Lord Ascot had been moved into South Audley Street, his town house, and Lady Ascot was there nursing him. General Mainwaring was off for Varna. But Lord Saltire had been a constant visitor, bringing with him very often Marston, who was, you will remember, an old friend of Lady Ascot.
It was not at all an unpleasant house to be in. Lord Ascot was crippled — he had been seized with paralysis at Epsom; and he was ruined. But every one knew the worst, and felt relieved by thinking that things could get no worse than worst, and so must get better.
In fact, every one admitted to the family party about that time remembered it as a very happy and quiet time indeed. Lord Ascot was their first object, of course; and a more gentle and biddable invalid than the poor fellow made can hardly be conceived. He was passionately fond of reading novels (a most reprehensible practice), and so was easily amused. Lord Saltire and he would play picquet; and every evening there would be three hours of whist, until the doctor looked in the last thing, and Lord Ascot was helped to bed.
Marston was always set to play with Lord Ascot, because Lord Saltire and Lady Ascot would not play against one another. Lord Saltire was, of course, one of the best players in Europe; and I really believe that Lady Ascot was not the worst by any means. I can see the party now. I can see Lady Ascot laying down a card, and looking at the same time at her partner, to call his attention to her lead. And I can see Lord Saltire take out his snuff-box thereat, as if he were puzzled, but not alarmed. William would come sometimes and sit quietly behind Marston, or Lord Saltire, watching the game. In short, they were a very quiet pleasant party indeed.
One night — it was the very night on which Adelaide had lost her hat in the Park — there was no whist. Marston had gone down to Oxford suddenly, and William came in to tell them so. Lady Ascot was rather glad, she said, for she had a friend coming to tea, who did not play whist; so Lord Saltire and Lord Ascot sat down to picquet, and William talked to his aunt.
“Who is your friend, Maria?” asked Lord Saltire.
“A Mr. Bidder, a minister. He has written a book on the Revelations, which you really ought to read, James; it would suit you.”
They both laughed.
“About the seven seals, hey?” said Lord Saltire; “’ septem phocce,’ as I remember Machynleth translated it at Eton once. We called him ‘Vituliua ‘ ever after. The name stuck to him through life with some of us. A capital name for him, too! His fussy blundering in his war-business is just like his old headlong way of looking out words in his dictionary. He is an ass, Maria; and I will bet fifty pounds that your friend, the minister, is another.”
“How can you know? at all events, the man he brings with him is none.”
“Yes, a Moravian missionary from Australia.”
“Then certainly another ass, or he would have gone as missionary to a less abominably detestable hole. They were all burnt into the sea there the other day. Immediately after which the rivers rose seventy feet, and drowned the rest of them.”
Soon after were announced Mr, Bidder and Mr. Smith. Mr. Bidder was an entirely unremarkable man; but Mr. Smith was one of the most remarkable men I have ever seen, or rather heard — for externally there was nothing remarkable about him, except a fine forehead, and a large expressive grey eye, which, when he spoke to you, seemed to come back from a long distance, and fix itself upon yours. In manners he was perfect. He was rather taciturn, though always delighted to communicate information about his travels, in a perfectly natural way. If one man wanted information on botany, or what not, he was there to give it. If another wanted to hear about missionary work, he was ready for him. He never spoke or acted untruthfully for one instant. He never acted the free and easy man of the world, as some religious gentlemen of all sects feel it necessary to do ometimes, imitating the real thing as well as Paul Bedford would imitate Fanny Ellsler. What made him remarkable was his terrible earnestness, and the feeling you had, that his curious language was natural, and meant something; something very important indeed. ie has something to do with the story. The straws in the gutter have to do with the history of a man like Charles, a man who leaves all things to chance. And this man Smith is very worthy of notice, and so I have said thus much about him, and am going to say more.
Mr. Bidder was very strong on the Eussian war, which he illustrated by the Revelations. He was a good fellow, and well-bred enough to see that his friend Smith was an object of greater interest to Lady Ascot than himself; so he “ retired into “a book of prints, and left the field clear.
Mr. Smith sat by Lady Ascot, and William drew close up. Lady Ascot began by a commonplace, of course.
“You have suffered great hardships among those savages, Mr. Smith, have you not?”
” Hardships! Oh, dear no, my dear lady. Our station was one of the pleasantest places in the whole earth, I believe; and we had a peaceful time. When the old man is strong in me I wish I was back there.”
“You did not make much progress with them, I believe?”
“None whatever. We found out after a year or two that it was hopeless to make them understand the existence of a God; and after that we stayed on to see if we could bring them to some knowledge of agriculture, and save them from their inevitable extermination, as the New Zealanders have been saved.”
“And to no purpose?”
“None. For instance, we taught them to plant our potatoes for us. They did it beautifully, but in the night they dug them up and ate them. And in due season we waited that our potatoes should grow, and they grew not. Then they came to Brother Hillyar, my coadjutor, an old man, now ruling ten cities for his master, and promised for rewards of flour to tell him why the potatoes did not grow. And he, loving them, gave them what they desired. And they told him that they dug them up while we slept. And for two days I went about my business laughing in secret places, for which he tried to rebuke me, but could not, laughing himself. The Lord kept him waiting long, for he was seventy-four; but, doubtless, his reward is the greater.”
William said, “You brought home a collection of zoological specimens, I think. They are in the Museum.”
“Yes. But what I could not bring over were my live pets. I and my wife had a menagerie of our own — a great number of beasts — ”
Mr. Bidder looking up from his book, catching the last sentence only, said that the number of the beast was 666; and, then turning round, held himself ready to strike into the conversation, thinking that the time was come when he should hide his light no longer.
“The natives are very low savages, are they not, Mr. Smith?” said William. “I have heard that they cannot count above ten.”
“Not so far as that,” said Mr. Smith. “The tribe we were most among used to express all large unknown quantities by ‘eighty-four;' — it was as x and y to them. That seems curious at first, does it not?”
William said it did seem curious, their choosing that particular number. But Mr. Bidder, dying to mount his hobby-horse, and not caring how, said it was not at all curious. If you multiplied the twelve tribes of Israel into the seven cities of refuge, there you were at once.
Mr. Smith said he thought he had made a Little mistake. The number, he fancied, was ninety-four.
Lord Saltire, from the card-table, said that that made the matter clearer than before. For if you placed the Ten Commandments to the previous result you arrived at ninety-four, which was the number wanted. And his lordship, who had lost, and was consequently possibly cross, added that, if you divided the whole by the five foolish virgins, and pitched Tobit’s dog neck and heels, into the result, you would find yourself much about where you started.
Mr. Bidder, who, as I said, was a good fellow, laughed,
* A fact with regard to one tribe, to the author’s frequent confusion. Any number above two, whether of horses, cattle, or sheep, was always represented as being eighty-four. Invariably, too, with an adjective introduced after the word “four,” which we don’t use in a drawingroom. nd Mr. Smith resumed the conversation once more; Lord Saltire seemed interested in what he said, and did not interfere with him.
“You buried poor Mrs. Smith out there,” said Lady Ascot. “I remember her well. She was very beautiful as a girl.”
“Very beautiful,” said the missionary. “Yes; she never lost her beauty, do you know. That climate is very deadly to those who go there with the seeds of consumption in them. She had done a hard day’s work before she went to sleep, though she was young. Don’t you think so, Lady Ascot?”
“A hard day’s work; a good day’s work, indeed. Who knows better than I?” said Lady Ascot. “What an awaking it must be from such a sleep as hers!”
“Beyond the power of human tongue to tell,” said the missionary, looking dreamily as at something far away. “Show me the poet that can describe in his finest language the joy of one’s soul when one wakes on a summer’s morning. Who, then, can conceive or tell the unutterable happiness of the purified soul, waking face to face with the King of Glory? ”
Lord Saltire looked at him curiously, and said to himself, “This fellow is in earnest. I have seen this sort of thing before. But seldom! Yes, but seldom!”
“I should not have alluded to my wife’s death,” continued the missionary in a low voice, “but that her ladyship introduced the subject. And no one has a better right to hear of her than her kind old friend. She fell asleep on the Sabbath evening after prayers. We moved her bed into the verandah, Lady Ascot, that she might see the sunlight fade out on the tops of the highest trees — a sight she always loved. And from the verandah we could see through the tree stems Mount Joorma, laid out in endless folds of woodland, all purple and gold. And I thought she was looking at the mountain, but she was looking far beyond that, for she said, ‘ I shall have to wait thirty years for you, James, but I shall be very happy and very busy. The time will go quick enough for me, but it will be a slow weary time for you, my darling. Go home from here, my love, into the great towns, and see what is to be done there.’ And so she went to sleep.
“I rebelled for three days. I went away into the bush, with Satan at my elbow all the time, through dry places, through the forest, down by lonely creeksides, up among bald volcanic downs, where there are slopes of slippery turf, leading down to treacherous precipices of slag; and then through the quartz ranges, and the reedy swamps, where the black swans float, and the spur-winged plover hovers and cackles; all about I went among the beasts and the birds. But on the third day the Lord wearied of me, and took me back, and I lay on His bosom again like a child. He will always take you home, my lord, if you come. After three days, after thrice twenty years, my lord. Time is nothing to Him.”
Lord Saltire was looking on him with kindly admiration.
“There is something in it, my lord. Depend upon it that it is not all a dream. Would not you give all your amazing wealth, all your honours, everything, to change places with me?”
“I certainly would,” said Lord Saltire. “I have always been of opinion that there was something in it. I remember,” he continued, turning to William, “expressing the same opinion to your father in the Fleet Prison once, when he had quarrelled with the priests for expressing some opinions which he had got from me. But you must take up with that sort of thing very early in life if you mean it to have any reality at all. I am too old now.”*
Lord Saltire said this in a different tone from his usual one. In a tone that we have never heard him use before. There was something about the man Smith which, in spite of his quaint language, softened every one who heard him speak. Lady Ascot says it was the grace of God. I entirely agree with her ladyship.
“I came home,” concluded the missionary, “to try some city work. My wife’s nephew, John Marston, whom I expected to see here tonight, is going to assist in this work. There seems plenty to do. We are at work in Sonthwark at present.”
* Once for all, let me call every honest reader to witness, that, unless I speak in the first person, I am not bound to the opinions of any one of the characters in this book. I have merely made people speak as I think they would have spoken. Even in a story, consisting so entirely of incident as thi.s, I feel it necessary to say so much, for no kind of unfairness is so common as that of identifying the opinions of a story-teller with those of his dramatis persona.
Possibly it was well that the company, more particularly Lady Ascot, were in a softened and forgiving mood. For, before any one had resumed the conversation, Lord Ascot’s valet stood in the door, and, looking at Lady Ascot with a face which said as plain as words, “It is a terrible business, my lady, but I am innocent,” announced —
Lord Saltire put his snuff-box into his right-hand trousers’ pocket, and his pocket handkerchief into his left, and kept his hands there, leaning back in his chair, with his legs stretched out, and a smile of infinite wicked amusement on his face. Lord Ascot and William stared like a couple of gabies. Lady Ascot had no time to make the slightest change, either in feature or position, before Adelaide, dressed for the evening in a cloud of white and pink, with her bare arms loaded with bracelets, a swansdown fan hanging from her left wrist, sailed swiftly into the room, with outstretched hands, bore down on Lady Ascot, and began kissing her, as though the old lady were a fruit of some sort, and she were a dove pecking at it.
“Dearest grandma!” — peck. “So glad to see you!” — peck. “Couldn’t help calling in on you as I went to Lady Brittlejug’s — and how well you are looking! “— peck, peck. ” I can spare ten minutes — do tell me all the news, since I saw you. My dear Lord Ascot, I was so sorry to hear of your illness, but you look better than I expected And how do you do, my dear Lord Saltire?”
Lord Saltire was pretty well, and was delighted to see Lady Welter apparently in the enjoyment of such health and spirits, and so on, aloud. But, secretly, Lord Saltire was wondering what on earth could have brought her here. Perhaps she only wanted to take Lady Ascot by surprise, and force her into a recognition of her as Lady Welter. No. My lord saw there was something more than that. She was restless and absent with Lady Ascot. Her eye kept wandering, in the middle of all her rattling talk; but, wherever it wandered, it always came back to William, of whom she had hitherto taken no notice whatever.
“She has come after him. For what?” thought my lord. “I wonder if the jade knows anything of Charles.”
Lady Ascot had steeled herself against this meeting. She had determined, firstly, that no mortal power should ever induce her to set eyes on Adelaide again; and, secondly, that she, Lady Ascot, would give her, Adelaide, a piece of her mind, which she should never forget to her dying day. The first of these, rather contradictory, determinations had been disposed of by Adelaide’s audacity; and, as for the second; why, the piece of Lady Ascot’s mind which was to be given to Adelaide was, somehow, not ready; but, instead of it, only silent tears, and withered, trembling fingers, which andered lovingly over the beautiful young hand, and made the gaudy bracelets on the wrist click one against the other.
“What could I say, Brooks? what could I do?” said Lady Ascot to her maid that night, “when I saw her own self come back, with her own old way? I love the girl more than ever. Brooks, I believe. She beat me. She took me by surprise. I could not resist her. If she had proposed to put me in a wheelbarrow, and wheel me into the middle of that disgraceful, that detestable woman, Brittlejug’s drawingroom, there and then, I should have let her do it, I believe. I might have begged for time to put on my bonnet; but I should have gone.”
She sat there ten minutes or more, talking. Then she said that it was time to go, but that she should come and see Lady Ascot on the morrow. Then she turned to William, to whom she had not been introduced, and asked, would he see her to her carriage? Lord Saltire was next the bell, and, looking her steadily in the face, raised his hand slowly to pull it. Adelaide begged him eagerly not to trouble himself; he, with a smile, promptly dropped his hand, and out she sailed on William’s arm. Lord Saltire holding the door open, and shutting it after her, with somewhat singular rapidity.
“I hope none of those fools of servants will come blundering upstairs before she has said her say,” he remarked aloud. “Give us some of your South
African experiences, Mr. Smith. Did you ever see a woman beautiful enough to go clip a lion’s claws single-handed, eh?”
William, convoying Adelaide downstairs, had got no further than the first step, when he felt her hand drawn from his arm; he had got one foot on the step below, when he turned to see the cause of this. Adelaide was standing on the step above him, with her glorious face bent sternly, almost fiercely, down on his, and the hand from which the fan hung pointed towards him. It was as beautiful a sight as he had ever seen, and he calmly wondered what it meant. The perfect mouth was curved in scorn, and from it came sharp ringing words, decisive, hard, clear, like the sound of a hammer on an anvil.
“Are you a party to this shameful business, sir? you, who have taken his name, and his place, and his prospects in society. You, who professed, as I hear, to love him like another life, dearer than your own. You, who lay on the same breast with him — tell me, in God’s name, that you are sinning in ignorance.”
William, as I have remarked before, had a certain amount of shrewdness. He determined to let her go on. He only said, “You are speaking of Charles Ravenshoe.”
“Ay,” she said sharply; “of Charles Ravenshoe, sir — ex-stable-boy. I came here tonight to beard them all; to ask them, did they know, and did they dare to suffer it. If they had not given me an answer, I would have said such things to them as would have made them top their ears. Lord Saltire has a biting tongue, has he? Let him hear what mine is. But, when I saw you among them, I determined to save a scene, and speak to you alone. Shameful — ”
William looked quietly at her. “Will your ladyship remark that I, that all of us, have been moving heaven and earth to find Charles Ravenshoe, and that we have been utterly unable to find him? If you have any information about him, would it not be as well to consider that the desperation caused by your treatment of him was the principal cause of his extraordinary resolution of hiding himself? And, instead of scolding me and others, who are doing all we can, to give us all the information in your power?”
“Well, well,” she said, “perhaps you are right. Consider me rebuked, will you have the goodness? I saw Charles Ravenshoe today.”
“Ay, and talked to him.”
“How did he look? was he pale? was he thin? Did he seem to want money? Did he ask after me? Did he send any message? Can you take me to where he is? Did he seem much broken down? Does he know we have been seeking him? Lady Welter, for God’s sake, do something to repair the wrong you did him, and take me to where he is.”
“I don’t know where he is, I tell you. 1 saw him for just one moment. He picked up my hat in the Park. He was dressed like a groom. He came from I now not where, like a ghost from the grave. He did not speak to me. He gave me my hat, and was gone. I do not know whose groom he is, but 1 think Welter knows. He will tell me tonight. I dared not ask him today, lest he should think I was going to see him. When I tell him where I have been, and describe what has passed here, he will tell me. Come to me tomorrow morning, and he shall tell you; that will be better. You have sense enough to see why.”
“Another thing. He has seen his sister Ellen. And yet another thing. When I ran away with Lord Welter, I had no idea of what had happened to him — of this miserable esclandre. But you must have known that before, if you were inclined to do me justice. Come tomorrow morning. I must go now.”
And so she went to her carriage by herself after all. And William stood still on the stairs, triumphant. Charles was as good as found.
The two clergymen passed him on their way downstairs, and bade him good night. Then he returned to the drawingroom, and said —
“My lord. Lady Welter has seen Charles today, and spoken to him. With God’s help, I will have him here with us tomorrow night.”
It was half-past eleven. What Charles, in his head-long folly and stupidity, had contrived to do before this time, must be told in another chapter — no, I have not patience to wait. My patience is exhausted. One ct of folly following another so fast would exhaust the patience of Job. If one did not love him so well, one would not be so angry with him. I will tell it here and have done with it. When he had left Adelaide, he had gone home with Hornby. He had taken the horses to the stable; he had written a note to Hornby. Then he had packed up a bundle of clothes, and walked quietly off.
Round by St. Peter's Church — he had no particular reason for going there, except, perhaps, that his poor foolish heart yearned that evening to see some one who cared for him, though it were only a shoeblack. There was still one pair of eyes which would throw a light for one instant into the thick darkness which was gathering fast around him.
His little friend was there. Charles and he talked for a while, and at last he said —
“You will not see me again. I am going to the war. I am going to Windsor to enlist in the Hussars tonight.”
“They will kill you,” said the boy.
“Most likely,” said Charles. “So we must say goodbye. Mind, now, you go to the school at night, and say that prayer I gave you on the paper. We must say goodbye. We had better be quick about it.”
The boy looked at him steadily. Then he began to (iraw his breath in long sighs — longer, longer yet, till his chest seemed bursting. Then out it all came in a furious hurricane of tears, and he leant his head against the wall, and beat the bricks with his clenched hand.
“And I am never to see you no more! no more! no more!”
“No more,” said Charles. But he thought he might soften the poor boy’s grief; and he did think, too, at the moment, that he would go and see the house where his kind old aunt lived, before he went away for ever; so he said —
“I shall be in South Audley Street, 167, tomorrow at noon, Now, you must not cry, my dear. You must say goodbye.”
And so he left him, thinking to see him no more. Once more, Charles, only once more, and then God help you!
He went off that night to Windsor, and enlisted in the 140th Hussars.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:10