of course, are mostly in or near town, and which she is dying to see.
‘“Dear Mother, I know I ought to have consulted you, or at least told you, beforehand. The whole thing was impulsive, I admit. But if you and my Father will forgive me for this — take my word for it, you will soon find out that it is all you have to forgive! Of course, I am writing to my Father as much as to you in this letter — as he will be the first to understand. With dearest love to you both (not forgetting Gran), in which Gladys joins me (though she doesn’t know I am saying so).
‘“Believe me as ever,
‘“Your affectionate Son,
‘Thank you,’ said the Judge, shortly.
The soft dark eyes of Lady Bligh were wet with tears.
‘I think,’ she said, gently, ‘it is a very tender letter. I know of no man but Alfred that could write such a boyish, simple letter — not that I don’t enjoy your clever ones, Gran. But then Alfred never yet wrote to me without writing himself down the dear, true-hearted, affectionate fellow he is; only here, of course, it comes out doubly. But does he not mention her maiden name?’
‘No, he doesn’t,’ said Granville. ‘You remarked the Christian name, though? Gladys! I must say it sounds unpromising. Mary, Eliza, Maria —— one would have rather liked a plain, homely, farm-yard sort of name for a squatter’s daughter. But Ermyntrude, or Elaine, or Gladys! These are names of ill-omen; you expect de Vere coming after them, or even worse.’
‘What is a squatter, Gran?’ asked Lady Bligh abruptly.
‘A squatter? I don’t know,’ said Gran, paring the ham daintily as he answered. ‘I don’t know, I’m sure; something to do with bushranging, I should imagine — but I really can’t tell you.’
But there was a set of common subjects of which Gran was profoundly and intentionally ignorant; and it happened that Greater Britain was one of them. If he had known for certain whether Sydney (for instance) was a town or a colony or an island, he would have kept the knowledge carefully to himself, and been thoroughly ashamed of it. And it was the same with other subjects understanded of the Board-scholars. This queer temper of mind is not indeed worth analysing; nevertheless, it is peculiar to a certain sort of clever young fellows, and Granville Bligh was a very fair specimen of the clever young fellow. He was getting on excellently at the Bar, for so young a man. He also wrote a little, with plenty of impudence and epigram, if nothing else. But this was not his real line. Still, what he did at all, he did more or less cleverly. There was cleverness in every line of his smooth dark face; there was uncommon shrewdness in his clear gray eyes. His father had the same face and the same eyes — with this difference added to the differences naturally due to age: there were wisdom, and dignity, and humanity in the face and glance of the Judge; but the nobility of expression thus given was not inherited by the Judge’s younger son.
The Judge spoke again, breaking a silence of some minutes:—
‘As you say, Mildred, it seems to have been all very wild and sudden; but when we have said this, we have probably said the worst there is to say. At least, let us hope so. Of my own knowledge many men have gone to Australia, as Alfred went, and come back with the best of wives. I seem to have heard, Granville, that that is what Merivale did; and I have met few more admirable women than Mrs Merivale.’
‘It certainly is the case, sir,’ said Granville, who had been patronised to some extent by Merivale, Q.C. ‘But Mrs Merivale was scarcely “born and bred in the Bush”; and if she had what poor Alfred, perhaps euphemistically, calls “mannerisms”— I have detected no traces of any myself — when Merivale married her, at least she had money.’
‘Your sister-in-law may have “money,” too,’ said Sir James, with somewhat scornful emphasis. ‘That is of no consequence at all. Your brother has enough for both, and more than enough for a bachelor.’
There was no need to remind the young man of that; it had been a sore point, and even a raw one, with Granville since his boyhood; for it was when the brothers were at school together — the younger in the Sixth Form, the elder in the Lower Fifth — and it was already plain which one would benefit the most by ‘private means,’ that a relative of Sir James had died, leaving all her money to Alfred.
Granville coloured slightly — very slightly — but observed:—
‘It is a good thing he has.’
‘What do you mean?’ the Judge asked, with some asperity.
‘That he needs it,’ said Granville, significantly.
Sir James let the matter drop, and presently, getting up, went out by the open French window, and on to the lawn. It was not his habit to snub his son; he left that to the other judges, in court. But Lady Bligh remonstrated in her own quiet way — a way that had some effect even upon Granville.
‘To sneer at your brother’s inferior wits, my son, is not in quite nice taste,’ she said; ‘and I may tell you, now, that I did not at all care for your comments upon his letter.’
Granville leant back in his chair and laughed pleasantly.
‘How seriously you take one this morning! But it is small wonder that you should, for the occasion is a sufficiently serious one, in all conscience; and indeed, dear mother, I am as much put out as you are. Nay,’ Granville added, smiling blandly, ‘don’t say that you’re not put out, for I can see that you are. And we have reason to be put out’— he became righteously indignant —‘all of us. I wouldn’t have thought it of Alfred, I wouldn’t indeed! No matter whom he wanted to marry, he ought at least to have written first, instead of being in such a violent hurry to bring her over. It is treating you, dear mother, to say the best of it, badly; and as for the Judge, it is plain that he is quite upset by the unfortunate affair.’
‘We have no right to assume that it is unfortunate, Gran.’
‘Well, I hope it is not, that’s all,’ said Gran, with great emphasis. ‘I hope it is not, for poor Alfred’s sake. Yet, as you know, mother, he’s the very kind of old chap to get taken in and imposed upon; and — I tell you frankly — I tremble for him. If he is the victim of a designing woman, I am sorry for him, from my soul I am! If he has married in haste — and he has — to repent at leisure — as he may — though this is trite and detestable language, I pity him, from my soul I do! You have already rebuked me — I don’t say unjustly — for making what, I admit, had the appearance of an odious and egotistical comparison; I will guard against conveying a second impression of that kind; yet I think I may safely say, without bragging, that I know the world rather better than old Alfred does. Well, I have, I will not say my fears, but my dreads; and I cannot help having them. If they are realised, no one will sympathise with poor dear Alfred more deeply than I shall.’
Lady Bligh looked keenly at her eloquent son; a half-smile played about her lips: she understood him, to some extent.
‘But what if your fears are not realised?’ she said, quietly.
‘Why, then,’ said Gran, less fluently, ‘then I— oh, of course, I shall be delighted beyond words; no one will be more delighted than I.’
‘Then you shall see,’ said Lady Bligh, rising, with a sweet and hopeful smile, ‘that is how it is going to turn out; I have a presentiment that it will all turn out for the best. So there is only one thing to be done — we must prepare to welcome her to our hearts!’
Granville shrugged his shoulders, but his mother did not see him; she had gone quietly from the room and was already climbing (slowly, for she was stout) the stairs that led up to her own snuggery on the first floor. This little room was less of a boudoir than a study, and more like an office than either, for it was really a rather bare little room. Its most substantial piece of furniture was a large unlovely office-table, and its one picture was framed in the window-sashes — a changeful picture of sky and trees, and lawn and river, painted this morning in the most radiant tints of early summer. At the office-table, which was littered with letters and pamphlets, Lady Bligh spent diligent hours every day. She was a person of both mental and manual activity, with public sympathies and interests that entailed an immense correspondence. She was, indeed, one of the most charitable and benevolent of women, and was to some extent a public woman. But we have nothing to do with her public life, and, on this Sunday morning, no more had she.
There were no pictures on the walls, but there were photographs upon the chimney-piece. Lady Bligh stood looking at them for an unusually long time — in fact, until the sound of the old church bells, coming in through the open window, called her away.
One of the photographs was of the Judge — an excellent one, in which the dear old gentleman looked his very best, dignified but kindly. Another was a far too flattering portrait of Granville. A third portrait was that of an honest, well-meaning, and rather handsome face, with calm dark eyes, exactly like Lady Bligh’s; and this was the erratic Alfred. But the photograph that Lady Bligh looked at longest, and most fondly, was a faded one of Alfred and Granville as mere schoolboys. She loved her two sons so dearly! One of them was much changed, and becoming somewhat spoilt, to phrase it mildly; yet that son was rather clever, and his mother saw his talents through a strong binocular, and his faults with her eyes at the wrong end of it; and she loved him in spite of the change in him, and listened — at least with tolerance — to the airings of a wit that was always less good natured, and generally less keen, than she imagined it. But the other son had never changed at all; even his present fatal letter showed that. He was still a boy at heart — a wild, stupid, affectionate schoolboy. There was no denying it: in his mother’s heart the elder son was the best beloved of the two.
And it was this one who had married with so much haste and mystery — the favourite son, the son with money, the son who might have married any one he pleased. It was hard to choke down prejudice when this son was bringing home a wife from the Bush, of all places!
What would she be like? What could she be like?
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55