So Milly and I drove through the gabled high street of Feltram next day. We saw my gracious cousin smoking with a man like a groom, at the door of the 'Plume of Feathers.' I drew myself back as we passed, and Milly popped her head out of the window.
'I'm blessed,' said she, laughing, 'if he hadn't his thumb to his nose, and winding up his little finger, the way he does with old Wyat—L'Amour, ye know; and you may be sure he said something funny, for Jim Jolliter was laughin', with his pipe in his hand.'
'I wish I had not seen him, Milly. I feel as if it were an ill omen. He always looks so cross; and I dare say he wished us some ill,' I said.
'No, no, you don't know Dudley: if he were angry, he'd say nothing that's funny; no, he's not vexed, only shamming vexed.'
The scenery through which we passed was very pretty. The road brought us through a narrow and wooded glen. Such studies of ivied rocks and twisted roots! A little stream tinkled lonely through the hollow. Poor Milly! In her odd way she made herself companionable. I have sometimes fancied an enjoyment of natural scenery not so much a faculty as an acquirement. It is so exquisite in the instructed, so strangely absent in uneducated humanity. But certainly with Milly it was inborn and hearty; and so she could enter into my raptures, and requite them.
Then over one of those beautiful Derbyshire moors we drove, and so into a wide wooded hollow, where was our first view of Cousin Monica's pretty gabled house, beautified with that indescribable air of shelter and comfort which belongs to an old English residence, with old timber grouped round it, and something in its aspect of the quaint old times and bygone merrymakings, saying sadly, but genially, 'Come in: I bid you welcome. For two hundred years, or more, have I been the home of this beloved old family, whose generations I have seen in the cradle and in the coffin, and whose mirth and sorrows and hospitalities I remember. All their friends, like you, were welcome; and you, like them, will here enjoy the warm illusions that cheat the sad conditions of mortality; and like them you will go your way, and others succeed you, till at last I, too, shall yield to the general law of decay, and disappear.'
By this time poor Milly had grown very nervous; a state which she described in such very odd phraseology as threw me, in spite of myself—for I affected an impressive gravity in lecturing her upon her language—into a hearty fit of laughter.
I must mention, however, that in certain important points Milly was very essentially reformed. Her dress, though not very fashionable, was no longer absurd. And I had drilled her into speaking and laughing quietly; and for the rest I trusted to the indulgence which is always, I think, more honestly and easily obtained from well-bred than from under-bred people.
Cousin Monica was out when we arrived; but we found that she had arranged a double-bedded room for me and Milly, greatly to our content; and good Mary Quince was placed in the dressing-room beside us.
We had only just commenced our toilet when our hostess entered, as usual in high spirits, welcomed and kissed us both again and again. She was, indeed, in extraordinary delight, for she had anticipated some stratagem or evasion to prevent our visit; and in her usual way she spoke her mind as frankly about Uncle Silas to poor Milly as she used to do of my dear father to me.
'I did not think he would let you come without a battle; and you know if he chose to be obstinate it would not have been easy to get you out of the enchanted ground, for so it seems to be with that awful old wizard in the midst of it. I mean, Silas, your papa, my dear. Honestly, is not he very like Michael Scott?'
'I never saw him,' answered poor Milly. 'At least, that I'm aware of,' she added, perceiving us smile. 'But I do think he's a thought like old Michael Dobbs, that sells the ferrets, maybe you mean him?'
'Why, you told me, Maud, that you and Milly were reading Walter Scott's poems. Well, no matter. Michael Scott, my dear, was a dead wizard, with ever so much silvery hair, lying in his grave for ever so many years, with just life enough to scowl when they took his book; and you'll find him in the "Lay of the Last Minstrel," exactly like your papa, my dear. And my people tell me that your brother Dudley has been seen drinking and smoking about Feltram this week. How long does he remain at home? Not very long, eh? And, Maud, dear, he has not been making love to you? Well, I see; of course he has. And apropos of love-making, I hope that impudent creature, Charles Oakley, has not been teasing you with notes or verses.'
'Indeed but he has though,' interposed Miss Milly; a good deal to my chagrin, for I saw no particular reason for placing his verses in Cousin Monica's hands. So I confessed the two little copies of verses, with the qualification, however, that I did not know from whom they came.
'Well now, dear Maud, have not I told you fifty times over to have nothing to say to him? I've found out, my dear, he plays, and he is very much in debt. I've made a vow to pay no more for him. I've been such a fool, you have no notion; and I'm speaking, you know, against myself; it would be such a relief if he were to find a wife to support him; and he has been, I'm told, very sweet upon a rich old maid—a button-maker's sister, in Manchester.'
This arrow was well shot.
'But don't be frightened: you are richer as well as younger; and, no doubt, will have your chance first, my dear; and in the meantime, I dare say, those verses, like Falstaff's billet-doux, you know, are doing double duty.'
I laughed, but the button-maker was a secret trouble to me; and I would have given I know not what that Captain Oakley were one of the company, that I might treat him with the refined contempt which his deserts and my dignity demanded.
Cousin Monica busied herself about Milly's toilet, and was a very useful lady's maid, chatting in her own way all the time; and, at last, tapping Milly under the chin with her finger, she said, very complacently—
'I think I have succeeded, Miss Milly; look in the glass. She really is a very pretty creature.'
And Milly blushed, and looked with a shy gratification, which made her still prettier, on the mirror.
Milly indeed was very pretty. She looked much taller now that her dresses were made of the usual length. A little plump she was, beautifully fair, with such azure eyes, and rich hair.
'The more you laugh the better, Milly, for you've got very pretty teeth—very pretty; and if you were my daughter, or if your father would become president of a college of magicians, and give you up to me, I venture to say I would place you very well; and even as it is we must try, my dear.'
So down to the drawing-room we went; and Cousin Monica entered, leading us both by the hands.
By this time the curtains were closed, and the drawing-room dependent on the pleasant glow of the fire, and the slight provisional illumination usual before dinner.
'Here are my two cousins,' began Lady Knollys: 'this is Miss Ruthyn, of Knowl, whom I take the liberty of calling Maud; and this is Miss Millicent Ruthyn, Silas's daughter, you know, whom I venture to call Milly; and they are very pretty, as you will see, when we get a little more light, and they know it very well themselves.'
And as she spoke, a frank-eyed, gentle, prettyish lady, not so tall as I, but with a very kind face, rose up from a book of prints, and, smiling, took our hands.
She was by no means young, as I then counted youth—past thirty, I suppose—and with an air that was very quiet, and friendly, and engaging. She had never been a mere fashionable woman plainly; but she had the ease and polish of the best society, and seemed to take a kindly interest both in Milly and me; and Cousin Monica called her Mary, and sometimes Polly. That was all I knew of her for the present.
So very pleasantly the time passed by till the dressing-bell rang, and we ran away to our room.
'Did I say anything very bad?' asked poor Milly, standing exactly before me, so soon as our door was shut.
'Nothing, Milly; you are doing admirably.'
'And I do look a great fool, don't I?' she demanded.
'You look extremely pretty, Milly; and not a bit like a fool.'
'I watch everything. I think I'll learn it at last; but it comes a little troublesome at first; and they do talk different from what I used—you were quite right there.'
When we returned to the drawing-room, we found the party already assembled, and chatting, evidently with spirit.
The village doctor, whose name I forget, a small man, grey, with shrewd grey eyes, sharp and mulberry nose, whose conflagration extended to his rugged cheeks, and touched his chin and forehead, was conversing, no doubt agreeably, with Mary, as Cousin Monica called her guest.
Over my shoulder, Milly whispered—
And Milly was quite right: that gentleman chatting with Lady Knollys, his elbow resting on the chimney-piece, was, indeed, our acquaintance of the Windmill Wood. He instantly recognised us, and met us with his pleased and intelligent smile.
'I was just trying to describe to Lady Knollys the charming scenery of the Windmill Wood, among which I was so fortunate as to make your acquaintance, Miss Ruthyn. Even in this beautiful county I know of nothing prettier.'
Then he sketched it, as it were, with a few light but glowing words.
'What a sweet scene!' said Cousin Monica: 'only think of her never bringing me through it. She reserves it, I fancy, for her romantic adventures; and you, I know, are very benevolent, Ilbury, and all that kind of thing; but I am not quite certain that you would have walked along that narrow parapet, over a river, to visit a sick old woman, if you had not happened to see two very pretty demoiselles on the other side.'
'What an ill-natured speech! I must either forfeit my character for disinterested benevolence, so justly admired, or disavow a motive that does such infinite credit to my taste,' exclaimed Mr. Carysbroke. 'I think a charitable person would have said that a philanthropist, in prosecuting his virtuous, but perilous vocation, was unexpectedly rewarded by a vision of angels.'
'And with these angels loitered away the time which ought to have been devoted to good Mother Hubbard, in her fit of lumbago, and returned without having set eyes on that afflicted Christian, to amaze his worthy sister with poetic babblings about wood-nymphs and such pagan impieties,' rejoined Lady Knollys.
'Well, be just,' he replied, laughing; 'did not I go next day and see the patient?'
'Yes; next day you went by the same route—in quest of the dryads, I am afraid—and were rewarded by the spectacle of Mother Hubbard.'
'Will nobody help a humane man in difficulties?' Mr. Carysbroke appealed.
'I do believe,' said the lady whom as yet I knew only as Mary, 'that every word that Monica says is perfectly true.'
'And if it be so, am I not all the more in need of help? Truth is simply the most dangerous kind of defamation, and I really think I'm most cruelly persecuted.'
At this moment dinner was announced, and a meek and dapper little clergyman, with smooth pink cheeks, and tresses parted down the middle, whom I had not seen before, emerged from shadow.
This little man was assigned to Milly, Mr. Carysbroke to me, and I know not how the remaining ladies divided the doctor between them.
That dinner, the first at Elverston, I remember as a very pleasant repast. Everyone talked—it was impossible that conversation should flag where Lady Knollys was; and Mr. Carysbroke was very agreeable and amusing. At the other side of the table, the little pink curate, I was happy to see, was prattling away, with a modest fluency, in an under-tone to Milly, who was following my instructions most conscientiously, and speaking in so low a key that I could hardly hear at the opposite side one word she was saying.
That night Cousin Monica paid us a visit, as we sat chatting by the fire in our room; and I told her—
'I have just been telling Milly what an impression she has made. The pretty little clergyman—il en est épris—he has evidently quite lost his heart to her. I dare say he'll preach next Sunday on some of King Solomon's wise sayings about the irresistible strength of women.'
'Yes,' said Lady Knollys,' or maybe on the sensible text, "Whoso findeth a wife findeth a good thing, and obtaineth favour," and so forth. At all events, I may say, Milly, whoso findeth a husband such as he, findeth a tolerably good thing. He is an exemplary little creature, second son of Sir Harry Biddlepen, with a little independent income of his own, beside his church revenues of ninety pounds a year; and I don't think a more harmless and docile little husband could be found anywhere; and I think, Miss Maud, you seemed a good deal interested, too.'
I laughed and blushed, I suppose; and Cousin Monica, skipping after her wont to quite another matter, said in her odd frank way—
'And how has Silas been?—not cross, I hope, or very odd. There was a rumour that your brother, Dudley, had gone a soldiering to India, Milly, or somewhere; but that was all a story, for he has turned up, just as usual. And what does he mean to do with himself? He has got some money now—your poor father's will, Maud. Surely he doesn't mean to go on lounging and smoking away his life among poachers, and prize-fighters, and worse people. He ought to go to Australia, like Thomas Swain, who, they say, is making a fortune—a great fortune—and coming home again. That's what your brother Dudley should do, if he has either sense or spirit; but I suppose he won't—too long abandoned to idleness and low company—and he'll not have a shilling left in a year or two. Does he know, I wonder, that his father has served a notice or something on Dr. Bryerly, telling him to pay sixteen hundred pounds of poor Austin's legacy to him, and saying that he has paid debts of the young man, and holds his acknowledgments to that amount? He won't have a guinea in a year if he stays here. I'd give fifty pounds he was in Van Diemen's Land—not that I care for the cub, Milly, any more than you do; but I really don't see any honest business he has in England.'
Milly gaped in a total puzzle as Lady Knollys rattled on.
'You know, Milly, you must not be talking about this when you go home to Bartram, because Silas would prevent your coming to me any more if he thought I spoke so freely; but I can't help it: so you must promise to be more discreet than I. And I am told that all kinds of claims are about to be pressed against him, now that he is thought to have got some money; and he has been cutting down oak and selling the bark, Doctor Bryerly has been told, in that Windmill Wood; and he has kilns there for burning charcoal, and got a man from Lancashire who understands it—Hawk, or something like that.'
'Ay, Hawkes—Dickon Hawkes; that's Pegtop, you know, Maud,' said Milly.
'Well, I dare say; but a man of very bad character, Dr. Bryerly says; and he has written to Mr. Danvers about it—for that is what they call waste, cutting down and selling the timber, and the oakbark, and burning the willows, and other trees that are turned into charcoal. It is all waste, and Dr. Bryerly is about to put a stop to it.'
'Has he got your carriage for you, Maud, and your horses?' asked Cousin Monica, suddenly.
'They have not come yet, but in a few weeks, Dudley says, positively—'
Cousin Monica laughed a little and shook her head.
'Yes, Maud, the carriage and horses will always be coming in a few weeks, till the time is over; and meanwhile the old travelling chariot and post-horses will do very well;' and she laughed a little again.
'That's why the stile's pulled away at the paling, I suppose; and Beauty—Meg Hawkes, that is—is put there to stop us going through; for I often spied the smoke beyond the windmill,' observed Milly.
Cousin Monica listened with interest, and nodded silently.
I was very much shocked. It seemed to me quite incredible. I think Lady Knollys read my amazement and my exalted estimate of the heinousness of the procedure in my face, for she said—
'You know we can't quite condemn Silas till we have heard what he has to say. He may have done it in ignorance; or, it is just possible, he may have the right.'
'Quite true. He may have the right to cut down trees at Bartram-Haugh. At all events, I am sure he thinks he has,' I echoed.
The fact was, that I would not avow to myself a suspicion of Uncle Silas. Any falsehood there opened an abyss beneath my feet into which I dared not look.
'And now, dear girls, good-night. You must be tired. We breakfast at a quarter past nine—not too early for you, I know.'
And so saying, she kissed us, smiling, and was gone.
I was so unpleasantly occupied, for some time after her departure, with the knaveries said to be practised among the dense cover of the Windmill Wood, that I did not immediately recollect that we had omitted to ask her any particulars about her guests.
'Who can Mary be?' asked Milly.
'Cousin Monica says she's engaged to be married, and I think I heard the Doctor call her Lady Mary, and I intended asking her ever so much about her; but what she told us about cutting down the trees, and all that, quite put it out of my head. We shall have time enough to-morrow, however, to ask questions. I like her very much, I know.'
'And I think,' said Milly, 'it is to Mr. Carysbroke she's to be married.'
'Do you?' said I, remembering that he had sat beside her for more than a quarter of an hour after tea in very close and low-toned conversation; 'and have you any particular reason?' I asked.
'Well, I heard her once or twice call him "dear," and she called him his Christian name, just like Lady Knollys did—Ilbury, I think—and I saw him gi' her a sly kiss as she was going up-stairs.'
'Well, Milly,' I said, 'I remarked something myself, I thought, like confidential relations; but if you really saw them kiss on the staircase, the question is pretty well settled.'
'You're not to say lass.'
'Well, Maud, then. I did see them with the corner of my eye, and my back turned, when they did not think I could spy anything, as plain as I see you now.'
I laughed again; but I felt an odd pang—something of mortification—something of regret; but I smiled very gaily, as I stood before the glass, un-making my toilet preparatory to bed.
'Maud—Maud—fickle Maud!—What, Captain Oakley already superseded! and Mr. Carysbroke—oh! humiliation—engaged.' So I smiled on, very much vexed; and being afraid lest I had listened with too apparent an interest to this impostor, I sang a verse of a gay little chanson, and tried to think of Captain Oakley, who somehow had become rather silly.