The next afternoon Lord Welter and Charles rode up to the door at Ranford. The servants looked surprised; they were not expected. His lordship was out shooting; her ladyship was in the poultry-yard; Mr. Pool was in the billiard-room with Lord Saltire.
“The deuce!” said Lord Welter; “that’s lucky. I’ll get him to break it to the governor.”
The venerable nobleman was very much amused by the misfortunes of these ingenuous youths, and undertook the commission with great good nature. But, when he heard the cause of the mishap, he altered his tone considerably, and took on himself to give the young men what was for him a severe lecture. He was sorry this had come out of a drunken riot; he wished it ——— which, though bad enough, did not carry the disgrace with it that the other did. Let them take the advice of an old fellow who had lived in the world, ay, and moved with the world, for above eighty years, and take care not to be marked, even among their own set, as drinking men. In his day, he allowed, drinking was entirely de rigueur; and indeed nothing could be more proper and correct than the whole tiling they had just described to him, if it had happened fifty years ago. But now a drunken row was an anachronism. Nobody drank now. He had made a point of watching the best young fellows, and none of them drank. He made; a point of taking the time from the rising young fellows, as every one ought to, who wished to go with the world. In his day, for instance, it was the custom to talk with considerable freedom on sacred subjects, and he himself had been somewhat notorious for that sort of thing; but look at him now: he conformed with the times, and went to church. Every one went to church now. Let him call their attention to the fact that a great improvement had taken place in public morals of late years.
So the good-natured old heathen gave them what, I daresay, he thought was the best of advice. He is gone now to see what his system of morality is worth. I am very shy of judging him, or the men of his time. It gives me great pain to hear the men of the revolutionary era spoken of flippantly. The time was so exceptional. The men of that time were a race of giants. One wonders how the world got through that time at all. Six hundred millions of treasure spent by Britain alone! How mam millions of lives lost none may guess. What wonder if there were hellfire clubs and all kinds of monstrosities. Would any of the present generation have attended the fete of the goddess of reason, if they had lived at that time, I wonder? Of course they wouldn’t.
Charles went alone to the poultry-yard; but no one was there except the head keeper, who was administering medicine to a cock, whose appearance was indictable — that is to say, if the laws against cock-fighting were enforced. Lady Ascot had gone in; so Charles went in too, and went upstairs to his aunt’s room.
One of the old lady’s last fancies was sitting in the dark, or in a gloom so profound as to approach to darkness. So Charles, passing out of a light corridor, and shutting the door behind him, found himself unable to see his hand before him. Confident, however, of his knowledge of localities, he advanced with such success that he immediately fell crashing headlong over an ottoman; and in his descent, imagining that he was falling into a pit or gulf of unknown depth, uttered a wild cry of alarm. Whereupon the voice of Lady Ascot from close by answered, “Come in,” as if she thought she’d heard somebody knock.
“Come up, would be more appropriate, aunt,” said Charles. “Why do you sit in the dark? I’ve killed myself, I believe.”
“Is that you, Charles?” said she. “What brings you over? My dear, I am delighted. Open a bit of the window, Charles, and let me see you.”
Charles did as he was desired; and, as the strong light from without fell upon him, the old lady gave a deep sigh.
“Ah, dear, so like poor dear Petre about the eyes. There never was a handsome Ravenshoe since him, and here never will be another. You were quite tolerable as a boy, my dear; but you’ve got very coarse, very coarse and plain indeed. Poor Petre!”
“You’re more unlucky in the light than you were in the darkness, Charles,” said a brisk, clear, well-modulated voice from behind the old lady. “Grandma seems in one of her knock-me-down moods today. She had just told me that I was an insignificant chit, when you made your graceful and noiseless entrance, and saved me anything further.”
If Adelaide had been looking at Charles when she spoke, instead of at her work, she would have seen the start which he gave when he heard her voice. As it was, she saw nothing of it; and Charles, instantly recovering himself, said in the most nonchalant voice possible:
“Hallo, are you here? How do you contrive to work in the dark?”
“It is not dark to any one with eyes,” was the curt reply. “I can see to read.”
Here Lady Ascot said that, if she had called Adelaide a chit, it was because she had set up her opinion against that of such a man as Dr. Going; that Adelaide was a good and dutiful girl to her; that she was a very old woman, and perhaps shouldn’t live to see the finish of next year; and that her opinion still was that Charles was very plain and coarse, and she was sorry she couldn’t alter it.
Adelaide came rapidly up and kissed her, and then went and stood in the light beside Charles.
She had grown into a superb blonde beauty. From her rich brown crepe hair to her exquisite little foot, she was a model of grace. The nose was delicately aquiline, and the mouth receded slightly, while the chin was as slightly prominent; the eyes were brilliant, and were concentrated on their object in a moment; and the eyebrows surmounted them in a delicately but distinctly marked curve. A beauty she was, such as one seldom sees; and Charles, looking on her, felt that he loved her more madly than ever, and that he would die sooner than let her know it.
“Well, Charles,” she said, “you don’t seem overjoyed to see me.”
“A man can’t look joyous with broken shins, my dear Adelaide. Aunt, I’ve got some bad news for you. I am in trouble.”
“Oh dear,” said the old lady, “and what is the matter now? Something about a woman, I suppose. You Ravenshoes are always — ”
“No, no, aunt, Nothing of the kind. Adelaide, don’t go, pray; you will lose such a capital laugh. I’ve got rusticated, aunt.”
“That is very comical, I dare say,” said Adelaide, in a low voice; “but I don’t see the joke.”
“I thought you would have had a laugh at me, perhaps,” said Charles; “it is rather a favourite amusement of yours.”
“What, in the name of goodness, makes you so disagreeable and cross, today. Charles? You were never so before, when anything happened. I am sure I am very sorry for your misfortune, though I really don’t know its extent. Is it a very serious thing?”
“Serious, very. I don’t much like going home. Welter is in the same scrape; who is to tell her?”
“This is the way,” said Adelaide, “I’ll show you how to manage her.”
All this was carried on in a low tone, and very rapidly. The old lady had just begun in a loud, querulous, scolding voice to Charles, when Adelaide interrupted her with —
“I say, grandma, Welter is rusticated too.”
Adelaide good-naturedly said this to lead the old lady’s wrath from Charles, and throw it partly on to her grandson; but, however good her intentions, the execution of them was unsuccessful. The old lady fell to scolding Charles; accusing him of being the cause of the whole mishap, of leading Welter into every mischief, and stating her opinion that he was an innocent and exemplary youth, with the fault only of being too easily led away. Charles escaped as soon as he could, and was followed by Adelaide.
“This is not true, is it?” she said. “It is not your fault?”
“My fault, partly, of course. But Welter would have been sent down before, if it hadn’t been for me. He got me into the scrape this time. He mustn’t go back there. You must’n’t let him go back.”
“I let him go back, forsooth! What on earth can I ave to do with his lordship’s movements?” she said bitterly. “Do you know who you are talking to? — a beggarly orphan.”
“Hush: don’t talk like that, Adelaide. Your power in this house is very great. The power of the only sound head in the house. You could stop anything you liked from happening.”
They had come together at a conservatory door; and she put her back against it, and held up her hand to bespeak his attention more particularly.
“I wish it was true, Charles; but it isn’t. No one has any power over Lord Ascot. Is Welter much in debt?”
“I should say, a great deal,” was Charles’s reply. “I think I ought to tell you. You may help him to break it to them.”
“Ay, he always comes to me for that sort of thing. Always did from a child. I’ll tell you what, Charles, there’s trouble coming or come on this house. Lord Ascot came home from Chester looking like death; they say he lost fearfully both there and at Newmarket. He came home quite late, and went up to grandma; and there was a dreadful scene. She hasn’t been herself since. Another blow like it will kill her. I suspect my lord’s bare existence depends on this colt winning the Derby. Come and see it gallop,” she added, suddenly throwing her flashing eyes upon his, and speaking with an animation and rapidity very different from the cold stern voice in which she had been telling the amily troubles. u Come, and let us have some oxygen-I have not spoken to a man for a month. I have been leading a life like a nun’s; no, worse than any nun’s; for I have been bothered and humiliated by — ah! such wretched trivialities, Go and order horses. I will join you directly.”
So she dashed away and left him, and he hurried to the yard. Scarcely were the horses ready when she was back again, with the same stern, cold expression on her face, now more marked, perhaps, from the effect of the masculine habit she wore. She was a consummate horsewoman, and rode the furious black Irish mare, which was brought out for her, with ease and self-possession, seeming to enjoy the rearing and plunging of the sour-tempered brute far more than Charles, her companion, did, who would rather have seen her on a quieter horse.
A sweeping gallop under the noble old trees, through a deep valley, and past a herd of deer, which scudded away through the thick-strewn leaves, brought them to the great stables, a large building at the edge of the park, close to the downs. Twenty or thirty long-legged elegant, nonchalant-looking animals, covered to the tips of their ears with cloths, and ridden each by a queer-looking brown-faced lad, were in the act of returning from their afternoon exercise. These Adelaide’s mare, “Molly Asthore,” charged and dispersed like a flock of sheep; and then, Adelaide pointing with her whip to the downs, hurried past the stables towards a group they saw a little distance off.
There were only four people — Lord Ascot, the stud groom, and two lads. Adelaide was correctly informed; they were going to gallop the Voltigeur colt (since called Haphazard), and the cloths were now coming off him. Lord Ascot and the stud groom mounted their horses, and joined our pair, who were riding slowly along the measured mile the way the horse was to come.
Lord Ascot looked very pale and worn; he gave Charles a kindly greeting, and made a joke with Adelaide; but his hands fidgeted with his reins, and he kept turning back towards the horse they had left, wondering impatiently what was keeping the boy. At last-they saw the beautiful beast shake his ‘head, give two or three playful plunges, and then come striding rapidly towards them, over the short, springy turf.
Then they turned, and rode full speed: soon they heard the mighty hollow-sounding hoofs behind, that came rapidly towards them, devouring space. Then the colt rushed by them in his pride, with his chin on his chest, hard held, and his hind feet coming forward under his girth every stride, and casting the turf behind him in showers. Then Adelaide’s horse, after a few mad plunges, bolted, overtook the colt, and actually raced him for a few hundred yards; then the colt was pulled up on a breezy hill, and they all stood a little together talking and congratulating one another on the beauty of the horse.
Charles and Adelaide rode away together over the downs, intending to make a little detour, and so lengthen heir ride. They had had no chance of conversation since they parted at the conservatory door, and they took it np nearly where they had left it. Adelaide began, and, I may say. vent on, too, as she had most of the talking.
“I should like to be a duchess; then I should be mistress of the only thing I am afraid of.”
“What is that?”
“Poverty,” said she; “that is my only terror, and that is my inevitable fate.”
“I should have thought, Adelaide, that you were too high-spirited to care for that, or anything.”
“Ah, you don’t know; all my relations are poor. I know what it is; I know what it would be for a beauty like me.”
“You will never be poor or friendless while Lady Ascot lives.”
“How long will that be? My home now depends very much on that horse,; oh, if I were only a man, I would welcome poverty; it would force me to action.”
Charles blushed. Not many days before, Marston and he had had a battle royal, in which the former had said, that the only hope for Charles was that he should go two or three times without his dinner, and be made to earn it, and that as long as he had a “mag ” to bless himself with, he would always be a lazy, useless humbug; and now here was a young lady uttering the same atrocious sentiments. He called attention to the prospect.
Three hundred feet below them, Father Thames was inding along under the downs and yellow woodlands, past chalk quarry and grey farmhouse, blood-red beneath the setting sun; a soft, rich, autumnal haze was over everything; the smoke from the distant village hung like a curtain of pearl across the valley; and the long, straight, dark wood that crowned the high grey wold, was bathed in a dim purple mist, on its darkest side; and to perfect the air of dreamy stillness, some distant bells sent their golden sound floating on the peaceful air. It was a quiet day in the old age of the year; and its peace seemed to make itself felt on these two wild young birds; for they were silent more than half the way home; and then Charles said, in a low voice —
“Dear Adelaide, I hope you have chosen aright. The time will come when you will have to make a more important decision than any you have made yet. At one time in a man’s or woman’s life, they say, there is a choice between good and evil. In God’s name, think before you make it.”
“Charles,” she said, in a low and disturbed voice, “if a conjuror were to offer to show you your face in a glass, as it would be ten years hence, should you have courage to look?”
“1 suppose so; would not you?”
“Oh, no, no, no! How do you know what horrid thing would look at you, and scare you to death? Ten years hence; where shall we be then?”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:10