ON THE WATCH.
Upon a lowering morning late in November, with the yellow fog low upon the flat meadows, and the blinded cattle groping their way through the dim obscurity, and blundering stupidly against black and leafless hedges, or stumbling into ditches, undistinguishable in the hazy atmosphere; with the village church looming brown and dingy through the uncertain light; with every winding path and cottage door, every gable end and gray old chimney, every village child and straggling cur seeming strange and weird of aspect in the semi-darkness, Phoebe Marks and her Cousin Luke made their way through the churchyard of Audley, and presented themselves before a shivering curate, whose surplice hung in damp folds, soddened by the morning mist, and whose temper was not improved by his having waited five minutes for the bride and bridegroom.
Luke Marks, dressed in his ill-fitting Sunday clothes, looked by no means handsomer than in his every-day apparel; but Phoebe, arrayed in a rustling silk of delicate gray, that had been worn about half a dozen times by her mistress, looked, as the few spectators of the ceremony remarked, "quite the lady."
A very dim and shadowy lady, vague of outline, and faint of coloring, with eyes, hair, complexion and dress all melting into such pale and uncertain shades that, in the obscure light of the foggy November morning a superstitious stranger might have mistaken the bride for the ghost of some other bride, dead and buried in the vault below the church.
Mr. Luke Marks, the hero of the occasion, thought very little of all this. He had secured the wife of his choice, and the object of his life-long ambition--a public house. My lady had provided the seventy-five pounds necessary for the purchase of the good-will and fixtures, with the stock of ales and spirits, of a small inn in the center of a lonely little village, perched on the summit of a hill, and called Mount Stanning. It was not a very pretty house to look at; it had something of a tumble-down, weather-beaten appearance, standing, as it did, upon high ground, sheltered only by four or five bare and overgrown poplars, that had shot up too rapidly for their strength, and had a blighted, forlorn look in consequence. The wind had had its own way with the Castle Inn, and had sometimes made cruel use of its power. It was the wind that battered and bent the low, thatched roofs of outhouses and stables, till they hung over and lurched forward, as a slouched hat hangs over the low forehead of some village ruffian; it was the wind that shook and rattled the wooden shutters before the narrow casements, till they hung broken and dilapidated upon their rusty hinges; it was the wind that overthrew the pigeon house, and broke the vane that had been imprudently set up to tell the movements of its mightiness; it, was the wind that made light of any little bit of wooden trellis-work, or creeping plant, or tiny balcony, or any modest decoration whatsoever, and tore and scattered it in its scornful fury; it was the wind that left mossy secretions on the discolored surface of the plaster walls; it was the wind, in short, that shattered, and ruined, and rent, and trampled upon the tottering pile of buildings, and then flew shrieking off, to riot and glory in its destroying strength. The dispirited proprietor grew tired of his long struggle with this mighty enemy; so the wind was left to work its own will, and the Castle Inn fell slowly to decay. But for all that it suffered without, it was not the less prosperous within doors. Sturdy drovers stopped to drink at the little bar; well-to-do farmers spent their evenings and talked politics in the low, wainscoted parlor, while their horses munched some suspicious mixture of moldy hay and tolerable beans in the tumble-down stables. Sometimes even the members of the Audley hunt stopped to drink and bait their horses at the Castle Inn; while, on one grand and never-to-be-forgotten occasion, a dinner had been ordered by the master of the hounds for some thirty gentlemen, and the proprietor driven nearly mad by the importance of the demand.
So Luke Marks, who was by no means troubled with an eye for the beautiful, thought himself very fortunate in becoming the landlord of the Castle Inn, Mount Stanning.
A chaise-cart was waiting in the fog to convey the bride and bridegroom to their new home; and a few of the villagers, who had known Phoebe from a child, were lingering around the churchyard gate to bid her good-by. Her pale eyes were still paler from the tears she had shed, and the red rims which surrounded them. The bridegroom was annoyed at this exhibition of emotion.
"What are you blubbering for, lass?" he said, fiercely. "If you didn't want to marry me you should have told me so. I ain't going to murder you, am I?"
The lady's maid shivered as he spoke to her, and dragged her little silk mantle closely around her.
"You're cold in all this here finery," said Luke, staring at her costly dress with no expression of good-will. "Why can't women dress according to their station? You won't have no silk gownds out of my pocket, I can tell you."
He lifted the shivering girl into the chaise, wrapped a rough great-coat about her, and drove off through the yellow fog, followed by a feeble cheer from two or three urchins clustered around the gate.
A new maid was brought from London to replace Phoebe Marks about the person of my lady--a very showy damsel, who wore a black satin gown, and rose-colored ribbons in her cap, and complained bitterly of the dullness of Audley Court.
But Christmas brought visitors to the rambling old mansion. A country squire and his fat wife occupied the tapestried chamber; merry girls scampered up and down the long passages, and young men stared out of the latticed windows, watching for southerly winds and cloudy skies; there was not an empty stall in the roomy old stables; an extempore forge had been set up in the yard for the shoeing of hunters; yelping dogs made the place noisy with their perpetual clamor; strange servants herded together on the garret story; and every little casement hidden away under some pointed gable, and every dormer window in the quaint old roof, glimmered upon the winter's night with its separate taper, till, coming suddenly upon Audley Court, the benighted stranger, misled by the light, and noise, and bustle of the place, might have easily fallen into young Marlowe's error, and have mistaken the hospitable mansion for a good, old-fashioned inn, such as have faded from this earth since the last mail coach and prancing tits took their last melancholy journey to the knacker's yard.
Among other visitors Mr. Robert Audley came down to Essex for the hunting season, with half a dozen French novels, a case of cigars, and three pounds of Turkish tobacco in his portmanteau.
The honest young country squires, who talked all breakfast time of Flying Dutchman fillies and Voltigeur colts; of glorious runs of seven hours' hard riding over three counties, and a midnight homeward ride of thirty miles upon their covert hacks; and who ran away from the well-spread table with their mouths full of cold sirloin, to look at that off pastern, or that sprained forearm, or the colt that had just come back from the veterinary surgeon's, set down Robert Audley, dawdling over a slice of bread and marmalade, as a person utterly unworthy of any remark whatsoever.
The young barrister had brought a couple of dogs with him; and the country gentleman who gave fifty pounds for a pointer; and traveled a couple of hundred miles to look at a leash of setters before be struck a bargain, laughed aloud at the two miserable curs, one of which had followed Robert Audley through Chancery Lane, and half the length of Holborn; while his companion had been taken by the barrister _vi et armis_ from a coster-monger who was ill-using him. And as Robert furthermore insisted on having these two deplorable animals under his easy-chair in the drawing-room, much to the annoyance of my lady, who, as we know, hated all dogs, the visitors at Audley Court looked upon the baronet's nephew as an inoffensive species of maniac.
During other visits to the Court Robert Audley had made a feeble show of joining in the sports of the merry assembly. He had jogged across half a dozen ploughed fields on a quiet gray pony of Sir Michael's, and drawing up breathless and panting at door of some farm-house, had expressed his intention of following the hounds no further _that_ morning. He had even gone so far as to put on, with great labor, a pair of skates, with a view to taking a turn on the frozen surface of the fishpond, and had fallen ignominously at the first attempt, lying placidly extended on the flat of his back until such time as the bystanders should think fit to pick him up. He had occupied the back seat in a dog-cart during a pleasant morning drive, vehemently protesting against being taken up hill, and requiring the vehicle to be stopped every ten minutes in order to readjust the cushions. But this year he showed no inclination for any of these outdoor amusements, and he spent his time entirely in lounging in the drawing-room, and making himself agreeable, after his own lazy fashion, to my lady and Alicia.
Lady Audley received her nephew's attentions in that graceful half-childish fashion which her admirers found so charming; but Alicia was indignant at the change in her cousin's conduct.
"You were always a poor, spiritless fellow, Bob," said the young lady, contemptuously, as she bounced into the drawing-room in her riding-habit, after a hunting breakfast, from which Robert had absented himself, preferring a cup of tea in my lady's boudoir; "but this year I don't know what has come to you. You are good for nothing but to hold a skein of silk or read Tennyson to Lady Audley."
"My dear, hasty, impetuous Alicia, don't be violent," said the young man imploringly. "A conclusion isn't a five-barred gate; and you needn't give your judgment its head, as you give your mare Atalanta hers, when you're flying across country at the heels of an unfortunate fox. Lady Audley interests me, and my uncle's county friends do not. Is that a sufficient answer, Alicia?"
Miss Audley gave her head a little scornful toss.
"It's as good an answer as I shall ever get from, you, Bob," she said, impatiently; "but pray amuse yourself in your own way; loll in an easy-chair all day, with those two absurd dogs asleep on your knees; spoil my lady's window-curtains with your cigars and annoy everybody in the house with your stupid, inanimate countenance."
Mr. Robert Audley opened his handsome gray eyes to their widest extent at this tirade, and looked helplessly at Miss Alicia.
The young lady was walking up and down the room, slashing the skirt of her habit with her riding-whip. Her eyes sparkled with an angry flash, and a crimson glow burned under her clear brown skin. The young barrister knew very well, by these diagnostics, that his cousin was in a passion.
"Yes," she repeated, "your stupid, inanimate countenance. Do you know, Robert Audley, that with all your mock amiability, you are brimful of conceit and superciliousness. You look down upon our amusements; you lift up your eyebrows, and shrug your shoulders, and throw yourself back in your chair, and wash your hands of us and our pleasures. You are a selfish, cold-hearted Sybarite--"
The morning paper dropped out of his hands, and he sat feebly staring at his assailant.
"Yes, _selfish_, Robert Audley! You take home half-starved dogs, because you like half-starved dogs. You stoop down, and pat the head of every good-for-nothing cur in the village street, because you like good-for-nothing curs. You notice little children, and give them halfpence, because it amuses you to do so. But you lift your eyebrows a quarter of a yard when poor Sir Harry Towers tells a stupid story, and stare the poor fellow out of countenance with your lazy insolence. As to your amiability, you would let a man hit you, and say 'Thank you' for the blow, rather than take the trouble to hit him again; but you wouldn't go half a mile out of your way to serve your dearest friend. Sir Harry is worth twenty of you, though he _did_ write to ask if my m-a-i-r Atalanta had recovered from the sprain. He can't spell, or lift his eyebrows to the roots of his hair; but he would go through fire and water for the girl he loves; while _you_--"
At this very point, when Robert was most prepared to encounter his cousin's violence, and when Miss Alicia seemed about to make her strongest attack, the young lady broke down altogether, and burst into tears.
Robert sprang from his easy-chair, upsetting his dogs on the carpet.
"Alicia, my darling, what is it?"
"It's--it's--it's the feather of my hat that got into my eyes," sobbed his cousin; and before he could investigate the truth of this assertion Alicia had darted out of the room.
Robert Audley was preparing to follow her, when he heard her voice in the court-yard below, amidst the tramping of horses and the clamor of visitors, dogs, and grooms. Sir Harry Towers, the most aristocratic young sportsman in the neighborhood, had just taken her little foot in his hand as she sprung into her saddle.
"Good Heaven!" exclaimed Robert, as he watched the merry party of equestrians until they disappeared under the archway. "What does all this mean? How charmingly she sits her horse! What a pretty figure, too, and a fine, candid, brown, rosy face: but to fly at a fellow like that, without the least provocation! That's the consequence of letting a girl follow the hounds. She learns to look at everything in life as she does at six feet of timber or a sunk fence; she goes through the world as she goes across country--straight ahead, and over everything. Such a nice girl as she might have been, too, if she'd been brought up in Figtree Court! If ever I marry, and have daughters (which remote contingency may Heaven forefend!) they shall be educated in Paper Buildings, take their sole exercise in the Temple Gardens, and they shall never go beyond the gates till they are marriageable, when I will walk them straight across Fleet street to St. Dunstan's church, and deliver them into the hands of their husbands."
With such reflections as these did Mr. Robert Audley beguile the time until my lady re-entered the drawing-room, fresh and radiant in her elegant morning costume, her yellow curls glistening with the perfumed waters in which she had bathed, and her velvet-covered sketch-book in her arms. She planted a little easel upon a table by the window, seated herself before it, and began to mix the colors upon her palette, Robert watching her out of his half-closed eyes.
"You are sure my cigar does not annoy you, Lady Audley?"
"Oh, no indeed; I am quite used to the smell of tobacco. Mr. Dawson, the surgeon, smoked all the evening when I lived in his house."
"Dawson is a good fellow, isn't he?" Robert asked, carelessly.
My lady burst into her pretty, gushing laugh.
"The dearest of good creatures," she said. "He paid me five-and-twenty pounds a year--only fancy, five-and-twenty pounds! That made six pounds five a quarter. How well I remember receiving the money--six dingy old sovereigns, and a little heap of untidy, dirty silver, that came straight from the till in the surgery! And then how glad I was to get it! While _now_--I can't help laughing while I think of it--these colors I am using cost a guinea each at Winsor & Newton's--the carmine and ultramarine thirty shillings. I gave Mrs. Dawson one of my silk dresses the other day, and the poor thing kissed me, and the surgeon carried the bundle home under his cloak."
My lady laughed long and joyously at the thought. Her colors were mixed; she was copying a water-colored sketch of an impossibly Turneresque atmosphere. The sketch was nearly finished, and she had only to put in some critical little touches with the most delicate of her sable pencils. She prepared herself daintily for the work, looking sideways at the painting.
All this time Mr. Robert Audley's eyes were fixed intently on her pretty face.
"It _is_ a change," he said, after so long a pause that my lady might have forgotten what she had been talking of, "it _is_ a change! Some women would do a great deal to accomplish such a change as that."
Lady Audley's clear blue eyes dilated as she fixed them suddenly on the young barrister. The wintry sunlight, gleaming full upon her face from a side window, lit up the azure of those beautiful eyes, till their color seemed to flicker and tremble betwixt blue and green, as the opal tints of the sea change upon a summer's day. The small brush fell from her hand, and blotted out the peasant's face under a widening circle of crimson lake.
Robert Audley was tenderly coaxing the crumbled leaf of his cigar with cautious fingers.
"My friend at the corner of Chancery Lane has not given me such good Manillas as usual," he murmured. "If ever you smoke, my dear aunt (and I am told that many women take a quiet weed under the rose), be very careful how you choose your cigars."
My lady drew a long breath, picked up her brush, and laughed aloud at Robert's advice.
"What an eccentric creature you are, Mr. Audley I Do you know that you sometimes puzzle me--"
"Not more than you puzzle me, dear aunt."
My lady put away her colors and sketch book, and seating herself in the deep recess of another window, at a considerable distance from Robert Audley, settled to a large piece of Berlin-wool work--a piece of embroidery which the Penelopes of ten or twelve years ago were very fond of exercising their ingenuity upon--the Olden Time at Bolton Abbey.
Seated in the embrasure of this window, my lady was separated from Robert Audley by the whole length of the room, and the young man could only catch an occasional glimpse of her fair face, surrounded by its bright aureole of hazy, golden hair.
Robert Audley had been a week at the Court, but as yet neither he nor my lady had mentioned the name of George Talboys.
This morning, however, after exhausting the usual topics of conversation, Lady Audley made an inquiry about her nephew's friend; "That Mr. George--George--" she said, hesitating.
"Talboys," suggested Robert.
"Yes, to be sure--Mr. George Talboys. Rather a singular name, by-the-by, and certainly, by all accounts, a very singular person. Have you seen him lately?"
"I have not seen him since the 7th of September last--the day upon which he left me asleep in the meadows on the other side of the village."
"Dear me!" exclaimed my lady, "what a very strange young man this Mr. George Talboys must be! Pray tell me all about it."
Robert told, in a few words, of his visit to Southampton and his journey to Liverpool, with their different results, my lady listening very attentively.
In order to tell this story to better advantage, the young man left his chair, and, crossing the room, took up his place opposite to Lady Audley, in the embrasure of the window.
"And what do you infer from all this?" asked my lady, after a pause.
"It is so great a mystery to me," he answered, "that I scarcely dare to draw any conclusion whatever; but in the obscurity I think I can grope my way to two suppositions, which to me seem almost certainties."
"And they are--"
"First, that George Talboys never went beyond Southampton. Second, that he never went to Southampton at all."
"But you traced him there. His father-in-law had seen him."
"I have reason to doubt his father-in-law's integrity."
"Good gracious me!" cried my lady, piteously. "What do you mean by all this?"
"Lady Audley," answered the young man, gravely, "I have never practiced as a barrister. I have enrolled myself in the ranks of a profession, the members of which hold solemn responsibilities and have sacred duties to perform; and I have shrunk from those responsibilities and duties, as I have from all the fatigues of this troublesome life. But we are sometimes forced into the very position we have most avoided, and I have found myself lately compelled to think of these things. Lady Audley, did you ever study the theory of circumstantial evidence?"
"How can you ask a poor little woman about such horrid things?" exclaimed my lady.
"Circumstantial evidence," continued the young man, as if he scarcely heard Lady Audley's interruption--"that wonderful fabric which is built out of straws collected at every point of the compass, and which is yet strong enough to hang a man. Upon what infinitesimal trifles may sometimes hang the whole secret of some wicked mystery, inexplicable heretofore to the wisest upon the earth! A scrap of paper, a shred of some torn garment, the button off a coat, a word dropped incautiously from the overcautious lips of guilt, the fragment of a letter, the shutting or opening of a door, a shadow on a window-blind, the accuracy of a moment tested by one of Benson's watches--a thousand circumstances so slight as to be forgotten by the criminal, but links of iron in the wonderful chain forged by the science of the detective officer; and lo! the gallows is built up; the solemn bell tolls through the dismal gray of the early morning, the drop creaks under the guilty feet, and the penalty of crime is paid."
Faint shadows of green and crimson fell upon my lady's face from the painted escutcheons in the mullioned window by which she sat; but every trace of the natural color of that face had faded out, leaving it a ghastly ashen gray.
Sitting quietly in her chair, her head fallen back upon the amber damask cushions, and her little hands lying powerless in her lap, Lady Audley had fainted away.
"The radius grows narrower day by day," said Robert Audley. "George Talboys never reached Southampton."
ROBERT AUDLEY GETS HIS CONGE.
The Christmas week was over, and one by one the country visitors dropped away from Audley Court. The fat squire and his wife abandoned the gray, tapestried chamber, and left the black-browed warriors looming from the wall to scowl upon and threaten new guests, or to glare vengefully upon vacancy. The merry girls on the second story packed, or caused to be packed, their trunks and imperials, and tumbled gauze ball-dresses were taken home that had been brought fresh to Audley. Blundering old family chariots, with horses whose untrimmed fetlocks told of rougher work than even country roads, were brought round to the broad space before the grim oak door, and laden with chaotic heaps of womanly luggage. Pretty rosy faces peeped out of carriage windows to smile the last farewell upon the group at the hall door, as the vehicle rattled and rumbled under the ivied archway. Sir Michael was in request everywhere. Shaking hands with the young sportsmen; kissing the rosy-cheeked girls; sometimes even embracing portly matrons who came to thank him for their pleasant visit; everywhere genial, hospitable, generous, happy, and beloved, the baronet hurried from room to room, from the hall to the stables, from the stables to the court-yard, from the court-yard to the arched gateway to speed the parting guest.
My lady's yellow curls flashed hither and thither like wandering gleams of sunshine on these busy days of farewell. Her great blue eyes had a pretty, mournful look, in charming unison with the soft pressure of her little hand, and that friendly, though perhaps rather stereotyped speech, in which she told her visitors how she was so sorry to lose them, and how she didn't know what she should do till they came once more to enliven the court by their charming society.
But however sorry my lady might be to lose her visitors, there was at least one guest whose society she was not deprived of. Robert Audley showed no intention of leaving his uncle's house. He had no professional duties, he said; Figtree Court was delightfully shady in hot weather, but there was a sharp corner round which the wind came in the summer months, armed with avenging rheumatisms and influenzas. Everybody was so good to him at the Court, that really he had no inclination to hurry away.
Sir Michael had but one answer to this: "Stay, my dear boy; stay, my dear Bob, as long as ever you like. I have no son, and you stand to me in the place of one. Make yourself agreeable to Lucy, and make the Court your home as long as you live."
To which Robert would merely reply by grasping his uncle's hand vehemently, and muttering something about "a jolly old prince."
It was to be observed that there was sometimes a certain vague sadness in the young man's tone when he called Sir Michael "a jolly old prince;" some shadow of affectionate regret that brought a mist into Robert's eyes, as he sat in a corner of the room looking thoughtfully at the white-bearded baronet.
Before the last of the young sportsmen departed, Sir Harry Towers demanded and obtained an interview with Miss Alicia Audley in the oak library--an interview in which considerable emotion was displayed by the stalwart young fox-hunter; so much emotion, indeed, and of such a genuine and honest character, that Alicia fairly broke down as she told him she should forever esteem and respect him for his true and noble heart, but that he must never, never, unless he wished to cause her the most cruel distress, ask more from her than this esteem and respect.
Sir Harry left the library by the French window opening into the pond-garden. He strolled into that very lime-walk which George Talboys had compared to an avenue in a churchyard, and under the leafless trees fought the battle of his brave young heart.
"What a fool I am to feel it like this!" he cried, stamping his foot upon the frosty ground. "I always knew it would be so; I always knew that she was a hundred times too good for me. God bless her! How nobly and tenderly she spoke; how beautiful she looked with the crimson blushes under her brown skin, and the tears in her big, gray eyes--almost as handsome as the day she took the sunk fence, and let me put the brush in her hat as we rode home! God bless her! I can get over anything as long as she doesn't care for that sneaking lawyer. But I couldn't stand that."
That sneaking lawyer, by which appellation Sir Harry alluded to Mr. Robert Audley, was standing in the hall, looking at a map of the midland counties, when Alicia came out of the library, with red eyes, after her interview with the fox-hunting baronet.
Robert, who was short-sighted, had his eyes within half an inch of the surface of the map as the young lady approached him.
"Yes," he said, "Norwich _is_ in Norfolk, and that fool, young Vincent, said it was in Herefordshire. Ha, Alicia, is that you?"
He turned round so as to intercept Miss Audley on her way to the staircase.
"Yes," replied his cousin curtly, trying to pass him.
"Alicia, you have been crying."
The young lady did not condescend to reply.
"You have been crying, Alicia. Sir Harry Towers, of Towers Park, in the county of Herts, has been making you an offer of his hand, eh?"
"Have you been listening at the door, Mr. Audley?"
"I have not, Miss Audley. On principle, I object to listen, and in practice I believe it to be a very troublesome proceeding; but I am a barrister, Miss Alicia, and able to draw a conclusion by induction. Do you know what inductive evidence is, Miss Audley?"
"No," replied Alicia, looking at her cousin as a handsome young panther might look at its daring tormentor.
"I thought not. I dare say Sir Harry would ask if it was a new kind of horse-ball. I knew by induction that the baronet was going to make you an offer; first, because he came downstairs with his hair parted on the wrong side, and his face as pale as a tablecloth; secondly, because he couldn't eat any breakfast, and let his coffee go the wrong way; and, thirdly, because he asked for an interview with you before he left the Court. Well, how's it to be, Alicia? Do we marry the baronet, and is poor Cousin Bob to be the best man at the wedding?"
"Sir Harry Towers is a noble-hearted young man," said Alicia, still trying to pass her cousin.
"But do we accept him--yes or no? Are we to be Lady Towers, with a superb estate in Hertfordshire, summer quarters for our hunters, and a drag with outriders to drive us across to papa's place in Essex? Is it to be so, Alicia, or not?"
"What is that to you, Mr. Robert Audley?" cried Alicia, passionately. "What do _you_ care what becomes of me, or whom I marry? If I married a chimney-sweep you'd only lift up your eyebrows and say, 'Bless my soul, she was always eccentric.' I have refused Sir Harry Towers; but when I think of his generous and unselfish affection, and compare it with the heartless, lazy, selfish, supercilious indifference of other men, I've a good mind to run after him and tell him--"
"That you'll retract, and be my Lady Towers?"
"Then don't, Alicia, don't," said Robert Audley, grasping his cousin's slender little wrist, and leading her up-stairs. "Come into the drawing-room with me, Alicia, my poor little cousin; my charming, impetuous, alarming little cousin. Sit down here in this mullioned window, and let us talk seriously and leave off quarreling if we can."
The cousins had the drawing-room all to themselves. Sir Michael was out, my lady in her own apartments, and poor Sir Harry Towers walking up and down upon the gravel walk, darkened with the flickering shadows of the leafless branches in the cold winter sunshine.
"My poor little Alicia," said Robert, as tenderly as if he had been addressing some spoiled child, "do you suppose that because people don't wear vinegar tops, or part their hair on the wrong side, or conduct themselves altogether after the manner of well-meaning maniacs, by way of proving the vehemence of their passion--do you suppose because of this, Alicia Audley, that they may not be just as sensible of the merits of a dear little warm-hearted and affectionate girl as ever their neighbors can be? Life is such a very troublesome matter, when all is said and done, that it's as well even to take its blessings quietly. I don't make a great howling because I can get good cigars one door from the corner of Chancery Lane, and have a dear, good girl for my cousin; but I am not the less grateful to Providence that it is so."
Alicia opened her gray eyes to their widest extent, looking her cousin full in the face with a bewildered stare. Robert had picked up the ugliest and leanest of his attendant curs, and was placidly stroking the animal's ears.
"Is this all you have to say to me, Robert?" asked Miss Audley, meekly.
"Well, yes, I think so," replied her cousin, after considerable deliberation. "I fancy that what I wanted to say was this--don't marry the fox-hunting baronet if you like anybody else better; for if you'll only be patient and take life easily, and try and reform yourself of banging doors, bouncing in and out rooms, talking of the stables, and riding across country, I've no doubt the person you prefer will make you a very excellent husband."
"Thank you, cousin," said Miss Audley, crimsoning with bright, indignant blushes up to the roots of her waving brown hair; "but as you may not know the person I prefer, I think you had better not take upon yourself to answer for him."
Robert pulled the dog's ears thoughtfully for some moments.
"No, to be sure," he said, after a pause. "Of course, if I don't know him--I thought I did."
"_Did you?_" exclaimed Alicia; and opening the door with a violence that made her cousin shiver, she bounced out of the drawing-room.
"I only said I thought I knew him," Robert called after her; and, then, as he sunk into an easy-chair, he murmured thoughtfully: "Such a nice girl, too, if she didn't bounce."
So poor Sir Harry Towers rode away from Audley Court, looking very crestfallen and dismal.
He had very little pleasure in returning to the stately mansion, hidden among sheltering oaks and venerable beeches. The square, red brick house, gleaming at the end of a long arcade of leafless trees was to be forever desolate, he thought, since Alicia would not come to be its mistress.
A hundred improvements planned and thought of were dismissed from his mind as useless now. The hunter that Jim the trainer was breaking in for a lady; the two pointer pups that were being reared for the next shooting season; the big black retriever that would have carried Alicia's parasol; the pavilion in the garden, disused since his mother's death, but which he had meant to have restored for Miss Audley--all these things were now so much vanity and vexation of spirit.
"What's the good of being rich if one has no one to help spend one's money?" said the young baronet. "One only grows a selfish beggar, and takes to drinking too much port. It's a hard thing that a girl can refuse a true heart and such stables as we've got at the park. It unsettles a man somehow."
Indeed, this unlooked for rejection had very much unsettled the few ideas which made up the small sum of the baronet's mind.
He had been desperately in love with Alicia ever since the last hunting season, when he had met her at the county ball. His passion, cherished through the slow monotony of a summer, had broken out afresh in the merry winter months, and the young man's _mauvaise honte_ alone had delayed the offer of his hand. But he had never for a moment supposed that he would be refused; he was so used to the adulation of mothers who had daughters to marry, and of even the daughters themselves; he had been so accustomed to feel himself the leading personage in an assembly, although half the wits of the age had been there, and he could only say "Haw, to be sure!" and "By Jove--hum!" he had been so spoiled by the flatteries of bright eyes that looked, or seemed to look, the brighter when he drew near, that without being possessed of one shadow of personal vanity, he had yet come to think that he had only to make an offer to the prettiest girl in Essex to behold himself immediately accepted.
"Yes," he would say complacently to some admiring satellite, "I know I'm a good match, and I know what makes the gals so civil. They're very pretty, and they're very friendly to a fellow; but I don't care about 'em. They're all alike--they can only drop their eyes and say, 'Lor', Sir Harry, why do you call that curly black dog a retriever?' or 'Oh Sir Harry, and did the poor mare really sprain her pastern shoulder-blade?' I haven't got much brains myself, I know," the baronet would add deprecatingly; "and I don't want a strong-minded woman, who writes books and wears green spectacles; but, hang it! I like a gal who knows what she's talking about."
So when Alicia said "No," or rather made that pretty speech about esteem and respect, which well-bred young ladies substitute for the obnoxious monosyllable, Sir Harry Towers felt that the whole fabric of the future he had built so complacently was shivered into a heap of dingy ruins.
Sir Michael grasped him warmly by the hand just before the young man mounted his horse in the court-yard.
"I'm very sorry, Towers," he said. "You're as good a fellow as ever breathed, and would have made my girl an excellent husband; but you know there's a cousin, and I think that--"
"Don't say that, Sir Michael," interrupted the fox-hunter, energetically. "I can get over anything but that. A fellow whose hand upon the curb weighs half a ton (why, he pulled the Cavalier's mouth to pieces, sir, the day you let him ride the horse); a fellow who turns his collars down, and eats bread and marmalade! No, no, Sir Michael; it's a queer world, but I can't think that of Miss Audley. There must be some one in the background, sir; it can't be the cousin."
Sir Michael shook his head as the rejected suitor rode away.
"I don't know about that," he muttered. "Bob's a good lad, and the girl might do worse; but he hangs back as if he didn't care for her. There's some mystery--there's some mystery!"
The old baronet said this in that semi-thoughtful tone with which we speak of other people's affairs. The shadows of the early winter twilight, gathering thickest under the low oak ceiling of the hall, and the quaint curve of the arched doorway, fell darkly round his handsome head; but the light of his declining life, his beautiful and beloved young wife, was near him, and he could see no shadows when she was by.
She came skipping through the hall to meet him, and, shaking her golden ringlets, buried her bright head on her husband's breast.
"So the last of our visitors is gone, dear, and we're all alone," she said. "Isn't that nice?"
"Yes, darling," he answered fondly, stroking her bright hair.
"Except Mr. Robert Audley. How long is that nephew of yours going to stay here?"
"As long as he likes, my pet; he's always welcome," said the baronet; and then, as if remembering himself, he added, tenderly: "But not unless his visit is agreeable to you, darling; not if his lazy habits, or his smoking, or his dogs, or anything about him is displeasing to you."
Lady Audley pursed up her rosy lips and looked thoughtfully at the ground.
"It isn't that," she said, hesitatingly. "Mr. Audley is a very agreeable young man, and a very honorable young man; but you know, Sir Michael, I'm rather a young aunt for such a nephew, and--"
"And what, Lucy?" asked the baronet, fiercely.
"Poor Alicia is rather jealous of any attention Mr. Audley pays me, and--and--I think it would be better for her happiness if your nephew were to bring his visit to a close."
"He shall go to-night, Lucy," exclaimed Sir Michael. "I am a blind, neglectful fool not to have thought of this before. My lovely little darling, it was scarcely just to Bob to expose the poor lad to your fascinations. I know him to be as good and true-hearted a fellow as ever breathed, but--but--he shall go tonight."
"But you won't be too abrupt, dear? You won't be rude?"
"Rude! No, Lucy. I left him smoking in the lime-walk. I'll go and tell him that he must get out of the house in an hour."
So in that leafless avenue, under whose gloomy shade George Talboys had stood on that thunderous evening before the day of his disappearance, Sir Michael Audley told his nephew that the Court was no home for him, and that my lady was too young and pretty to accept the attentions of a handsome nephew of eight-and-twenty.
Robert only shrugged his shoulders and elevated his thick, black eyebrows as Sir Michael delicately hinted all this.
"I have been attentive to my lady," he said. "She interests me;" and then, with a change in his voice, and an emotion not common to him, he turned to the baronet, and grasping his hand, exclaimed, "God forbid, my dear uncle, that I should ever bring trouble upon such a noble heart as yours! God forbid that the slightest shadow of dishonor should ever fall upon your honored head--least of all through agency of mine."
The young man uttered these few words in a broken and disjointed fashion in which Sir Michael had never heard him speak, before, and then turning away his head, fairly broke down.
He left the court that night, but he did not go far. Instead of taking the evening train for London, he went straight up to the little village of Mount Stanning, and walking into the neatly-kept inn, asked Phoebe Marks if he could be accommodated with apartments.