Next morning early I visited my favourite full-length portrait in the chocolate coat and top-boots. Scanty as had been my cousin Monica's notes upon this dark and eccentric biography, they were everything to me. A soul had entered that enchanted form. Truth had passed by with her torch, and a sad light shone for a moment on that enigmatic face.
There stood the roué—the duellist—and, with all his faults, the hero too! In that dark large eye lurked the profound and fiery enthusiasm of his ill-starred passion. In the thin but exquisite lip I read the courage of the paladin, who would have 'fought his way,' though single-handed, against all the magnates of his county, and by ordeal of battle have purged the honour of the Ruthyns. There in that delicate half-sarcastic tracery of the nostril I detected the intellectual defiance which had politically isolated Silas Ruthyn and opposed him to the landed oligarchy of his county, whose retaliation had been a hideous slander. There, too, and on his brows and lip, I traced the patience of a cold disdain. I could now see him as he was—the prodigal, the hero, and the martyr. I stood gazing on him with a girlish interest and admiration. There was indignation, there was pity, there was hope. Some day it might come to pass that I, girl as I was, might contribute by word or deed towards the vindication of that long-suffering, gallant, and romantic prodigal. It was a flicker of the Joan of Arc inspiration, common, I fancy, to many girls. I little then imagined how profoundly and strangely involved my uncle's fate would one day become with mine.
I was interrupted by Captain Oakley's voice at the window. He was leaning on the window-sill, and looking in with a smile—the window being open, the morning sunny, and his cap lifted in his hand.
'Good-morning, Miss Ruthyn. What a charming old place! quite the setting for a romance; such timber, and this really beautiful house. I do so like these white and black houses—wonderful old things. By-the-by, you treated us very badly last night—you did, indeed; upon my word, now, it really was too bad—running away, and drinking tea with Lady Knollys—so she says. I really—I should not like to tell you how very savage I felt, particularly considering how very short my time is.'
I was a shy, but not a giggling country miss. I knew I was an heiress; I knew I was somebody. I was not the least bit in the world conceited, but I think this knowledge helped to give me a certain sense of security and self-possession, which might have been mistaken for dignity or simplicity. I am sure I looked at him with a fearless enquiry, for he answered my thoughts.
'I do really assure you, Miss Ruthyn, I am quite serious; you have no idea how very much we have missed you.'
There was a little pause, and, like a fool, I lowered my eyes, and blushed.
'I—I was thinking of leaving to-day; I am so unfortunate—my leave is just out—it is so unlucky; but I don't quite know whether my aunt Knollys will allow me to go.'
'I?—certainly, my dear Charlie, I don't want you at all,' exclaimed a voice—Lady Knollys's—briskly, from an open window close by; 'what could put that in your head, dear?'
And in went my cousin's head, and the window shut down.
'She is such an oddity, poor dear Aunt Knollys,' murmured the young man, ever so little put out, and he laughed. 'I never know quite what she wishes, or how to please her; but she's so good-natured; and when she goes to town for the season—she does not always, you know—her house is really very gay—you can't think——'
Here again he was interrupted, for the door opened, and Lady Knollys entered. 'And you know, Charles,' she continued, 'it would not do to forget your visit to Snodhurst; you wrote, you know, and you have only to-night and to-morrow. You are thinking of nothing but that moor; I heard you talking to the gamekeeper; I know he is—is not he, Maud, the brown man with great whiskers, and leggings? I'm very sorry, you know, but I really must spoil your shooting, for they do expect you at Snodhurst, Charlie; and do not you think this window a little too much for Miss Ruthyn? Maud, my dear, the air is very sharp; shut it down, Charles, and you'd better tell them to get a fly for you from the town after luncheon. Come, dear,' she said to me. 'Was not that the breakfast bell? Why does not your papa get a gong?—it is so hard to know one bell from another.'
I saw that Captain Oakley lingered for a last look, but I did not give it, and went out smiling with Cousin Knollys, and wondering why old ladies are so uniformly disagreeable.
In the lobby she said, with an odd, good-natured look—
'Don't allow any of his love-making, my dear. Charles Oakley has not a guinea, and an heiress would be very convenient. Of course he has his eyes about him. Charles is not by any means foolish; and I should not be at all sorry to see him well married, for I don't think he will do much good any other way; but there are degrees, and his ideas are sometimes very impertinent.'
I was an admiring reader of the Albums, the Souvenirs, the Keepsakes, and all that flood of Christmas-present lore which yearly irrigated England, with pretty covers and engravings; and floods of elegant twaddle—the milk, not destitute of water, on which the babes of literature were then fed. On this, my genius throve. I had a little album, enriched with many gems of original thought and observation, which I jotted down in suitable language. Lately, turning over these faded leaves of rhyme and prose, I lighted, under this day's date, upon the following sage reflection, with my name appended:—
'Is there not in the female heart an ineradicable jealousy, which, if it sways the passions of the young, rules also the advice of the aged? Do they not grudge to youth the sentiments (though Heaven knows how shadowed with sorrow) which they can no longer inspire, perhaps even experience; and does not youth, in turn, sigh over the envy which has power to blight?
MAUD AYLMER RUTHYN.' 'He has not been making love to me,' I said rather tartly, 'and he does not seem to me at all impertinent, and I really don't care the least whether he goes or stays.' Cousin Monica looked in my face with her old waggish smile, and laughed. 'You'll understand those London dandies better some day, dear Maud; they are very well, but they like money—not to keep, of course—but still they like it and know its value.' At breakfast my father told Captain Oakley where he might have shooting, or if he preferred going to Dilsford, only half an hour's ride, he might have his choice of hunters, and find the dogs there that morning. The Captain smiled archly at me, and looked at his aunt. There was a suspense. I hope I did not show how much I was interested—but it would not do. Cousin Monica was inexorable. 'Hunting, hawking, fishing, fiddle-de-dee! You know, Charlie, my dear, it is quite out of the question. He is going to Snodhurst this afternoon, and without quite a rudeness, in which I should be involved too, he really can't—you know you can't, Charles! and—and he must go and keep his engagement.' So papa acquiesced with a polite regret, and hoped another time. 'Oh, leave all that to me. When you want him, only write me a note, and I'll send him or bring him if you let me. I always know where to find him—don't I, Charlie?—and we shall be only too happy.' Aunt Monica's influence with her nephew was special, for she 'tipped' him handsomely every now and then, and he had formed for himself agreeable expectations, besides, respecting her will. I felt rather angry at his submitting to this sort of tutelage, knowing nothing of its motive; I was also disgusted by Cousin Monica's tyranny. So soon as he had left the room, Lady Knollys, not minding me, said briskly to papa, 'Never let that young man into your house again. I found him making speeches, this morning, to little Maud here; and he really has not two pence in the world—it is amazing impudence—and you know such absurd things do happen.' 'Come, Maud, what compliments did he pay you?' asked my father. I was vexed, and therefore spoke courageously. 'His compliments were not to me; they were all to the house,' I said, drily. 'Quite as it should be—the house, of course; it is that he's in love with,' said Cousin Knollys.
'Twas on a widow's jointure land,
The archer, Cupid, took his stand.'
'Hey! I don't quite understand,' said my father, slily.
'Tut! Austin; you forget Charlie is my nephew.'
'So I did,' said my father.
'Therefore the literal widow in this case can have no interest in view but one, and that is yours and Maud's. I wish him well, but he shan't put my little cousin and her expectations into his empty pocket—not a bit of it. And there's another reason, Austin, why you should marry—you have no eye for these things, whereas a clever woman would see at a glance and prevent mischief.'
'So she would,' acquiesced my father, in his gloomy, amused way. 'Maud, you must try to be a clever woman.'
'So she will in her time, but that is not come yet; and I tell you, Austin Ruthyn, if you won't look about and marry somebody, somebody may possibly marry you.'
'You were always an oracle, Monica; but here I am lost in total perplexity,' said my father.
'Yes; sharks sailing round you, with keen eyes and large throats; and you have come to the age precisely when men are swallowed up alive like Jonah.'
'Thank you for the parallel, but you know that was not a happy union, even for the fish, and there was a separation in a few days; not that I mean to trust to that; but there's no one to throw me into the jaws of the monster, and I've no notion of jumping there; and the fact is, Monica, there's no monster at all.'
'I'm not so sure.'
'But I'm quite sure,' said my father, a little drily. 'You forget how old I am, and how long I've lived alone—I and little Maud;' and he smiled and smoothed my hair, and, I thought, sighed.
'No one is ever too old to do a foolish thing,' began Lady Knollys.
'Nor to say a foolish thing, Monica. This has gone on too long. Don't you see that little Maud here is silly enough to be frightened at your fun.'
So I was, but I could not divine how he guessed it.
'And well or ill, wisely or madly, I'll never marry; so put that out of your head.'
This was addressed rather to me, I think, than to Lady Knollys, who smiled a little waggishly on me, and said—
'To be sure, Maud; maybe you are right; a stepdame is a risk, and I ought to have asked you first what you thought of it; and upon my honour,' she continued merrily but kindly, observing that my eyes, I know not exactly from what feeling, filled with tears, 'I'll never again advise your papa to marry, unless you first tell me you wish it.'
This was a great deal from Lady Knollys, who had a taste for advising her friends and managing their affairs.
'I've a great respect for instinct. I believe, Austin, it is truer than reason, and yours and Maud's are both against me, though I know I have reason on my side.'
My father's brief wintry smile answered, and Cousin Monica kissed me, and said—
'I've been so long my own mistress that I sometimes forget there are such things as fear and jealousy; and are you going to your governess, Maud?'