When the host and his guest had gone out together, to the paved yard, it was already night, and the moon was shining brilliantly.
Tom had saddled the horse, and at the first summons led him out; and Harry, with a nod and a grin, for he was more prodigal of his smiles than of his shillings, took the bridle from his fingers, and with Charlie by his side, walked forth silently from the yard gate, upon that dark and rude track which followed for some distance the precipitous edge of the ravine, which opens upon the deeper glen of Carwell.
Very dark was this narrow road, overhung and crossed by towering trees, through whose boughs only here and there an angular gleam, or minute mottling of moonlight hovered and floated on the white and stony road, with the uneasy motion of the branches, like little flights of quivering wings.
There was a silence corresponding with this darkness. The clank of the horse’s hoof, and their own more muffled tread were the only sounds that mingled with the sigh and rustle of the boughs above them. The one was expecting, the other meditating, no very pleasant topic, and it was not the business of either to begin, for a little.
They were not walking fast. The horse seemed to feel that the human wayfarers were in a sauntering mood, and fell accommodatingly into a lounging gait like theirs.
If there were eyes there constructed to see in the dark, they would have seen two countenances, one sincere, the other adjusted to that sort of sham sympathy and regret, which Hogarth, with all his delicacy and power, portrays in the paternal alderman who figures in the last picture of “Marriage a la Mode.”
There was much anxiety in Charles’ face, and a certain brooding shame and constraint which would have accounted for his silence. In that jolly dog, Harry, was discoverable, as I have said, quite another light and form of countenance. There was a face that seemed to have discharged a smile, that still would not quite go. The eyelids drooped, the eyebrows raised, a simulated condolence, such as we all have seen.
In our moral reviews of ourselves we practise optical delusions even upon our own self-scrutiny, and paint and mask our motives, and fill our ears with excuses and with down-right lies. So inveterate is the habit of deceiving, and even in the dark we form our features by hypocrisy, and scarcely know all this.
“Here’s the turn at last to Cressley Common; there’s no talking comfortably among these trees; it’s so dark, anyone might be at your elbow and you know nothing about it—and so the old man is very angry.”
“Never saw a fellow so riled,” answered Harry; “you know what he is when he is riled, and I never saw him so angry before. If he knew I was here—but you’ll take care of me?”
“It’s very kind of you, old fellow; I won’t forget it, indeed I won’t, but I ought to have thought twice: I ought not to have brought poor Alice into this fix; for damn me, if I know how we are to get on.”
“Well, you know, it’s only just a pinch, an ugly corner, and you are all right—it can’t last.”
“It may last ten years, or twenty for that matter,” said Charlie. “I was a fool to sell out. I don’t know what we are to do; do you?”
“You’re too down in the mouth; can’t ye wait and see? there’s nothing yet, and it won’t cost ye much carrying on down here.”
“Do you think, Harry, it would be well to take up John Wauling’s farm, and try whether I could not make something of it in my own hands?” asked Charles.
Harry shook his head.
“You don’t?” said Charlie.
“Well, no, I don’t; you’d never make the rent of it,” answered Harry; “besides, if you begin upsetting things here, the people will begin to talk, and that would not answer; you’ll need to be damned quiet.”
There was here a pause, and they walked on in silence until the thick shadows of the trees began to break a little before them, and the woods grew more scattered; whole trees were shadowed in distinct outline, and the wide common of Cressley, with its furze and fern, and broad undulations, stretched mistily before them.
“About money—you know, Charlie, there’s money enough at present and no debts to signify; I mean, if you don’t make them you needn’t. You and Alice, with the house and garden, can get along on a trifle. The tenants give you three hundred a year, and you can manage with two.”
“Two hundred a year!” exclaimed Charlie, opening his eyes.
“Ay, two hundred a year!—that girl don’t eat sixpenn’orth in a day” said Harry.
“Alice is the best little thing in the world, and will look after everything, I know; but there are other things beside dinner and breakfast,” said Charles, who did not care to hear his wife called “that girl.”
“Needs must when the Devil drives, my boy! you’ll want a hundred every year for contingencies,” said Harry.
“Well, I suppose so,” Charles winced, “and all the more need for a few more hundreds; for I don’t see how anyone could manage to exist on such a pittance.”
“You’ll have to contrive though, my lad, unless they’ll manage a post obit for you,” said Harry.
“There is some trouble about that, and people are such damned screws,” said Charles, with a darkening face.
“Al’ays was and ever will be,” said Harry, with a laugh.
“And it’s all very fine talking of a hundred a year but you know and know that won’t do, and never did,” exclaimed Charles, breaking forth bitterly, and then looking hurriedly over his shoulder.
“Upon, my soul, Charlie, I don’t know a curse about it,” answered Harry, good-humouredly; “but if it won’t do, it won’t, that’s certain.”
“Quite certain,” said Charles, and sighed very heavily; and again there was a little silence.
“I wish I was as sharp a fellow as you are, Harry,” said Charles, regretfully.
“Do you really think I’m a sharp chap—do you though? I al’ays took myself for a bit of a muff, except about cattle—I did, upon my soul,” said Harry, with an innocent laugh.
“You are a long way a cleverer fellow than I am, and you are not half so lazy; and tell me what you’d do if you were in my situation?”
“What would I do if I was in your place?” said Harry, looking up at the stars, and whistling low for a minute.
“Well, I couldn’t tell you offhand; ’twould puzzle a better man’s head for a bit to answer that question—only I can tell you one thing, I’d never agone into that situation, as ye call it, at no price; ’twouldn’t ’av answered me by no chance. But don’t you be putting your finger in your eye yet a bit; there’s nothing to cry about now that I knows of; time enough to hang your mouth yet, only I thought I might as well come over and tell you.”
“I knew, Harry, there was something to tell,” said Charles.
“Not over much—only a trifle when all’s told,” answered Harry; “but you are right, for it was that brought me over here. I was in Lon’on last week, and I looked in at the place at Hoxton, and found just the usual thing, and came away pretty much as wise as I went in.”
“Not more reasonable?” asked Charles.
“Not a bit,” said Harry.
“Tell me what you said,” asked Charles.
“Just what we agreed,” he answered.
“Well, there was nothing in that that was not kind and conciliatory, and common sense—was there?” pleaded Charles.
“It did not so seem to strike the plenipotentiary,” said Harry.
“You seem to think it very pleasant,” said Charles.
“I wish it was pleasanter,” said Harry; “but pleasant or no, I must tell my story straight. I ran in in a hurry, you know, as if I only wanted to pay over the twenty pounds—you mind.”
“Ay,” said Charles, “I wish to heaven I had it back again.”
“Well, I don’t think it made much difference in the matter of love and liking, I’ll not deny; but I looked round, and I swore I wondered anyone would live in such a place when there were so many nice places where money would go three times as far in foreign countries; and I wondered you did not think of it, and take more interest yourself, and upon that I could see the old soger was thinking of fifty things, suspecting poor me of foul play among the number; and I was afraid for a minute I was going to have half a dozen claws in my smeller; but I turned it off, and I coaxed and wheedled a bit. You’d a laughed yourself black, till I had us both a purring like a pair of old maid’s cats.”
“I tell you what, Harry, there’s madness there—literal madness,” said Charles, grasping his arm as he stopped and turned towards him, so that Harry had to come also to a standstill. “Don’t you know it—as mad as Bedlam? Just think !”
“Mad enough, by jingo,” said he.
“But don’t you think so—actually mad?” repeated Charles.
“Well, it is near the word, maybe, but I would not say quite mad—worse than mad, I dare say, by chalks; but I wouldn’t place the old soger there,” said Harry.
“Where?” said Charles.
“I mean exactly among the mad ’uns. No, I wouldn’t say mad, but as vicious—and worse, mayhap.”
“It does not matter much what we think, either of us; but I know what another fellow would have done long ago, but I could not bring myself to do that. I have thought it over often, but I couldn’t—I couldn’t!”
“Well, then, it ain’t no great consequence,” said Harry, and he tightened his saddle-girth a hole or two—“no great consequence; but I couldn’t a’ put a finger to that—mind; for I think the upperworks is as sound as any, only there’s many a devil beside mad ’uns. I give it in to you there.”
“And what do you advise me to do?—this sort of thing is dreadful,” said Charles.
“I was going to say, I think the best thing to be done is just to leave all that business, d’ye mind, to me.”
Harry mounted, and leaning on his knee, he said,—
“I think I have a knack, if you leave it to me. Old Pipeclay doesn’t think I have any reason to play false.”
“Rather the contrary,” said Charles, who was attentively listening.
“No interest at all,” pursued Harry, turning his eyes towards the distant knoll of Torston, and going on without minding Charles’ suggestion,—
“Look, now, that beast’ll follow my hand as sweet as sugary-candy, when you’d have nothing but bolting and baulking, and rearin’, or worse. There’s plenty o’ them little French towns or German—and don’t you be botherin’ your head about it; only do just as I tell ye, and I’ll take all in hands.”
“You’re an awfully good fellow, Harry; for, upon my soul, I was at my wit’s end almost; having no one to talk to, and not knowing what anyone might be thinking of; and I feel safe in your hands, Harry, for I think you understand that sort of work so much better than I do—you understand people so much better—and I never was good at managing anyone, or anything for that matter; and—and when will business bring you to town again?”
“Three weeks or so, I wouldn’t wonder,” said Harry.
“And I know, Harry, you won’t forget me. I’m afraid to write to you almost; but if you’d think of any place we could meet and have a talk, I’d be ever so glad. You have no idea how fidgety and miserable a fellow grows that doesn’t know what’s going on.”
“Ay, to be sure; well, I’ve no objection. My book’s made for ten days or so—a lot of places to go to—but I’ll be coming round again, and I’ll tip you a stave.”
“That’s a good fellow; I know you won’t forget me,” said Charles, placing his hand on his brother’s arm.
“No—of course. Good-night, and take care of yourself, and give my love to Ally.”
“Well?” answered Harry, backing his restless horse a little bit.
“I believe that’s all.”
“Good-night,” echoed Charles.
Harry touched his hat with a smile, and was away the next moment, flying at a ringing trot over the narrow unfenced road that traverses the common, and dwindling in the distant moonlight.
“There he goes—light of heart; nothing to trouble him—life a holiday—the world a toy.”
He walked a little bit slowly in the direction of the disappearing horseman, and paused again, and watched him moodily till he was fairly out of sight.
“I hope he won’t forget; he’s always so busy about those stupid horses—a lot of money he makes, I dare say. I wish I knew something about them. I must beat about for some way of turning a penny. Poor little Alice! I hope I have not made a mull of it? I’ll save every way I can—of course that’s due to her; but when you come to think of it, and go over it all, there’s very little you can give up. You can lay down your horses, if you have them, except one. You must have one in a place like this—you’d run a risk of starving, or never getting your letters, or dying for want of the doctor. And—I won’t drink wine; brandy, or Old Tom does just as well, and I’ll give up smoking totally. A fellow must make sacrifices. I’ll just work through this one box slowly, and order no more; it’s all a habit, and I’ll give it up.”
So he took a cigar from his case, and lighted it.
“I’ll not spend another pound on them, and the sooner these are out the better.”
He sauntered slowly away with his hands in his pockets to a little eminence about a hundred yards to the right, and mounted it, and looked all around, smoking. I don’t think he saw much of that extensive view; but you would have fancied him an artist in search of the picturesque.
His head was full of ideas of selling Carwell Grange; but he was not quite sure that he had power, and did not half like asking his attorney, to whom he already owed something. He thought how snug and pleasant they might be comparatively in one of those quaint little toy towns in Germany, where dull human nature bursts its cerements, and floats and flutters away into a butterfly life of gold and colour—where the punter and the croupier assist at the worship of the brilliant and fickle goddess, and bands play sweetly, and people ain’t buried alive in deserts and forests among dogs and “chaw-bacons”—where little Alice would be all wonder and delight. Was it quite fair to bring her down here, to immure her in the mouldering cloister of Carwell Grange?
He had begun now to reenter the wooded ascent toward that melancholy mansion; his cigar was burnt out, and he said, looking toward his home through the darkness,—
“Poor little Alice! she does love me, I think—and that’s something.”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:11