In the natural course of events, I ought now to follow Charles in his military career, step by step. But the fact is that I know no more about the details of horse-soldiering than a marine, and, therefore, I cannot. It is within the bounds of possibility that the reader may congratulate himself on my ignorance, and it may also be possible that he has good reason for so doing.
Within a fortnight after Hornby’s introduction to Lord Saltire and Lady Ascot, he was off with the headquarters of his regiment to Varna. The depot was at Windsor, and there, unknown to Hornby, was Charles, drilling and drilling. Two more troops were to follow the headquarters in a short time, and so well had Charles stuck to his duty that he was considered fit to take his place in one of them. Before his moustaches were properly grown, he found himself a soldier in good earnest.
In all his troubles this was the happiest time he had, for he had got rid of the feeling that he was a disgraced man. If he must wear a livery, he would wear the Queen’s; there was no disgrace in that. He was a soldier, and he would be a hero. Sometimes, perhaps, he thought for a moment that he, with his two thousand pounds worth of education, might have been better employed than in littering a horse, and swash-bucklering about among the Windsor taverns; but he did not think long about it. If there were any disgrace in the matter, there was a time coming soon, by all accounts, when the disgrace would be wiped out in fire and blood On Sunday, when he saw the Eton lads streaming up to the terrace, the old Shrewsbury days, and the past generally, used to come back to him rather unpleasantly; but the bugle put it all out of his head again in a moment. Were there not the three most famous armies in the world gathering, gathering, for a feast of ravens? Was not the world looking on in silence and awe, to see England, France, and Russia locked in a death-grip? Was not he to make one at the merry meeting? Who could think at such a time as this?
The time was getting short now. In five days they were to start for Southampton, to follow the headquarters to Constantinople, to Varna, and so into the dark thundercloud beyond. He felt as certain that he would never come back again, as that the sun would rise on the morrow.
He made the last energetic effort that he made at all. It was like the last struggle of a drowning man. He says that the way it happened was this. And I believe him, for it was one of his own mad impulses, and, like all his other impulses, it came too late. They came branking into some pot-house, half a dozen of them, and talked oud about this and that, and one young lad among them said, that “he would give a thousand pounds, if he had it, to see his sister before he went away, for fear she should think that he had gone off without thinking of her.”
Charles left them, and walked up the street. As he walked, his purpose grew. He went straight to the quarters of a certain cornet, son to the major of the regiment, and asked to speak to him.
The cornet, a quiet, smooth-faced boy, listened patiently to what he had to say, but shook his head and told him he feared it was impossible. But, he said, after a pause, he would help him all he could. The next morning he took him to the major while he was alone at breakfast, and Charles laid his case before him so well, that the kind old man gave him leave to go to London at four o’clock, and come back by the last train that same evening.
The Duchess of Cheshire’s ball was the last and greatest which was given that season. It was, they say, in some sort like the Duchess of Eichmond’s ball before Waterloo. The story I have heard is that Lord George Barty persuaded his mother to give it, because he was sure that it would be the last ball he should ever dance at. At all events the ball was given, and he was right; for he sailed in the same ship with Charles four days after, and was killed at Balaclava. However, we have nothing to do with that. All we have to do mth is the fact, that it was a very great ball indeed, and that Lady Hainault was going to it.
Some traditions and customs grow by degrees into laws, ay, and into laws less frequently broken than those made and provided by Parliament. Allow people to walk across the corner of one of your fields for twenty years, and there is a right of way, and they may walk across that field till the crack of doom. Allow a man to build a hut on your property, and live in it for twenty years, and you can’t get rid of him. He gains a right there. (I never was annoyed in either of these ways myself, for reasons which I decline to mention; but it is the law, I believe.) There is no law to make the young men fire off guns at one’s gate on the 5th of November, but they never miss doing it. (I found some of the men using their rifles for this purpose last year, and had to fulminate about it.) To follow out the argument, there was no rule in Lord Hainault’s house that the children should always come in and see their aunt dress for a ball. But they always did; and Lady Hainault herself, though she could be perfectly determined, never dared to question their right.
They behaved very well. Flora brought in a broken picture-broom, which, stuck into an old straw hat of Archy’s, served her for feathers. She also made unto herself a newspaper fan. Gus had an old twelfth-cake ornament on his breast for a star, and a tape round his neck for a garter. In this guise they represented the Duke and Duchess of Cheshire, and received their company in a corner, as good as gold. As for Archy, he nursed his cat, sucked his thumb, and looked at his aunt.
Mary was “by way of ” helping Lady Hainault’s maid, but she was very clumsy about it, and her hands shook a good deal. Lady Hainault, at last looking up, saw that she was deadly pale, and crying. So, instead of taking any notice, she dismissed the children as soon as she could, as a first step towards being left alone with Mary.
Gus and Flora, finding that they must go, changed the game, and made believe that they were at court, and that their aunt was the Queen. So they dexterously backed to the door and bowed themselves out. Archy was lord chamberlain, or gold stick, or what not, and had to follow them in the same way. He was less successful, for he had to walk backwards, sucking his thumb, and nursing his cat upside down (she was a patient cat, and was as much accustomed to be nursed that way as any other). He got on very well till he came to the door, when he fell on the back of his head, crushing his cat and biting his thumb to the bone. Gus and Flora picked him up, saying that lord chamberlains never cried when they fell on the backs of their heads. But Archy, poor dear, was obliged to cry a little, the more so as the dear cat had bolted upstairs, with her tail as big as a fox’s, and Archy was afraid she was angry with him, which seemed quite possible. So Mary had to go out and take him to the nursery. He would stop his crying, he said, if she would tell hun the story of Ivedy Avedy. So she told it him quite to the end, where the baffled old sorcerer, Gongolo, gets into the plate-warmer with his three farthings and the brass soup-ladle, shuts the door after him, and disappears for ever. After which she went down to Lady Hainault’s room again.
Lady Hainault was alone now. She was sitting before her dressing-table, with her hands folded, apparently looking at herself in the glass. She took no notice of what she had seen; though, now they were alone together, she determined that Mary should tell her what was the matter — for, in truth, she was very anxious to know. She never looked at!Mary when she came in; she only said —
“Mary, my love, how do I look?”
“I never saw you look so beautiful before,” said Mary.
“I am glad of that. Hainault is so ridiculously proud of me, that I really delight in looking my best. Now, Mary, let me have the necklace; that is all, I believe, unless you would like me to put on a little rouge.”
Mary tried to laugh, but could not. Her hands were shaking so that the jewels were clicking together as she held them. Lady Hainault saw that she must help her to speak, but she had no occasion; the necklace helped her.
It was a very singular necklace, a Hainault heirloom, which Lady Hainault always wore on grand occasions to please her husband. There was no other necklace like it anywhere, though some folks who did not own it said it was old-fashioned, and should be reset. It was a collar of nine points, the ends of brilliants, running upwards as the points broadened into larger rose diamonds. The eye, catching the end of the points, was dazzled with yellow light, which faded into red as the rays of the larger roses overpowered the brilliants: and at the upper rim the soft crimson haze of light melted, overpowered, into nine blazing great rubies. It seemed, however, a shame to hide such a beautiful neck by such a glorious bauble.
Mary was trying to clasp it on, but her fingers failed, and down went the jewels clashing on the floor. The next moment she was down too, on her knees, clutching Lady Hainault’s hand, and saying, or trying to say, in spite of a passionate burst of sobbing, “Lady Hainault, let me see him; let me see him, or I shall die.”
Lady Hainault turned suddenly upon her, and laid her disengaged hand upon her hair. “My little darling,” she said, “my pretty little bird.”
“You must let me see him. You could not be so cruel. I always loved him, not like a sister, oh! not like a sister, woe to me. As you love Lord Hainault; I know it now.”
“My poor little Mary. I always thought something of this kind.”
“He is coming tonight. He sails tomorrow or next day, and I shall never see him again.”
“Sails! where for?”
“I don’t know; he does not say. But you must let me see him. He don’t dream I care for him, Lady Hainault. But I must see him, or I shall die.”
“You shall see him; but who is it? Any one I know?”
“Who is it? Who could it be but Charles Ravenshoe?”
“Good God! Coming here tonight! Mary, ring the bell for Alwright. Send round to South Audley Street for Lord Saltire, or William Ravenshoe, or some of them. They are dying to catch him. There is something more in their eagerness than you or I know of. Send at once, Mary, or we shall be too late. When does he come? Get up, my dear. My poor little Mary. I am so Sony. Is he coming here? And how soon will he come, dear? Do be calm. Think what we may do for him. He should be here now. Stay, I will write a note — just one line. Where is my blotting-book? Alwright, get my blotting-book. And stay; say that, if any one calls for Miss Corby, he is to be shown into the drawingroom at once. Let us go there, Mary.”
Alwright had meanwhile, not having heard the last sentence, departed to the drawingroom, and possessed herself of Lady Hainault’s portfolio, meaning to carry it. up to the dressing-room; then she had remembered the message about any one calling being shown up to the drawingroom, and had gandered down to the hall to give it to the porter; after which she gandered upstairs to the dressing-room again, thinking that Lady Hainault was there, and missing both her and Mary from having gone downstair’s. So, while she and Mary were looking for the blotting-book impatiently in the rdrawingroom, the door was opened, and the servant announced, “A gentleman to see Miss Corby.”
He had discreetly said a gentleman, for he did not like to say an Hussar. Mary turned round and saw a man all scarlet and gold before her, and was frightened and did not know him. But when he said, “Mary,” in the old, old voice, there came such a rush of bygone times, bygone words, scenes, sounds, meetings and partings, sorrows and joys, into her wild, warm little heart, that, with a low, loving, tender cry, she ran to him and hid her face on his bosom.*
* As a matter of curiosity I tried to write this paragraph from the word “Mary,” to the word “bosom,” without using a single word derived from the Latin. After having taken all possible pains to do so, I found there were eight out of forty-eight. I think it is hardly possible to reduce the proportion lower, and I think it is undesirable to reduce it so low.
And Lady Hainault swept out of the room after that unlucky blotting-book. And I intend to go after her, out of mere politeness, to help her to find it. I will not submit to be lectured for making an aposiopesis. If any think they could do this business better than I, let them communicate with the publishers, and finish the story for themselves. I decline to go into that drawingroom at present. I shall wander upstairs into my lady’s chamber, after that goosey-gander Alwright, and see what she has done with the blotting-book.
Lady Hainault found the idiot of a woman in her dressing-room, looking at herself in the glass, with the blotting-book under her arm. The maid looked as foolish as people generally do who are caught looking at themselves in the glass. (How disconcerting it is to be found standing on a chair before the chimney-glass, just to have a look at your entire figure before going to a party!)* But Lady Hainault said nothing to her; but, taking the book from under her arm, she sat down and fiercely scrawled off a note to Lord Saltire, to be opened by any of them, to say that Charles Ravenshoe was then in her house, and to come in God’s name.
* Which is a crib from Sir E. B. L. B. L.
“I have caged their bird for them,” she said out loud when she had just finished and was folding up the letter; “ they will owe me a good turn for this.”
The maid, who had no notion anything was the matter, had been surreptitiously looking in the glass again, and wondering whether her nose was really so very red after all. When Lady Hainault spoke thus aloud to herself, she gave a guilty start, and said, “Immediately, my lady,” which you will perceive was not exactly appropriate to the occasion.
“Don’t be a goose, my good old Alwright, and dont tread on my necklace, Alwright; it is close at your feet.”
So it was. Lying where Mary had dropped it. Alwright thought she must have knocked it off the dressing-table; but, when Lady Hainault told her that Miss Corby had dropped it there, Alwright began to wonder why her ladyship had not thought it worth while to pick it up again.
“Put it on while I seal this letter, will you? I cannot trust you, Alwright; I must go myself.” She went out of the room and quickly downstairs to the hall. All this had taken but a few minutes; she had hurried as much as was possible, but the time seems longer to us, because, following my usual plan of playing the fool on important occasions, I have been telling you about the lady-maid’s nose. She went down quickly to the hall, and sent off one of the men to South Audley Street with her note, giving him orders to run all the way, and personally to see Lady Ascot, or some one else of those named. After this she came upstairs again.
When she came to the drawingroom door, Charles was standing at it. “Lady Hainault,” he said, “would you come here, please? Poor Mary has fainted.”
“Poor thing,” said Lady Hainault, “I will come to her. One word, Mr. Ravenshoe. Oh, do think one instant of this fatal, miserable resolution of yours. Think how fond we have all been of you. Think of the love that your cousin and Lady Ascot bear for you, and communicate with them. At all events stay ten minutes more, and see one of them. I must go to poor Mary.”
“Dear Lady Hainault, you will not change my resolution to stand alone. There is a source of disgrace you probably know nothing of. Besides, nothing short of an Order in Council could stop me now. We sail for the East in twenty-four hours.”
They had just time for this, very hurriedly spoken, or poor little Mary had done what she never had done before in her life, fainted away. Lady Hainault and Charles went into the drawingroom.
Just before this, Alwright, coming downstairs, had seen her most sacred mistress standing at the drawingroom door, talking familiarly and earnestly to a common soldier. Her ladyship had taken his hand in hers, and was laying her other hand upon his breast. Alwright sat down on the stairs.
She was a poor feeble thing, and it was too much for her. She was Casterton-bred, and had a feeling for the honour of the family. Her first impulse was to run to Lord Hainault’s dressing-room door and lock him in. Her next was to rock herself to and fro and moan. She followed the latter of these two impulses. Meanwhile, Lady Hainault had succeeded in bringing poor Mary to herself Charles had seen her bending over the poor little lifeless body, and blessed her. Presently Lady Hainault said, “She is better now, Mr. Ravenshoe, will you come and speak to her?” There was no answer. Lady Hainault thought Charles was in the little drawingroom, and had not heard her. She went there. It was dimly lighted, but she saw in a moment that it was empty. She grew frightened, and hurriedly went out on to the stairs. There was no one there. She hurried down, and was met by the weeping Alwright.
“He is safe out of the house, my lady,” said that brilliant genius. “I saw him come out of the drawingroom, and I ran down and sent the hall porter on a message, and let hini out myself. Oh! my lady! my lady!”
Lady Hainault was a perfect-tempered woman, but she could not stand this. “Alwright,” she said, “you are a perfect, hopeless, imbecile idiot. Go and tell his lordship to come to me instantly. Instantly! do you hear? I wouldn’t,” she continued to herself when Al Wright was gone, “face Lord Saltire alone after this for a thousand pounds.”
What was the result of Charles’s interview with Mary? Simply this. The poor little thing had innocently shown him, in a way he could not mistake, that she loved him with all her heart and soul. And, when he left that room, he had sworn an oath to himself that he would use all his ingenuity to prevent her ever setting eyes on him again. “I am low and degraded enough now,” he said to himself; “but if I gave that poor innocent child the opportunity of nourishing her love for me, I should be too low to live.”
He did not contemplate the possibility, you see, of raising himself to her level No. He was too much broken down for that. Hope was dead with him. He had always been a man of less than average strength of will; and two or three disasters — terrible disasters they were, remember — had made him such as we see him, a helpless, drifting log upon the sea of chance. What Lord Welter had said was terribly true, “Charles Ravenshoe is broken-hearted.” But to the very last he as a just, honourable, true, kind-hearted man. A man in ten thousand. Call him fool, if you will. I cannot gainsay you there. But when you have said that, you have finished.
Did he love Mary? Yes, from this time forward, he loved her as she loved him; and, the darker the night grew, that star burned steadily and more steadily yet. Never brighter, perhaps, than when it gleamed on the turbid waters, which whelm the bodies of those to whose eyesight all stars have set for, ever.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:10