The carriage which Charles Fairfield had seen rounding the picturesque ruin of Gryce’s Mill, was that of Lady Wyndale. Mrs. Tarnley opened the door to her summons, and acting on her general instructions said “not at home.”
But good Lady Wyndale was not so to be put off. She had old Mildred to the side of the carriage.
“I know my niece will be glad to see me,” she said. “I’m Lady Wyndale, and you are to take this card in, and tell my niece, Mrs. Fairfield, I have come to see her.”
Mrs. Tarnley looked with a dubious scrutiny at Lady Wyndale, for she had no idea that Alice could have an aunt with a title and a carriage. On the whole, however, she thought it best to take the card in, and almost immediately it was answered by Alice, who ran out to meet her aunt and throw her arms about her neck, and led her into Carwell Grange.
“Oh! darling, darling! I’m so delighted to see you! It was so good of you to come. But how did you find me out?” said Alice, kissing her again and again.
“There’s no use, you see, in being secret with me. I made out where” you were, though you meant to keep me quite in the dark, and I really don’t think I ought to have come near you, and I am very much affronted,” said kind old Lady Wyndale, a little high.
“But auntie, darling, didn’t you get my letter, telling you that we were married?” pleaded Alice.
“Yes, and that you had left Wyvern; but you took good care not to tell me where you were going, and in fact if it had not been for the good housekeeper at Wyvern, to whom I wrote, I suppose I should have lived and died within fifteen miles of you, thinking all the time that you had gone to France.”
“We were thinking of that, I told you,” pleaded Alice, eagerly.
“Well, here you have been for three months, and I’ve been living within a two hours’ drive of you, and dreading all the time that you were four hundred miles away. I have never once seen your face. I don’t think that was good-natured.”
“Oh, dear aunt, forgive me,” entreated Alice. “You will when you know all. If you knew how miserable I have often been, thinking how ungrateful and odious I must have appeared, how meanly reserved and basely suspicious, all the time longing for nothing on earth so much as a sight of your beloved face, and a good talk over everything with you, my best and truest friend.”
“There, kiss me, child; I’m not angry, only sorry, darling, that I should have lost so much of your society, which I might have enjoyed often very much,” said the placable old lady.
“But, darling aunt, I must tell you how it was—you must hear me. You know how I idolize you, and you can’t know, but you may imagine, what, in this solitary place, and with cares and fears so often troubling me, your kind and delightful society would have been to me; but my husband made it a point, that just for the present I should divulge our retreat to no one on earth. I pleaded for you, and in fact there is not another person living to whom I should have dreamed of disclosing it; but the idea made him so miserable and he urged it with so much entreaty and earnestness that I could not without a quarrel have told you, and he promised that my silence should be enforced only for a very short time.”
“Dear me! I’m so sorry,” said Lady Wyndale, very much concerned. “It must be that the poor man is very much dipped and is literally hiding himself here. You poor little thing! Is he in debt?”
“I am afraid he is. I can’t tell you how miserable it sometimes makes me; not that he allows me ever to feel it, except in these precautions, for we are, though in a very homely way, perfectly comfortable—you would not believe how comfortable—but we really are,” said poor, loyal little Alice, making the best of their frugal and self-denying life.
“Your room is very snug. I like an old-fashioned room,” said the good-natured old lady, looking round; “and you make it so pretty with your flowers. Is there any ornament like them? And you have such an exquisite way of arranging them. It is an art; no one can do it like you. You know I always got you to undertake ours at Oulton, and you remember Tremaine standing beside you, trying, as he said, to learn the art, though I fancy he was studying something prettier.”
Alice laughed; Lord Tremaine was a distant figure now, and this little triumph a dream of the past. But is not the spirit of woman conquest? Is not homage the air in which she lives and blooms? So Alice’s dark, soft eyes dropped for a moment side-long with something like the faintest blush, and a little dimpling smile.
“But all that’s over, you know,” said Lady Wyndale; “you would insist on putting a very effectual extinguisher upon it, so there’s an end of my match-making, and I hope you may be very happy your own way, and I’m sure you will, and you know any little money trouble can’t last long; for old Mr. Fairfield you know can’t possibly live very long, and then I’m told Wyvern must be his; and the Fairfields were always thought to have some four or five thousand a year, and although the estate, they say, owes something, yet a prudent little woman like you, will get all that to rights in time.”
“You are always so kind and cheery, you darling,” said Alice, looking fondly and smiling in her face, as she placed a hand on each shoulder. “It is delightful seeing you at last. But you are tired, ain’t you? You must take something.”
“Thanks, dear. I’ll have a little tea—nothing else. I lunched before we set out.”
So Alice touched the bell, and the order was taken by Mildred Tarnley.
“And how is that nice, good-natured old creature, Dulcibella Crane? I like her so much. She seems so attached. I hope you have her still with you?”
“Oh, yes. I could not exist without her—dear old Dulcibella, of course.”
There was here a short silence.
“I was thinking of asking you if you could all come over to Oulton for a month or so. I’m told your husband is such an agreeable man, and very unlike Mr. Harry Fairfield, his brother—a mere bear, they tell me; and do you think your husband would venture? We should be quite to ourselves if you preferred it, and we could make it almost as quiet as here.”
“It is so like you, you darling, and to me would be so delightful; but no, no, it is quite out of the question; he is really—this is a great secret, and you won’t say a word to anyone—I am afraid very much harassed. He is very miserable about his affairs. There has been a quarrel with old Mr. Fairfield which makes the matter worse. His brother Harry has been trying to arrange with his creditors, but I don’t know how that will be; and Charlie has told me that we must be ready on very short notice to go to France or somewhere else abroad; and I’m afraid he owes a great deal—he’s so reserved and nervous about it; and you may suppose how I must feel, how miserable sometimes, knowing that I am, in great measure, the cause of his being so miserably harassed. Poor Charlie! I often think how much happier it would have been for him never to have seen me.”
“Did I ever hear such stuff! But I won’t say half what I was going to say, for I can’t think you such a fool, and I must only suppose you want me to say ever so many pretty things of you, which, in this case, I am bound to say would be, unlike common flatteries, quite true. But if there really is any trouble of that kind—of the least consequence I mean—I think it quite a scandal, not only shabby but wicked, that old Mr. Fairfield, with one foot in the grave, should do nothing. I always knew he was a mere bruin; but people said he was generous in the matter of money, and he ought to think that, in the course of nature, Wyvern should have been his son’s years ago, and it is really quite abominable his not coming forward.”
“There’s no chance of that; there has been a quarrel,” said Alice, looking down on the threadbare carpet.
“Well, darling, remember, if it should come to that—I mean if he should be advised to go away for a little, remember that your home is at Oulton. He’ll not stay away very long, but if you accept my offer, the longer the happier for me. You are to come over to Oulton, you understand, and to bring old Dulcibella; and I only wish that you had been a few years married that we might set up a little nursery in that dull house. I think I should live ten years longer if I had the prattle and laughing, and pleasant noise of children in the old nursery, the same nursery where my poor dear George ran about, sixty years ago nearly, when he was a child. We should have delightful times, you and I, and I’d be your head nurse.”
“My darling, I think you are an angel,” said Alice, with a little laugh, and throwing her arms about her she wept on her thin old neck, and the old lady, weeping also happy and tender tears, patted her shoulder gently in that little silence.
“Well, Alice, you’ll remember, and I’ll write to your husband as well as to you, for this kind of invitation is never attended to, and you would think nothing of going away and leaving your old auntie to shift for herself; and if you will come it will be the kindest thing you ever did, for I’m growing old and strangers don’t amuse me quite as much as they did, and I really want a little home society to exercise my affections and prevent my turning into a selfish old cat.”
So the tea came in and they sipped it to the accompaniment of their little dialogue, and time glided away unperceived, and the door opened and Charles Fairfield, in his careless fishing costume, entered the room.
He glanced at Alice a look which she understood; her visitor also perceived it; but Charles had not become a mere Orson in this wilderness, so he assumed an air of welcome.
“We are so glad to see you here. Lady Wyndale, though, indeed, it ain’t easy to see anyone, the room is so dark. It was so very good of you to come this long drive to see Alice.”
“I hardly hoped to have seen you,” replied the old lady, “for I must go in a minute or two more, and—I’m very frank, and you won’t think me rude, but I have learned everything, and I know that I ought not to have come without a little more circumspection.”
He laughed a little, and Alice thought, as well as the failing light enabled her to see, that he looked very pale, as, laughing, he fixed for a moment a hard look on her.
“All is not a great deal,” he said, not knowing very well what to say.
“No, no,” said the old lady, “there’s no one on earth, almost, who has not suffered at one time or other that kind of passing annoyance. You know that Alice and I are such friends, so very intimate that I feel as if I knew her husband almost as intimately, although you were little more than a boy when I last saw you, and I’m afraid it most seem very impertinent my mentioning Alice’s little anxieties, but I could not well avoid doing so without omitting an explanation which I ought to make, because this secret little creature your wife, with whom I was very near being offended, was perfectly guiltless of my visit, and I learned where she was from your old housekeeper at Wyvern, and from no one else on earth did I receive the slightest hint, and I thought it very ill-natured, being so near a relation and friend, and when you know me a little better, Mr. Fairfield, you’ll not teach Alice to distrust me.
Then the kind old lady diverged into her plans about Alice and Oulton, and promised a diplomatic correspondence, and at length she took her leave for the last time, and Charles saw her into her carriage, and bid her a polite farewell.
Away drove the carriage, and Charles stood listlessly at the summit of the embowered gloomy road that descends in one direction into the Vale of Carwell, and passes in the other, with some windings, to the wide heath of Cressley Common.
This visit, untoward as it was, was, nevertheless, a little stimulus. He felt his spirits brightening, his pulse less sluggish, and something more of confidence in his future.
“There’s time enough in which to tell her my trouble,” thought he, as he turned toward the house; “and by Jove! we haven’t had our dinner. I must choose the time. Tonight it shall be. We will both be, I think, less miserable when it is told,” and he sighed heavily.
He entered the house through the back gate, and as he passed the kitchen door, called to Mildred Tarnley the emphatic word “dinner!”
Last updated Monday, March 30, 2015 at 21:19