The Brake hounds went out four days a week, Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday; but the hunting party on this Saturday was very small. None of the ladies joined in it, and when Lord Chiltern came down to breakfast at half-past eight he met no one but Gerard Maule. “Where’s Spooner?” he asked. But neither Maule nor the servant could answer the question. Mr Spooner was a man who never missed a day from the beginning of cubbing to the end of the season, and who, when April came, could give you an account of the death of every fox killed. Chiltern cracked his eggs, and said nothing more for the moment, but Gerard Maule had his suspicions. “He must be coming,” said Maule; “suppose you send up to him.” The servant was sent, and came down with Mr Spooner’s compliments. Mr Spooner didn’t mean to hunt today. He had something of a headache. He would see Lord Chiltern at the meet on Monday.
Maule immediately declared that neither would he hunt; but Lord Chiltern looked at him, and he hesitated. “I don’t care about your knowing,” said Gerard.
“Oh — I know. Don’t you be an ass.”
“I don’t see why I should give him an opportunity.”
“You’re to go and pull your boots and breeches off because he has not put his on, and everybody is to be told of it! Why, shouldn’t he have an opportunity, as you call it? If the opportunity can do him any good, you may afford to be very indifferent.”
“It’s a piece of d — impertinence,” said Maule, with most unusual energy.
“Do you finish your breakfast, and come and get into the trap. We’ve twenty miles to go. You can ask Spooner on Monday how he spent his morning.”
At ten o’clock the ladies came down to breakfast, and the whole party were assembled. “Mr Spooner!” said Lady Chiltern to that gentleman, who was the last to enter the room, “This is a marvel!” He was dressed in a dark-blue frock-coat, with a coloured silk handkerchief round his neck, and had brushed his hair down close to his head. He looked quite unlike himself, and would hardly have been known by those who had never seen him out of the hunting field. In his dress clothes of an evening, or in his shooting coat, he was still himself. But in the garb he wore on the present occasion he was quite unlike Spooner of Spoon Hall, whose only pride in regard to clothes had hitherto been that he possessed more pairs of breeches than any other man in the county. It was ascertained afterwards, when the circumstances came to be investigated, that he had sent a man all the way across to Spoon Hall for that coat and the coloured neck-handkerchief on the previous day; and someone, most maliciously, told the story abroad. Lady Chiltern, however, always declared that her secrecy on the matter had always been inviolable.
“Yes, Lady Chiltern; yes,” said Mr Spooner, as he took a seat at the table; “wonders never cease, do they?” He had prepared himself even for this moment, and had determined to show Miss Palliser that he could be sprightly and engaging even without his hunting habiliments.
“What will Lord Chiltern do without you?” one of the ladies asked.
“He’ll have to do his best.”
“He’ll never kill a fox,” said Miss Palliser.
“Oh, yes; he knows what he’s about. I was so fond of my pillow this morning that I thought I’d let the hunting slide for once. A man should not make a toil of his pleasure.”
Lady Chiltern knew all about it, but Adelaide Palliser knew nothing. Madame Goesler, when she observed the light-blue necktie, at once suspected the execution of some great intention. Phineas was absorbed in his observation of the difference in the man. In his pink coat he always looked as though he had been born to wear it, but his appearance was now that of all amateur actor got up in a miscellaneous middle-age costume. He was sprightly, but the effort was painfully visible. Lady Baldock said something afterwards, very ill-natured, about a hog in armour, and old Mrs Burnaby spoke the truth when she declared that all the comfort of her tea and toast was sacrificed to Mr Spooner’s frock coat. But what was to be done with him when breakfast was over? For a while he was fixed upon poor Phineas, with whom he walked across to the stables. He seemed to feel that he could hardly hope to pounce upon his prey at once, and that he must bide his time.
Out of the full heart the mouth speaks. “Nice girl, Miss Palliser,” he said to Phineas, forgetting that he had expressed himself nearly in the same way to the same man on a former occasion.
“Very nice, indeed. It seems to me that you are sweet upon her yourself.”
“Who? I! Oh, no — I don’t think of those sort of things. I suppose I shall marry some day. I’ve a house fit for a lady tomorrow, from top to bottom, linen and all. And my property’s my own.”
“That’s a comfort.”
“I believe you. There isn’t a mortgage on an acre of it, and that’s what very few men can say. As for Miss Palliser, I don’t know that a man could do better; only I don’t think much of those things. If ever I do pop the question, I shall do it on the spur of the moment. There’ll be no preparation with me, nor yet any beating about the bush. “Would it suit your views, my dear, to be Mrs Spooner?” that’s about the long and the short of it. A clean-made little mare, isn’t she?” This last observation did not refer to Adelaide Palliser, but to an animal standing in Lord Chiltern’s stables. “He bought her from Charlie Dickers for a twenty pound note last April. The mare hadn’t a leg to stand upon. Charlie had been stagging with her for the last two months, and knocked her all to pieces. She’s a screw of course, but there isn’t anything carries Chiltern so well. There’s nothing like a good screw. A man’ll often go with two hundred and fifty guineas between his legs, supposed to be all there because the animal’s sound, and yet he don’t know his work. If you like schooling a young ’un, that’s all very well. I used to be fond of it myself; but I’ve come to feel that being carried to hounds without much thinking about it is the cream of hunting, after all. I wonder what the ladies are at? Shall we go back and see?” Then they turned to the house, and Mr Spooner began to be a little fidgety. “Do they sit altogether mostly all the morning?”
“I fancy they do.”
“I suppose there’s some way of dividing them. They tell me you know all about women. If you want to get one to yourself how do you manage it?”
“In perpetuity, do you mean, Mr Spooner?”
“Anyway — in the morning, you know.”
“Just to say a few words to her?”
“Exactly that — just to say a few words. I don’t mind asking you, because you’ve done this kind of thing before.”
“I should watch my opportunity,” said Phineas, remembering a period of his life in which he had watched much and had found it very difficult to get an opportunity.
“But I must go after lunch,” said Mr Spooner; “I’m expected home to dinner, and I don’t know much whether they’ll like me to stop over Sunday.”
“If you were to tell Lady Chiltern — ”
“I was to have gone on Thursday, you know. You won’t tell anybody?”
“Oh dear no.”
“I think I shall propose to that girl. I’ve about made up my mind to do it, only a fellow can’t call her out before half a dozen of them. Couldn’t you get Lady C. to trot her out into the garden? You and she are as thick as thieves.”
“I should think Miss Palliser was rather difficult to be managed.”
Phineas declined to interfere, taking upon himself to assure Mr Spooner that attempts to arrange matters in that way never succeeded. He went in and settled himself to the work of answering correspondents at Tankerville, while Mr Spooner hung about the drawing-room, hoping that circumstances and time might favour him. It is to be feared that he made himself extremely disagreeable to poor Lady Chiltern, to whom he was intending to open his heart could he only find an opportunity for so much as that. But Lady Chiltern was determined not to have his confidence, and at last withdrew from the scene in order that she might not be entrapped. Before lunch had come all the party knew what was to happen — except Adelaide herself. She, too, perceived that something was in the wind, that there was some stir, some discomfort, some secret affair forward, or some event expected which made them all uneasy — and she did connect it with the presence of Mr Spooner. But, in pitiable ignorance of the facts that were clear enough to everybody else, she went on watching and wondering, with a half-formed idea that the house would be more pleasant as soon as Mr Spooner should have taken his departure. He was to go after lunch. But on such occasions there is, of course, a latitude, and “after lunch” may be stretched at any rate to the five o’clock tea. At three o’clock Mr Spooner was still hanging about. Madame Goesler and Phineas, with an openly declared intention of friendly intercourse, had gone out to walk together. Lord and Lady Baldock were on horseback. Two or three old ladies hung over the fire and gossiped. Lady Chiltern had retired to her baby — when on a sudden Adelaide Palliser declared her intention of walking into the village. “Might I accompany you, Miss Palliser?” said Mr Spooner; “I want a walk above all things.” He was very brave, and persevered though it was manifest that the lady did not desire his company. Adelaide said something about an old woman whom she intended to visit; whereupon Mr Spooner declared that visiting old women was the delight of his life. He would undertake to give half a sovereign to the old woman if Miss Palliser would allow him to come. He was very brave, and persevered in such a fashion that he carried his point. Lady Chiltern from her nursery window saw them start through the shrubbery together.
“I have been waiting for this opportunity all the morning,” said Mr Spooner, gallantly.
But in spite of his gallantry, and although she had known, almost from breakfast time, that he had been waiting for something, still she did not suspect his purpose. It has been said that Mr Spooner was still young, being barely over forty years of age; but he had unfortunately appeared to be old to Miss Palliser. To himself it seemed as though the fountains of youth were still running through all his veins. Though he had given up schooling young horses, he could ride as hard as ever. He could shoot all day. He could take “his whack of wine,” as he called it, sit up smoking half the night, and be on horseback the next morning after an early breakfast without the slightest feeling of fatigue. He was a red-faced little man, with broad shoulders, clean shaven, with small eyes, and a nose on which incipient pimples began to show themselves. To himself and the comrades of his life he was almost as young as he had ever been; but the young ladies of the county called him Old Spooner, and regarded him as a permanent assistant unpaid huntsman to the Brake hounds. It was not within the compass of Miss Palliser’s imagination to conceive that this man should intend to propose himself to her as her lover.
“I have been waiting for this opportunity all the morning,” said Mr Spooner. Adelaide Palliser turned round and looked at him, still understanding nothing. Ride at any fence hard enough, and the chances are you’ll get over. The harder you ride the heavier the fall, if you get a fall; but the greater the chance of your getting over. This had been a precept in the life of Mr Spooner, verified by much experience, and he had resolved that he would be guided by it on this occasion. “Ever since I first saw you, Miss Palliser, I have been so much taken by you that — that — in point of fact, I love you better than all the women in the world I ever saw; and will you — will you be Mrs Spooner?”
He had at any rate ridden hard at his fence. There had been no craning — no looking about for an easy place, no hesitation as he brought his horse up to it. No man ever rode straighter than he did on this occasion. Adelaide stopped short on the path, and he stood opposite to her, with his fingers inserted between the closed buttons of his frock-coat. “Mr Spooner!” exclaimed Adelaide.
“I am quite in earnest, Miss Palliser; no man ever was more in earnest. I can offer you a comfortable well-furnished home, an undivided heart, a good settlement, and no embarrassment on the property. I’m fond of a country life myself, but I’ll adapt myself to you in everything reasonable.”
“You are mistaken, Mr Spooner; you are indeed.”
“I mean that it is altogether out of the question. You have surprised me so much that I couldn’t stop you sooner; but pray do not speak of it again.”
“It is a little sudden, but what is a man to do? If you will only think of it — ”
“I can’t think of it at all. There is no need for thinking. Really, Mr Spooner, I can’t go on with you. If you wouldn’t mind turning back I’ll walk into the village by myself.” Mr Spooner, however, did not seem inclined to obey this injunction, and stood his ground, and, when she moved on, walked on beside her. “I must insist on being left alone,” she said.
“I haven’t done anything out of the way,” said the lover.
“I think it’s very much out of the way. I have hardly ever spoken to you before. If you will only leave me now there shall not be a word more said about it.”
But Mr Spooner was a man of spirit. “I’m not in the least ashamed of what I’ve done,” he said.
“But you might as well go away, when it can’t be of any use.”
“I don’t know why it shouldn’t be of use. Miss Palliser, I’m a man of good property. My great-great-grandfather lived at Spoon Hall, and we’ve been there ever since. My mother was one of the Platters of Platter House. I don’t see that I’ve done anything out of the way. As for shilly-shallying, and hanging about, I never knew any good come from it. Don’t let us quarrel, Miss Palliser. Say that you’ll take a week to think of it.”
“But I won’t think of it at all; and I won’t go on walking with you. If you’ll go one way, Mr Spooner, I’ll go the other.”
Then Mr Spooner waxed angry. “Why am I to be treated with disdain?” he said.
“I don’t want to treat you with disdain. I only want you to go away.”
“You seem to think that I’m something — something altogether beneath you.”
And so in truth she did. Miss Palliser had never analysed her own feelings and emotions about the Spooners whom she met in society; but she probably conceived that there were people in the world who, from certain accidents, were accustomed to sit at dinner with her, but who were no more fitted for her intimacy than were the servants who waited upon her. Such people were to her little more than the tables and chairs with which she was brought in contact. They were persons with whom it seemed to her to be impossible that she should have anything in common — who were her inferiors, as completely as were the menials around her. Why she should thus despise Mr Spooner, while in her heart of hearts she loved Gerard Maule, it would be difficult to explain. It was not simply an affair of age — nor of good looks, nor altogether of education. Gerard Maule was by no means wonderfully erudite. They were both addicted to hunting. Neither of them did anything useful. In that respect Mr Spooner stood the higher, as he managed his own property successfully. But Gerard Maule so wore his clothes, and so carried his limbs, and so pronounced his words that he was to be regarded as one entitled to make love to any lady; whereas poor Mr Spooner was not justified in proposing to marry any woman much more gifted than his own housemaid. Such, at least, were Adelaide Palliser’s ideas. “I don’t think anything of the kind,” she said, “only I want you to go away, I shall go back to the house, and I hope you won’t accompany me. If you do, I shall turn the other way.” Whereupon she did retire at once, and he was left standing in the path.
There was a seat there, and he sat down for a moment to think of it all. Should he persevere in his suit, or should he rejoice that he had escaped from such an ill-conditioned minx? He remembered that he had read, in his younger days, that lovers in novels generally do persevere, and that they are almost always successful at last. In affairs of the heart, such perseverance was, he thought, the correct thing. But in this instance the conduct of the lady had not given him the slightest encouragement. When a horse balked with him at a fence, it was his habit to force the animal till he jumped it — as the groom had recommended Phineas to do. But when he had encountered a decided fall, it was not sensible practice to ride the horse at the same place again. There was probably some occult cause for failure. He could not but own that he had been thrown on the present occasion — and upon the whole, he thought, that he had better give it up. He found his way back to the house, put up his things, and got away to Spoon Hall in time for dinner, without seeing Lady Chiltern or any of her guests.
“What has become of Mr Spooner?” Maule asked, as soon as he returned to Harrington Hall.
“Nobody knows,” said Lady Chiltern, “but I believe he has gone.”
“Has anything happened?”
“I have heard no tidings; but, if you ask for my opinion, I think something has happened. A certain lady seems to have been ruffled, and a certain gentleman has disappeared. I am inclined to think that a few unsuccessful words have been spoken.” Gerard Maule saw that there was a smile in her eye, and he was satisfied.
“My dear, what did Mr Spooner say to you during his walk?” This question was asked by the ill-natured old lady in the presence of nearly all the party.
“We were talking of hunting,” said Adelaide.
“And did the poor old woman get her half-sovereign?”
“No — he forgot that. We did not go into the village at all. I was tired and came back.”
“Poor old woman — and poor Mr Spooner!”
Everybody in the house knew what had occurred, as Mr Spooner’s discretion in the conduct of this affair had not been equal to his valour; but Miss Palliser never confessed openly, and almost taught herself to believe that the man had been mad or dreaming during that special hour.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01