Such was Christina’s first meeting with Lord Manister in his own county. It occurred while his mother’s invitation was exhilarating so many homes, and on the day when the Mundham mail bag would not hold the first draught of prompt replies. Until the garden party itself, however, no one at the rectory saw any more of Lord Manister, who had gone for a few days to the Marquis of Wymondham’s place in Scotland, where he shot dreadfully on the Twelfth and was otherwise in queer form, considering that Miss Garth was also one of the guests. But under all the circumstances it is not difficult to imagine Manister worried and unhappy during this interval; which, on the other hand, remained in the minds of the people at the rectory, Christina included, as the pleasantest part of their month there.
Not that they suspected this at the time. Mrs. Erskine especially found these days a little slow. Having knowledge of Lord Manister’s whereabouts, she was impatient for his return, and the more so because Christina seemed to have forgotten his existence. Christina was indeed puzzling, and on one embarrassing occasion, which with some girls would have led to a scene, she puzzled Ruth more than ever. Ruth tried to follow her presumptive example, and to put aside the thought of Lord Manister for the time being. Her consolation meanwhile was the lively camaraderie between Christina and Erskine, wherein Erskine’s wife took a delight for which we may forgive her much.
“How well you two get on!” she would say gladly to each of them.
“He’s a man and a brother,” Tiny would reply.
To which Ruth was sure to say tenderly: “It’s sweet of you, dear, to look upon him as a brother.
“Ah, but don’t you forget that he’s a man, and not my brother really, but just the very best of pals!” Tiny said once. “That’s the beauty of him. He’s the only man who ever talked sense to me right through from the beginning, so he’s something new. He’s the only man I ever liked without having the least desire to flirt with him, if you particularly want to know! And I don’t believe his being my brother-in-law has anything to do with that,” added the girl reflectively; “it would have been the same in any case. What’s better still, he’s the only man who ever understood me, my dear.”
“He’s very clever, you see,” observed Ruth slyly, but also in all seriousness.
“That’s the worst of him; he makes you feel your ignorance.”
“I assure you, Tiny, he thinks you very clever.”
“So you’re crackin’!” laughed Tiny; and as the old bush slang filled her mouth unbidden, the smell of a hot wind at Wallandoon came into her nostrils; and there seemed no more to be said.
But that last assurance of Ruth’s was still ringing in her ears when her thoughts got back from the bush. She did not believe a word of it. Yet it was more or less true. Nor was Erskine far wrong in any opinion he had expressed to his wife concerning Christina, of whom, perhaps, he had said even less than he thought.
She was not, indeed, to be called an intellectual girl, in these days least of all. That was her misfortune, or otherwise, as you happen to think. Intellectual possibilities, however, she possessed: raw brain with which much might have been done. Not much can be done by a governess on a station in the back-blocks. Merely in curing the girls of the twang of Australia, more successfully than of its slang, and in teaching Tiny to sing rather nicely, the governess at Wallandoon had done wonders. But gifts that were of more use to Christina were natural, such as the quick perception, the long memory, and the ready tongue with which she defended the doors of her mind, so that few might guess the poverty of the store within. Nor had the governess been able to add much to that store. The liking for books had not come to Christina at Wallandoon; but in Melbourne she had taken to reading, and had reveled in a deal of trash; and now in England she read whatever Erskine put in her hands, and honestly enjoyed most of it, with the additional relish of being proud of her enjoyment. Erskine thought her discriminating, too; but converts to good books are apt to flatter the saviors of their taste, and perhaps her brother-in-law was a poor judge of the girl’s judgment. He liked her for finding Colonel Newcome’s life more touching than his death, and for placing the Colonel second to Dr. Primrose in the order of her gods after reading “The Vicar of Wakefield.” He was delighted with her confession that she should “love to be loved by Clive Newcome,” while her defense of Miss Ethel, which was vigorous enough to betray a fellow-feeling, was interesting at the time, and more so later, when there was occasion to remember it. Similar interest attached to another confession, that she had long envied OEnone and Elaine “because they were really in love.” She seemed to have mixed some good poetry with the bad novels that had contented her in Melbourne. Two more books which she learned to love now were “Sesame and Lilies” and “Virginibus Puerisque.” It was Erskine Holland’s privilege to put each into her hands for the first time, and perhaps she never pleased him quite so much as when she said: “It makes me think less of myself; it has made me horribly unhappy; but if they were going to hang me in the morning I would sit up all night to read it again!” That was her grace after “Sesame and Lilies.”
“Why don’t you make Ruth read too?” she asked him once, quite idly, when they had been talking about books.
“She has a good deal to think about,” Erskine replied after a little hesitation. “She’s too busy to read.”
“Or too happy,” suggested Tiny.
Mr. Holland made a longer pause, looking gratefully at the girl, as though she had given him a new idea, which he would gladly entertain if he could. “I wonder whether that’s possible?” he said at last.
“I’m sure it is. Ruth is so happy that books can do nothing for her; the happy ones show her no happiness so great as her own, and she thinks the sad ones stupid. The other day, when I insisted on reading her my favorite thing in ‘Virginibus ——’”
“What is your favorite thing?” interrupted Erskine.
“‘El Dorado’— it’s the most beautiful thing you have put me on to yet, of its size. I could hardly see my way through the last page — I can’t tell you why — only because it was so beautiful, I think, and so awfully true! But Ruth saw nothing to cry over; I’m not sure that she saw much to admire; and that’s all because you have gone and made her so happy.”
For some minutes Erskine looked grim. Then he smiled.
“But aren’t you happy too, Tiny?”
“I’m as happy as I deserve to be. That’s good enough, isn’t it?”
“Quite. You must be as happy as you’re pleased to think Ruth.”
“Well, then, I’m not. I should like to be some good in the world, and I’m no good at all!”
“I am sorry to see it take you like that,” said Erskine gravely. “I wouldn’t have thought this of you, Tiny!”
“Ah, there are many things you wouldn’t think of me,” remarked Tiny. She spoke a little sadly, and she said no more. And this time her sudden silence came from no vision of the bush, but from what she loved much less — a glimpse of herself in the mirror of her own heart.
There was one thing, certainly, that none of them would have thought of her; for she never told them of her little quiet meddlings in the village. But I could tell you. Pleasant it would be to write of what she did for Mrs. Clapperton (who certainly seemed to have been unfairly treated) and of the memories that lived after her in more cottages than one. But you are to see her as they did who saw most of her, and to remember that nothing is more delightful than being kind to the grateful poor, especially when one is privately depressed. Little was ever known of the liberties taken by Christina’s generosity, and nothing shall be recorded here. She must stand or fall without that, as in the eyes of her friends. Suffice it that she did amuse herself in this way on the sly, and found it good for restoring her vanity, which was suffering secretly all this time. She would have been the last to take credit for any good she may have done in Essingham. She knew that it wiped out nothing, and also that it made her happier than she would have been otherwise. For though a worse time came later, even now she was not comfortable in her heart. And she had by no means forgotten the existence of Lord Manister, as someone feared.
Ruth, however, put her own conversation under studious restraint during these days, many of which passed without any mention of Lord Minister’s name at the rectory. The distracting proximity of his stately home was apparently forgotten in this peaceful spot. But the wife of one clerical neighbor, a Mrs. Willoughby, who accompanied her husband when he came to play lawn tennis with Mr. Holland, and indeed wherever the poor man went, cherished a grudge against the young nobleman’s family, of which she made no secret. It was only natural that this lady should air her grievance on the lawn at Essingham, whence there was a distant prospect of lodge and gates to goad her tongue. Yet, when she did so, it was as though the sun had come out suddenly and thrown the shadow of the hall across the rectory garden.
“As for this garden party,” cried Mrs. Willoughby, as it seemed for the benefit of the gentlemen, who had put on their coats, and were handing teacups under the trees, “I consider it an insult to the county. It comes too late in the day to be regarded as anything else. Why didn’t they do something when first they came here? They have had the place a year. Why didn’t they give a ball in the winter, or a set of dinner parties if they preferred that? Shall I tell you why, Mr. Holland? It was because the general election was further off then, and it hadn’t occurred to them to put up Lord Manister for the division.”
“They haven’t been here a year, my dear, by any means,” observed Mrs. Willoughby’s husband; “and as for dinner parties, we, at any rate, have dined with them.”
“Well, I wouldn’t boast about it,” answered Mrs. Willoughby, who had a sharp manner in conversation, and a specially staccato note for her husband. “We dined with them, it is true; I suppose they thought they must do the civil to a neighboring rector or two. But as their footman had the insolence to tell our coachman, Mrs. Holland, they considered things had reached a pretty pass when it came to dining the country clergy!’”
“Their footman considered,” murmured Mr. Willoughby.
“He was repeating what he had heard at table,” the lady affirmed, as though she had heard it herself. “They had made a joke of it — before their servants. So they don’t catch me at their garden party, which is to satisfy our social cravings and secure our votes. I don’t visit with snobs, Mrs. Holland, for all their coronets and Norman blood — of which, let me tell you, they haven’t one drop between them. Who was the present earl’s great-grandfather, I should like to know? He never had one; they are not only snobs but upstarts, the Dromards.”
“At any rate,” Mr. Holland said mildly, “they can’t gain anything by being civil to us. We don’t represent a single vote. We are here for one calendar month.”
“Ah, it is wise to be disinterested here and there,” rejoined Mrs. Willoughby, whose sharpness was not merely vocal; “it supplies an instance, and that’s worth a hundred arguments. Now I shouldn’t wonder, Mr. Holland, if they didn’t go out of their way to be quite nice to you. I shouldn’t wonder a bit. It would advertise their disinterestedness. But wait till you meet them in Piccadilly.”
“Mrs. Willoughby is a cynic,” laughed Erskine, turning to the clergyman, whose wife swallowed her tea complacently with this compliment to sweeten it. To so many minds a charge of cynicism would seem to imply that intellectual superiority which is cheap at the price of a moral defect.
Now Erskine had a lawn tennis player staying with him for the inside of this week; and the lawn tennis player was a fallen cricketer, who had played against the Eton eleven when young Manister was in it; and he ventured to suggest that the division might find a worse candidate. “He was a nice enough boy then,” said he, “and I recollect he made runs; he’s a good fellow still, from all accounts.”
“From all my accounts,” retorted Mrs. Willoughby, refreshed by her tea, “he’s a very fast one!”
Erskine’s friend had never heard that, though he understood that Manister had fallen off in his cricket; he had not seen the young fellow for years, nor did he think any more about him at the moment, being drawn by Herbert into cricket talk, which stopped his ears to the general conversation just as this became really interesting.
“That reminds me,” Mrs. Willoughby exclaimed, turning to Ruth. “Was Lord Manister out in Australia in your time?”
Ruth said “No,” rather nervously, for Mrs. Willoughby’s manner alarmed her. “I was married just before he came out,” she added; “as a matter of fact, our steamers crossed in the canal.”
“Well, you know what a short time he stayed there, for a governor’s aid-decamp?”
“Only a few months, I have heard. Do let me give you another cup of tea, Mrs. Willoughby!”
“Now I wonder if you know,” pursued this lady, having cursorily declined more tea, “how he came to leave so suddenly?”
Poor Mrs. Holland shook her head, which was inwardly besieged with impossible tenders for a change of subject. No one helped her: Tiny had perhaps already lost her presence of mind; Erskine did not understand; the other two were not listening. Ruth could think of no better expedient than a third cup for Christina; as she passed it her own hand trembled, but venturing to glance at her sister’s face, she was amazed to find it not only free from all sign of self-consciousness or of anxiety, but filled with unaffected interest. For this was the occasion on which Christina’s coolness quite baffled Ruth, who for her part was preparing for a scene.
“Shall I tell you?” asked Mrs. Willoughby.
“Do,” said Christina, to whom the well-informed lady at once turned.
“He formed an attachment out there, Miss Luttrell! He could only get out of it by fleeing the country; so he fled. You look as though you knew all about it,” she added (making Ruth shudder), for the girl had smiled knowingly.
“About which?” asked Tiny.
“What! Were there more affairs than one?”
“Some people said so.”
Mrs. Willoughby glanced around her with a glittering eye, and was sorry to notice that two of her hearers were not listening. “That is just what I expected,” she informed the other four. “If you tell me that Melbourne became too hot to hold him I shall not be surprised.”
“Melbourne made rather a fuss about him,” replied Christina in an excusing tone that pierced Ruth’s embarrassment and pricked to life her darling hopes. “He was not greatly to blame.”
“But he broke the poor girl’s heart. I should blame him for that, to say the least of it.”
“You surprise me,” said Christina gravely; “I thought that people at home never blamed each other for anything they did in the colonies? Over here you are particular, I know; but I thought it was correct not to be too particular when out there. Your writers come out: we treat them like lords, and then they do nothing but abuse us; your lords come out: we treat them like princes, and, you see, they break our hearts. Of course they do! We expect it of them. It’s all we look for in the colonies.”
“You are not serious, Miss Luttrell,” said Mrs. Willoughby in some displeasure. “To my mind it is a serious thing. It seems a sad thing, too, to me. But I may be old-fashioned; the present generation would crack jokes across an open grave, as I am well aware. Yet there isn’t much joke in a young girl having her heart broken by such as Lord Manister, is there? And that’s what literally happened, for my friend Mrs. Foster–Simpson knows all about it. She knows all about the Dromards — to her cost!”
“Ah, we know the Foster–Simpsons; they called on us last year,” remarked Erskine, who devoutly trusted that they would not call again. His amusement at Christina hardly balanced his weariness of Mrs. Willoughby, and he took off his coat as he spoke.
“Does your friend know the poor girl’s name, Mrs. Willoughby?” Tiny asked when the men had gone back to the court; and her tone was now as sympathetic as could possibly be desired.
“I’m sorry to say she does not; it’s the one thing she has been unable to find out,” said Mrs. Willoughby naïvely. “Perhaps you could tell me, Miss Luttrell?”
“Perhaps I could,” said Christina, smiling, as she rose to seek a ball which had been hit into the churchyard. “Only, you see, I don’t know which of them it was. It wouldn’t be fair to give you a list of names to guess from, would it?”
Fortunately Mrs. Willoughby put no further questions to Ruth, who was intensely thankful. “For,” as she told Christina afterward, “I was on pins and needles the whole time. I never did know anyone like you for keeping cool under fire!”
“It depends on the fire,” Tiny said. “Mrs. Willoughby went off by accident, and luckily she was not pointing at anybody.”
“And I’m glad she did, now it’s over!” exclaimed Ruth. “Don’t you see that I was quite right about your name? So now you need have no more qualms about the garden party.”
“Perhaps I’ve had no qualms for some time; perhaps I’ve known you were right.”
“Since when? Since — since you saw Lord Manister?”
“Do you mean to say you talked about it?” Ruth whispered in delicious awe.
“I mustn’t tell you what he talked about. He was as nice as he could be-though I should have preferred to find him less beautifully dressed in the country; but I always felt that about him. I am sure, however, of one thing: he was no more to blame than — I was. I have always felt this about him, too.”
“Tiny, dear, if only I could understand you!”
“If only you could! Then you might help me to understand myself.”
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:51