A closer intimacy will occasionally be created by some accident, some fortuitous circumstance, than weeks of ordinary intercourse will produce. Walk down Bond Street in a hailstorm of peculiar severity and you may make a friend of the first person you meet, whereas you would be held to have committed an affront were you to speak to the same person in the same place on a fine day. You shall travel smoothly to York with a lady and she will look as though she would call the guard at once were you so much as to suggest that it were a fine day; but if you are lucky enough to break a wheel before you get to Darlington, she will have told you all her history and shared your sherry by the time you have reached that town. Arabella was very much shocked by the dreadful accident she had seen. Her nerves had suffered, though it may be doubted whether her heart had been affected much. But she was quite conscious when she reached her room that the poor Major’s misfortune, happening as it had done just beneath her horse’s feet, had been a godsend to her. For a moment the young lord’s arm had been round her waist and her head had been upon his shoulder. And again when she had slipped from her saddle she had felt his embrace. His fervour to her had been simply the uncontrolled expression of his feeling at the moment — as one man squeezes another tightly by the hand in any crisis of sudden impulse. She knew this; but she knew also that he would probably revert to the intimacy which the sudden emotion had created. The mutual galvanic shock might be continued at the next meeting — and so on. They had seen the tragedy together and it would not fail to be a bond of union. As she told the tragedy to her mother, she delicately laid aside her hat and whip and riding dress, and then asked whether it was not possible that they might prolong their stay at Rufford. “But the Gores, my dear! I put them off, you know, for two days only.” Then Arabella declared that she did not care a straw for the Gores. In such a matter as this what would it signify though they should quarrel with a whole generation of Gores? For some time she thought that she would not come down again that afternoon or even that evening. It might well be that the sight of the accident should have made her too ill to appear. She felt conscious that in that moment and in the subsequent half hour she had carried herself well, and that there would be an interest about her were she to own herself compelled to keep her room. Were she now to take to her bed they could not turn her out on the following day. But at last her mother’s counsel put an end to that plan. Time was too precious. “I think you might lose more than you’d gain,” said her mother.
Both Lord Rufford and his sister were very much disturbed as to what they should do on the occasion. At half-past six Lord Rufford was told that the Major had recovered his senses, but that the case was almost hopeless. Of course he saw his guest. “I’m all right,” said the Major. The Lord sat there by the bedside, holding the man’s hand for a few moments, and then got up to leave him. “No nonsense about putting off,” said the Major in a faint voice; “beastly bosh all that!”
But what was to be done? The dozen people who were in the house must of course sit down to dinner. And then all the neighbourhood for miles round were coming to a ball. It would be impossible to send messages to everybody. And there was the feeling too that the man was as yet only ill, and that his recovery was possible. A ball, with a dead man in one of the bedrooms, would be dreadful. With a dying man it was bad enough; — but then a dying man is always also a living man! Lord Rufford had already telegraphed for a first-class surgeon from London, it having been whispered to him that perhaps Old Nokes from Rufford might be mistaken. The surgeon could not be there till four o’clock in the morning by which time care would have been taken to remove the signs of the ball; but if there was reason to send for a London surgeon, then also was there reason for hope; and if there were ground for hope, then the desirability of putting off the ball was very much reduced. “He’s at the furthest end of the corridor,” the Lord said to his sister, “and won’t hear a sound of the music.”
Though the man were to die why shouldn’t the people dance? Had the Major been dying three or four miles off, at the hotel at Rufford, there would only have been a few sad looks, a few shakings of the head, and the people would have danced without any flaw in their gaiety. Had it been known at Rufford Hall that he was lying at that moment in his mortal agony at Aberdeen, an exclamation or two — “Poor Caneback!”—“Poor Major!”— would have been the extent of the wailing, and not the pressure of a lover’s hand would have been lightened, or the note of a fiddle delayed. And nobody in that house really cared much for Caneback. He was not a man worthy of much care. He was possessed of infinite pluck, and now that he was dying could bear it well. But he had loved no one particularly, had been dear to no one in these latter days of his life, had been of very little use in the world, and had done very little more for society than any other horse-trainer! But nevertheless it is a bore when a gentleman dies in your house — and a worse bore if he dies from an accident than if from an illness for which his own body may be supposed to be responsible. Though the gout should fly to a man’s stomach in your best bedroom, the idea never strikes you that your burgundy has done it! But here the mare had done the mischief.
Poor Caneback; — and poor Lord Rufford! The Major was quite certain that it was all over with himself. He had broken so many of his bones and had his head so often cracked that he understood his own anatomy pretty well. There he lay quiet and composed, sipping small modicums of brandy and water, and taking his outlook into such transtygian world as he had fashioned for himself in his dull imagination. If he had misgivings he showed them to no bystander. If he thought then that he might have done better with his energies than devote them to dangerous horses, he never said so. His voice was weak, but it never quailed; and the only regret he expressed was that he had not changed the bit in Jemima’s mouth. Lord Rufford’s position was made worse by an expression from Sir John Purefoy that the party ought to be put off. Sir John was in a measure responsible for what his mare had done, and was in a wretched state. “If it could possibly affect the poor fellow I would do it,” said Lord Rufford; “but it would create very great inconvenience and disappointment. I have to think of other people.” “Then I shall send my wife home,” said Sir John. And Lady Purefoy was sent home. Sir John himself of course could not leave the house while the man was alive. Before they all sat down to dinner the Major was declared to be a little stronger. That settled the question and the ball was not put off.
The ladies came down to dinner in a melancholy guise. They were not fully dressed for the evening and were of course inclined to be silent and sad. Before Lord Rufford came in Arabella managed to get herself on to the sofa next to Lady Penwether, and then to undergo some little hysterical manifestation, “Oh Lady Penwether; if you had seen it; — and heard it!”
“I am very glad that I was spared anything so horrible.”
“And the man’s face as he passed me going to the leap! It will haunt me to my dying day!” Then she shivered, and gurgled in her throat, and turning suddenly round, hid her face on the elbow of the couch.
“I’ve been afraid all the afternoon that she would be ill,” whispered Lady Augustus to Miss Penge. “She is so susceptible!”
When Lord Rufford came into the room Arabella at once got up and accosted him with a whisper. Either he took her or she took him into a distant part of the room where they conversed apart for five minutes. And he, as he told her how things were going and what was being done, bent over her and whispered also. “What good would it do, you know?” she said with affected intimacy as he spoke of his difficulty about the ball. “One would do anything if one could be of service — but that would do nothing.” She felt completely that her presence at the accident had given her a right to have peculiar conversations and to be consulted about everything. Of course she was very sorry for Major Caneback. But as it had been ordained that Major Caneback was to have his head split in two by a kick from a horse, and that Lord Rufford was to be there to see it, how great had been the blessing which had brought her to the spot at the same time!
Everybody there saw the intimacy and most of them understood the way in which it was being used. “That girl is very clever, Rufford,” his sister whispered to him before dinner. “She is very much excited rather than clever just at present,” he answered; — upon which Lady Penwether shook her head. Miss Penge whispered to Miss Godolphin that Miss Trefoil was making the most of it; and Mr. Morton, who had come into the room while the conversation apart was going on, had certainly been of the same opinion.
She had seated herself in an arm-chair away from the others after that conversation was over, and as she sat there Morton came up to her. He had been so little intimate with the members of the party assembled and had found himself so much alone, that he had only lately heard the story about Major Caneback, and had now only heard it imperfectly. But he did see that an absolute intimacy had been effected where two days before there had only been a slight acquaintance; and he believed that this sudden rush had been in some way due to the accident of which he had been told. “You know what has happened?” he said.
“Oh, Mr. Morton; do not talk to me about it.”
“Were you not speaking of it to Lord Rufford?”
“Of course I was. We were together.”
“Did you see it?” Then she shuddered, put her handkerchief up to her eyes, and turned her face away. “And yet the ball is to go on?” he asked.
“Pray, pray, do not dwell on it — unless you wish to force me back to my room. When I left it I felt that I was attempting to do too much.” This might have been all very well had she not been so manifestly able to talk to Lord Rufford on the same subject. If there is any young man to whom a girl should be able to speak when she is in a state of violent emotion, it is the young man to whom she is engaged. So at least thought Mr. John Morton.
Then dinner was announced, and the dinner certainly was sombre enough. A dinner before a ball in the country never is very much of a dinner. The ladies know that there is work before them, and keep themselves for the greater occasion. Lady Purefoy had gone, and Lady Penwether was not very happy in the prospects for the evening. Neither Miss Penge nor either of the two Miss Godolphins had entertained personal hopes in regard to Lord Rufford, but nevertheless they took badly the great favour shown to Arabella. Lady Augustus did not get on particularly well with any of the other ladies — and there seemed during the dinner to be an air of unhappiness over them all. They retired as soon as it was possible, and then Arabella at once went up to her bedroom.
“Mr. Nokes says he is a little stronger, my Lord,” said the butler coming into the room. Mr. Nokes had gone home and had returned again.
“He might pull through yet,” said Mr. Hampton. Lord Rufford shook his head. Then Mr. Gotobed told a wonderful story of an American who had had his brains knocked almost out of his head and had sat in Congress afterwards. “He was the finest horseman I ever saw on a horse,” said Hampton.
“A little too much temper,” said Captain Battersby, who was a very old friend of the Major.
“I’d give a good deal that that mare had never been brought to my stables,” said Lord Rufford. “Purefoy will never get over it, and I shan’t forget it in a hurry.” Sir John at this time was up-stairs with the sufferer. Even while drinking their wine they could not keep themselves from the subject, and were convivial in a cadaverous fashion.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01