Thus was old Squire Fairfield unexpectedly transformed, and much to the horror of pretty Alice Maybell, appeared in the character of a lover, grim, ungainly, and without the least chance of that brighter transformation which ultimately more than reconciles “beauty “to her conjugal relations with the “beast.”
Grotesque and even ghastly it would have seemed at any time. But now it was positively dismaying, and poor troubled little Alice Maybell, on reaching her room, sat down on the side of her bed, and to the horror and bewilderment of old Dulcibella, wept bitterly and long.
The harmless gabble of the old nurse, who placed herself by her side, patting her all the time upon the shoulder, was as the sound of a humming in the woods in summer time, or the crooning of a brook. Though her ear was hardly conscious of it, perhaps it soothed her.
Next day there was a little stir at Wyvern, for Charles—or as he was oftener called. Captain Fairfield—arrived. This “elderly young gentleman,” as Lady Wyndale called him, led a listless life there. He did not much affect rustic amusements; he fished now and then, but cared little for shooting, and less for hunting. His time hung heavy on his hands, and he did not well know what to do with himself. He smoked and strolled about a good deal, and rode into Wyvern and talked with the townspeople. But the country plainly bored him, and not the less that his sojourn had been in London, and the contrast made matters worse. Alice Maybell had a headache that morning, and not caring to meet the Squire earlier than was inevitable, chose to say so.
The Captain, who, travelling by the mail, had arrived at eight o’clock, took his place at the breakfast-table at nine, and received for welcome a gruff nod from the Squire, and the tacit permission to grasp the knuckles which he grudgingly extended to him to shake.
In that little drama in which the old Squire chose now to figure, his son Charles was confoundedly in the way.
“Well, and what were you doin’ in Lunnon all this time?” grumbled Squire Harry when he had finished his rasher and his cup of coffee, after a long, hard look at Charles, who, in happy unconsciousness, crunched his toast, and read the county paper.
“I beg your pardon, sir, I didn’t hear—you were saying?” said Charles, looking up and lowering the paper.
“Hoo—yes—I was saying, I don’t think you went all the way to Lunnon to say your prayers in St. Paul’s; you’ve bin losing money in those hells and places; when your pocket’s full away you go and leave it wi’ them town blackguards, and back you come as empty as a broken sack to live on me, and SO on. Come, now, how much rent do you take by the year from that place your fool of a mother left ye—the tartar!—hey?”
“I think, sir, about three hundred a year,” answered Charles.
“Three hundred and eighty !” said the old man, with a grin and a wag of his head. “I’m not so old that I can’t remember that—three hundred and eighty; and ye flung that away in Lunnon taverns and operas, on dancers and dicers, and ye come back here without a shillin’ left to bless yourself, to ride my horses and drink my wine; and ye call that fair play. Come along, here.”
And, followed by his mastiff, he marched stiffly out of the room.
Charles was surprised at this explosion, and sat looking after the grim old man, not knowing well what to make of it, for Squire Harry was openhearted enough, and never counted the cost of his hospitalities, and had never grudged him his home at Wyvern before.
“Much he knows about it,” thought Charles; “time enough, though. If I’m de trop here I can take my portmanteau and umbrella, and make my bow and go cheerfully.”
The tall Captain, however, did not look cheerful, but pale and angry, as he stood up and kicked the newspaper, which fell across his foot, fiercely. He looked out of the window, with one hand in his pocket, in sour Rumination. Then he took his rod and flies and cigar-case, and strolled down to the river, where, in that engrossing and monotonous delight, celebrated of old by Venables and Walton, he dreamed away the dull hours.
Blessed resource for those mysterious mortals to whom nature accords it—stealing away, as they wander solitary along the devious riverbank, the memory, the remorse, and the miseries of life, like the flow and music of the shadowy Lethe.
This Captain did not look like the man his father had described him—an anxious man, rather than a man of pleasure—a, man who was no sooner alone than he seemed to brood over some intolerable care, and, except during the exercise of his “gentle craft,” his looks were seldom happy or serene.
The hour of dinner came. A party of three, by no means well assorted. The old Squire in no genial mood and awfully silent. Charles silent and abstracted too; his body sitting there eating its dinner, and his soul wandering with black care and other phantoms by far-off Styx. The young lady had her own thoughts to herself, uncomfortable thoughts.
At last the Squire spoke to the intruder, with a look that might have laid him in the Red Sea.
“In my time young fellows were more alive, and had something to say for themselves. I don’t want your talk myself over my victuals, but you should ’a spoke to her—’tisn’t civil—’tweren’t the way in my day. I don’t think ye asked her ‘ How are ye? ’ since ye came back. Lunnon manners may be.”
“Oh, but I assure you I did. I could not have made such an omission. Alice will tell you I was not quite so stupid,” said Charles, raising his eyes, and looking at her.
“Not that it signifies, mind ye, the crack of a whip, whether ye did or no,” continued the Squire; “but ye may as well remember that ye’re not brother and sister exactly, and yell call her Miss Maybell, and not Alice no longer.”
The Captain stared. The old Squire looked resolutely at the brandy-flask from which he was pouring into his tumbler. Alice Maybell’s eyes were lowered to the edge of her plate, and with the tip of her finger she fiddled with the crumbs on the table-cloth. She did not know what to say, or what might be coming.
So soon as the Squire had quite compounded his brandy-and-water he lifted his surly eyes to his son with a flush on his aged cheek, and wagged his head with oracular grimness, and silence descended again for a time upon the three kinsfolk.
This uncomfortable party, I suppose, were off again, each on their own thoughts, in another minute. But no one said a word for some time.
“By-the-bye, Alice—Miss Maybell, I mean—I saw in London a little picture that would have interested you,” said the Captain, “an enamelled miniature of Marie Antoinette, a pretty little thing, only the size of your watch; you can’t think how spirited and beautiful it was.”
“And why the dickens didn’t ye buy it, and make her a compliment of it? Much good tellin’ her how pretty it was,” said the Squire, sulkily; “’twasn’t for want o’ money. Damn it, in my day a young fellow ’d be ashamed to talk o’ such a thing without he had it in his pocket to make an offer of;” and the old Squire muttered sardonically to his brandy-and-water, and neither Miss Alice nor Captain Fairfield knew well what to say. The old man seemed bent on extinguishing every little symptom of a lighting up of the gloom which his presence induced.
They came at last into the drawing-room. The Squire took his accustomed place by the fire. In due time came his “night-cap.” Miss Alice played his airs over and over on the “piano. The Captain yawned stealthily into his hand at intervals, and at last stole away.
“Well, Ally, here we are at last, girl. That moping rascal’s gone to his bed; I thought he’d never ’a gone. And now come here, ye little fool, I want to talk to ye. Come, I say, what the devil be ye afeared on? I’d like to see the fellow ’d be uncivil to you. My wife, as soon as the lawyers can write out the parchments, the best settlements has ever bin made on a Fairfield’s wife since my great uncle’s time. Why, ye look as frightened, ye pretty little fool, as if I was a-going to rob ye, instead of making ye lady o’ Wyvern, and giving ye every blessed thing I have on earth. That’s right!”
He had taken her timid little hand in his bony and tremulous grasp.
“I’ll have ye grander than any that ever has been “— he was looking in her face with an exulting glare of admiration—“and I’ll give ye the diamonds for your own, mind, and I’ll have your picture took by a painter. There was never a lady o’ Wyvern fit to hold a candle to ye, and I’m a better man than half the young fellows that’s going; and ye’ll do as ye like—wi’ servants, and house, and horses and all—I’ll deny ye in nothing. And why, sweetheart, didn’t you come down this morning? Was you ailing, child—was pretty Ally sick in earnest?”
“A headache, sir. I— I have it still—if—if you would not mind, I’ll be better, sir, in my room. I’ve had a very bad headache. It will be quite well, I dare say, by tomorrow. You are very kind, sir; you have always been very kind, sir; I never can thank you—never, never, sir, as I feel.”
“Tut, folly, nonsense, child; wait till all’s done, and thank me then, if ye will. I’ll make ye as fine as the queen, and finer.” Every now and then he emphasized his harangue by kissing her cheeks and lips, which added to her perplexity and terror, and made her skin flame with the boisterous rasp of his stubbled chin. “And ye’ll be my little duchess, my beauty; ye will, my queen o’ diamonds, you roguey-poguey-woguey, as cunning as a dog-fox; “and in the midst of these tumultuous endearments she managed to break away from the amorous ogre, and was out of the door, and up the stairs to her room, and old Dulcibella, before his tardy pursuit had reached the cross-door.
An hour has passed, and the young lady stood up, and placing her arms about her neck, kissed old Dulcibella.
“Will you take a candle, darling,” she said, “and go down and see whether the cross-door is shut?”
Down went Dulcibella, the stairs creaking under her, and the young lady, drying her eyes, looked at her watch, drew the curtain at the window, placed the candle on the table near it, and then, shading her eyes with her hand, looked out earnestly.
The window did not command the avenue, it was placed in the side of the house. A moonlighted view she looked out upon; a soft declivity, from whose grassy slopes rose grand old trees, some in isolation, some in groups of twos and threes, all slumbering in the hazy light and still air, and beyond rose, softer in the distance, gentle undulating uplands, studded with trees, and near their summits, more thickly clothed in forest.
She opened the window softly, and looking out, sighed in the fresh air of night, and heard from the hollow the distant rush and moan of running waters, and her eye searched the foreground of this landscape. The trunk of one of the great trees near the house seemed to become animated, and projected a human figure, nothing awful or ghastly—a man in a short cloak, with a wide-awake hat on. Seeing the figure in the window, he lifted his hand, looking towards her, and approaching the side of the house with caution, glanced this way and that till he reached the house.
The old servant at the same time returned and told her that the door was locked as usual.
“You remain here, Dulcibella—no—I shan’t take a candle,” and with a heavy sigh she left the room, and treading lightly descended the stairs, and entered a wainscoted room, on the ground floor—with two windows, through which came a faint reflected light. Standing close to the nearer of these was the man with whom she had exchanged from the upper room the signals I have mentioned.
Last updated Monday, March 30, 2015 at 21:19