My correspondence about this time was not very extensive. About once a fortnight a letter from honest Mrs. Rusk conveyed to me how the dogs and ponies were, in queer English, oddly spelt; some village gossip, a critique upon Doctor Clay's or the Curate's last sermon, and some severities generally upon the Dissenters' doings, with loves to Mary Quince, and all good wishes to me. Sometimes a welcome letter from cheerful Cousin Monica; and now, to vary the series, a copy of complimentary verses, without a signature, very adoring—very like Byron, I then fancied, and now, I must confess, rather vapid. Could I doubt from whom they came?
I had received, about a month after my arrival, a copy of verses in the same hand, in a plaintive ballad style, of the soldierly sort, in which the writer said, that as living his sole object was to please me, so dying I should be his latest thought; and some more poetic impieties, asking only in return that when the storm of battle had swept over, I should 'shed a tear' on seeing 'the oak lie, where it fell.' Of course, about this lugubrious pun, there could be no misconception. The Captain was unmistakably indicated; and I was so moved that I could no longer retain my secret; but walking with Milly that day, confided the little romance to that unsophisticated listener, under the chestnut trees. The lines were so amorously dejected, and yet so heroically redolent of blood and gunpowder, that Milly and I agreed that the writer must be on the verge of a sanguinary campaign.
It was not easy to get at Uncle Silas's 'Times' or 'Morning Post,' which we fancied would explain these horrible allusions; but Milly bethought her of a sergeant in the militia, resident in Feltram, who knew the destination and quarters of every regiment in the service; and circuitously, from this authority, we learned, to my infinite relief, that Captain Oakley's regiment had still two years to sojourn in England.
I was summoned one evening by old L'Amour, to my uncle's room. I remember his appearance that evening so well, as he lay back in his chair; the pillow; the white glare of his strange eye; his feeble, painful smile.
'You'll excuse my not rising, dear Maud, I am so miserably ill this evening.'
I expressed my respectful condolence.
'Yes; I am to be pitied; but pity is of no use, dear,' he murmured, peevishly. 'I sent for you to make you acquainted with your cousin, my son. Where are you Dudley?'
A figure seated in a low lounging chair, at the other side of the fire, and which till then I had not observed, at these words rose up a little slowly, like a man stiff after a day's hunting; and I beheld with a shock that held my breath, and fixed my eyes upon him in a stare, the young man whom I had encountered at Church Scarsdale, on the day of my unpleasant excursion there with Madame, and who, to the best of my belief, was also one of that ruffianly party who had so unspeakably terrified me in the warren at Knowl.
I suppose I looked very much affrighted. If I had been looking at a ghost I could not have felt much more scared and incredulous.
When I was able to turn my eyes upon my uncle he was not looking at me; but with a glimmer of that smile with which a father looks on a son whose youth and comeliness he admires, his white face was turned towards the young man, in whom I beheld nothing but the image of odious and dreadful associations.
'Come, sir,' said my uncle, we must not be too modest. Here's your cousin Maud—what do you say?'
'How are ye, Miss?' he said, with a sheepish grin.
'Miss! Come, come. Miss us, no Misses,' said my uncle; 'she is Maud, and you Dudley, or I mistake; or we shall have you calling Milly, madame. She'll not refuse you her hand, I venture to think. Come, young gentleman, speak for yourself.'
'How are ye, Maud?' he said, doing his best, and drawing near, he extended his hand.' You're welcome to Bartram-Haugh, Miss.'
'Kiss your cousin, sir. Where's your gallantry? On my honour, I disown you,' exclaimed my uncle, with more energy than he had shown before.
With a clumsy effort, and a grin that was both sheepish and impudent, he grasped my hand and advanced his face. The imminent salute gave me strength to spring back a step or two, and he hesitated.
My uncle laughed peevishly.
'Well, well, that will do, I suppose. In my time first-cousins did not meet like strangers; but perhaps we were wrong; we are learning modesty from the Americans, and old English ways are too gross for us.'
'I have—I've seen him before—that is;' and at this point I stopped.
My uncle turned his strange glare, in a sort of scowl of enquiry, upon me.
'Oh!—hey! why this is news. You never told me. Where have you met—eh, Dudley?'
'Never saw her in my days, so far as I'm aweer on,' said the young man.
'No! Well, then, Maud, will you enlighten us?' said Uncle Silas, coldly.
'I did see that young gentleman before,' I faltered.
'Meaning me, ma'am?' he asked, coolly.
'Yes—certainly you. I did, uncle,' answered I.
'And where was it, my dear? Not at Knowl, I fancy. Poor dear Austin did not trouble me or mine much with his hospitalities.'
This was not a pleasant tone to take in speaking of his dead brother and benefactor; but at the moment I was too much engaged upon the one point to observe it.
'I met'—I could not say my cousin—'I met him, uncle—your son—that young gentleman—I saw him, I should say, at Church Scarsdale, and afterwards with some other persons in the warren at Knowl. It was the night our gamekeeper was beaten.'
'Well, Dudley, what do you say to that?' asked Uncle Silas.
'I never was at them places, so help me. I don't know where they be; and I never set eyes on the young lady before, as I hope to be saved, in all my days,' said he, with a countenance so unchanged and an air so confident that I began to think I must be the dupe of one of those strange resemblances which have been known to lead to positive identification in the witness-box, afterwards proved to be utterly mistaken.
'You look so—so uncomfortable, Maud, at the idea of having seen him before, that I hardly wonder at the vehemence of his denial. There was plainly something disagreeable; but you see as respects him it is a total mistake. My boy was always a truth-telling fellow—you may rely implicitly on what he says. You were not at those places?'
'I wish I may——,' began the ingenuous youth, with increased vehemence.
'There, there—that will do; your honour and word as a gentleman—and that you are, though a poor one—will quite satisfy your cousin Maud. Am I right, my dear? I do assure you, as a gentleman, I never knew him to say the thing that was not.'
So Mr. Dudley Ruthyn began, not to curse, but to swear, in the prescribed form, that he had never seen me before, or the places I had named, 'since I was weaned, by——'
'That's enough—now shake hands, if you won't kiss, like cousins,' interrupted my uncle.
And very uncomfortably I did lend him my hand to shake.
'You'll want some supper, Dudley, so Maud and I will excuse your going. Good-night, my dear boy,' and he smiled and waved him from the room.
'That's as fine a young fellow, I think, as any English father can boast for his son—true, brave, and kind, and quite an Apollo. Did you observe how finely proportioned he is, and what exquisite features the fellow has? He's rustic and rough, as you see; but a year or two in the militia—I've a promise of a commission for him—he's too old for the line—will form and polish him. He wants nothing but manner; and I protest when he has had a little drilling of that kind, I do believe he'll be as pretty a fellow as you'd find in England.'
I listened with amazement. I could discover nothing but what was disagreeable in the horrid bumpkin, and thought such an instance of the blindness of parental partiality was hardly credible.
I looked down, dreading another direct appeal to my judgment; and Uncle Silas, I suppose, referred those downcast looks to maiden modesty, for he forbore to task mine by any new interrogatory.
Dudley Ruthyn's cool and resolute denial of ever having seen me or the places I had named, and the inflexible serenity of his countenance while doing so, did very much shake my confidence in my own identification of him. I could not be quite certain that the person I had seen at Church Scarsdale was the very same whom I afterwards saw at Knowl. And now, in this particular instance, after the lapse of a still longer period, could I be perfectly certain that my memory, deceived by some accidental points of resemblance, had not duped me, and wronged my cousin, Dudley Ruthyn?
I suppose my uncle had expected from me some signs of acquiesence in his splendid estimate of his cub, and was nettled at my silence. After a short interval he said—
'I've seen something of the world in my day, and I can say without a misgiving of partiality, that Dudley is the material of a perfect English gentleman. I am not blind, of course—the training must be supplied; a year or two of good models, active self-criticism, and good society. I simply say that the material is there.'
Here was another interval of silence.
'And now tell me, child, what these recollections of Church—Church—what?'
'Church Scarsdale,' I replied.
'Yes, thank you—Church Scarsdale and Knowl—are?'
So I related my stories as well as I could.
'Well, dear Maud, the adventure of Church Scarsdale is hardly so terrific as I expected,' said Uncle Silas with a cold little laugh; 'and I don't see, if he had really been the hero of it, why he should shrink from avowing it. I know I should not. And I really can't say that your pic-nic party in the grounds of Knowl has frightened me much more. A lady waiting in the carriage, and two or three tipsy young men. Her presence seems to me a guarantee that no mischief was meant; but champagne is the soul of frolic, and a row with the gamekeepers a natural consequence. It happened to me once—forty years ago, when I was a wild young buck—one of the worst rows I ever was in.'
And Uncle Silas poured some eau-de-cologne over the corner of his handkerchief, and touched his temples with it.
'If my boy had been there, I do assure you—and I know him—he would say so at once. I fancy he would rather boast of it. I never knew him utter an untruth. When you know him a little you'll say so.'
With these words Uncle Silas leaned back exhausted, and languidly poured some of his favourite eau-de-cologne over the palms of his hands, nodded a farewell, and, in a whisper, wished me good-night.
'Dudley's come,' whispered Milly, taking me under the arm as I entered the lobby. 'But I don't care: he never gives me nout; and he gets money from Governor, as much as he likes, and I never a sixpence. It's a shame!'
So there was no great love between the only son and only daughter of the younger line of the Ruthyns.
I was curious to learn all that Milly could tell me of this new inmate of Bartram-Haugh; and Milly was communicative without having a great deal to relate, and what I heard from her tended to confirm my own disagreeable impressions about him. She was afraid of him. He was a 'woundy ugly customer in a wax, she could tell me.' He was the only one 'she ever knowed as had pluck to jaw the Governor.' But he was 'afeard on the Governor, too.'
His visits to Bartram-Haugh, I heard, were desultory; and this, to my relief, would probably not outlast a week or a fortnight. 'He was such a fashionable cove:' he was always 'a gadding about, mostly to Liverpool and Birmingham, and sometimes to Lunnun, itself.' He was 'keeping company one time with Beauty, Governor thought, and he was awfully afraid he'd a married her; but that was all bosh and nonsense; and Beauty would have none of his chaff and wheedling, for she liked Tom Brice;' and Milly thought that Dudley never 'cared a crack of a whip for her.' He used to go to the Windmill to have 'a smoke with Pegtop;' and he was a member of the Feltram Club, that met at the 'Plume o' Feathers.' He was 'a rare good shot,' she heard; and 'he was before the justices for poaching, but they could make nothing of it.' And the Governor said 'it was all through spite of him—for they hate us for being better blood than they.' And 'all but the squires and those upstart folk loves Dudley, he is so handsome and gay—though he be a bit cross at home.' And, 'Governor says, he'll be a Parliament man yet, spite o' them all.'
Next morning, when our breakfast was nearly ended, Dudley tapped at the window with the end of his clay pipe—a 'churchwarden' Milly called it—just such a long curved pipe as Joe Willet is made to hold between his lips in those charming illustrations of 'Barnaby Rudge'—which we all know so well—and lifting his 'wide-awake' with a burlesque salutation, which, I suppose, would have charmed the 'Plume of Feathers,' he dropped, kicked and caught his 'wide-awake,' with an agility and gravity, as he replaced it, so inexpressibly humorous, that Milly went off in a loud fit of laughter, with the ejaculation—
'Did you ever?'
It was odd how repulsively my confidence in my original identification always revived on unexpectedly seeing Dudley after an interval.
I could perceive that this piece of comic by-play was meant to make a suitable impression on me. I received it, however, with a killing gravity; and after a word or two to Milly, he lounged away, having first broken his pipe, bit by bit, into pieces, which he balanced in turn on his nose and on his chin, from which features he jerked them into his mouth, with a precision which, along with his excellent pantomime of eating them, highly excited Milly's mirth and admiration.