Milly and I, thanks to our early Bartram hours, were first down next morning; and so soon as Cousin Monica appeared we attacked her.
'So Lady Mary is the fiancée of Mr. Carysbroke,' said I, very cleverly; 'and I think it was very wicked of you to try and involve me in a flirtation with him yesterday.'
'And who told you that, pray?' asked Lady Knollys, with a pleasant little laugh.
'Milly and I discovered it, simple as we stand here,' I answered.
'But you did not flirt with Mr. Carysbroke, Maud, did you?' she asked.
'No, certainly not; but that was not your doing, wicked woman, but my discretion. And now that we know your secret, you must tell us all about her, and all about him; and in the first place, what is her name—Lady Mary what?' I demanded.
'Who would have thought you so cunning? Two country misses—two little nuns from the cloisters of Bartram! Well, I suppose I must answer. It is vain trying to hide anything from you; but how on earth did you find it out?'
'We'll tell you that presently, but you shall first tell us who she is,' I persisted.
'Well, that I will, of course, without compulsion. She is Lady Mary Carysbroke,' said Lady Knollys.
'A relation of Mr. Carysbroke's,' I asserted.
'Yes, a relation; but who told you he was Mr. Carysbroke?' asked Cousin Monica.
'Milly told me, when we saw him in the Windmill Wood.'
'And who told you, Milly?'
'It was L'Amour,' answered Milly, with her blue eyes very wide open.
'What does the child mean? L'Amour! You don't mean love?' exclaimed Lady Knollys, puzzled in her turn.
'I mean old Wyat; she told me and the Governor.'
'You're not to say that,' I interposed.
'You mean your father?' suggested Lady Knollys.
'Well, yes; father told her, and so I knew him.'
'What could he mean?' exclaimed Lady Knollys, laughing, as it were, in soliloquy; 'and I did not mention his name, I recollect now. He recognised you, and you him, when you came into the room yesterday; and now you must tell me how you discovered that he and Lady Mary were to be married.'
So Milly restated her evidence, and Lady Knollys laughed unaccountably heartily; and she said—
'They will be so confounded! but they deserve it; and, remember, I did not say so.'
'Oh! we acquit you.'
'All I say is, such a deceitful, dangerous pair of girls—all things considered—I never heard of before,' exclaimed Lady Knollys. 'There's no such thing as conspiring in your presence.'
'Good morning. I hope you slept well.' She was addressing the lady and gentleman who were just entering the room from the conservatory. 'You'll hardly sleep so well to-night, when you have learned what eyes are upon you. Here are two very pretty detectives who have found out your secret, and entirely by your imprudence and their own cleverness have discovered that you are a pair of betrothed lovers, about to ratify your vows at the hymeneal altar. I assure you I did not tell of you; you betrayed yourselves. If you will talk in that confidential way on sofas, and call one another stealthily by your Christian names, and actually kiss at the foot of the stairs, while a clever detective is scaling them, apparently with her back toward you, you must only take the consequences, and be known prematurely as the hero and heroine of the forthcoming paragraph in the "Morning Post."'
Milly and I were horribly confounded, but Cousin Monica was resolved to place us all upon the least formal terms possible, and I believe she had set about it in the right way.
'And now, girls, I am going to make a counter-discovery, which, I fear, a little conflicts with yours. This Mr. Carysbroke is Lord Ilbury, brother of this Lady Mary; and it is all my fault for not having done my honours better; but you see what clever match-making little creatures they are.'
'You can't think how flattered I am at being made the subject of a theory, even a mistaken one, by Miss Ruthyn.'
And so, after our modest fit was over, Milly and I were very merry, like the rest, and we all grew a great deal more intimate that morning.
I think altogether those were the pleasantest and happiest days of my life: gay, intelligent, and kindly society at home; charming excursions—sometimes riding—sometimes by carriage—to distant points of beauty in the county. Evenings varied with music, reading, and spirited conversation. Now and then a visitor for a day or two, and constantly some neighbour from the town, or its dependencies, dropt in. Of these I but remember tall old Miss Wintletop, most entertaining of rustic old maids, with her nice lace and thick satin, and her small, kindly round face—pretty, I dare say, in other days, and now frosty, but kindly—who told us such delightful old stories of the county in her father's and grandfather's time; who knew the lineage of every family in it, and could recount all its duels and elopements; give us illustrative snatches from old election squibs, and lines from epitaphs, and tell exactly where all the old-world highway robberies had been committed: how it fared with the chief delinquents after the assizes; and, above all, where, and of what sort, the goblins and elves of the county had made themselves seen, from the phantom post-boy, who every third night crossed Windale Moor, by the old coach-road, to the fat old ghost, in mulberry velvet, who showed his great face, crutch, and ruffles, by moonlight, at the bow window of the old court-house that was taken down in 1803.
You cannot imagine what agreeable evenings we passed in this society, or how rapidly my good Cousin Milly improved in it. I remember well the intense suspense in which she and I awaited the answer from Bartram-Haugh to kind Cousin Monica's application for an extension of our leave of absence.
It came, and with it a note from Uncle Silas, which was curious, and, therefore, is printed here:—
'MY DEAR LADY KNOLLYS,—To your kind letter I say yes (that is, for another week, not a fortnight), with all my heart. I am glad to hear that my starlings chatter so pleasantly; at all events the refrain is not that of Sterne's. They can get out; and do get out; and shall get out as much as they please. I am no gaoler, and shut up nobody but myself. I have always thought that young people have too little liberty. My principle has been to make little free men and women of them from the first. In morals, altogether—in intellect, more than we allow—self-education is that which abides; and it only begins where constraint ends. Such is my theory. My practice is consistent. Let them remain for a week longer, as you say. The horses shall be at Elverston on Tuesday, the 7th. I shall be more than usually sad and solitary till their return; so pray, I selfishly entreat, do not extend their absence. You will smile, remembering how little my health will allow me to see of them, even when at home; but as Chaulieu so prettily says—I stupidly forget the words, but the sentiment is this—"although concealed by a sylvan wall of leaves, impenetrable—(he is pursuing his favourite nymphs through the alleys and intricacies of a rustic labyrinth)—yet, your songs, your prattle, and your laughter, faint and far away, inspire my fancy; and, through my ears, I see your unseen smiles, your blushes, your floating tresses, and your ivory feet; and so, though sad, am happy; though alone, in company;"—and such is my case.
'One only request, and I have done. Pray remind them of a promise made to me. The Book of Life—the fountain of life—it must be drunk of, night and morning, or their spiritual life expires.
'And now, Heaven bless and keep you, my dear cousin; and with all assurances of affection to my beloved niece and my child, believe me ever yours affectionately.
'SILAS RUTHYN.' Said Cousin Monica, with a waggish smile— 'And so, girls, you have Chaulieu and the evangelists; the French rhymester in his alley, and Silas in the valley of the shadow of death; perfect liberty, and a peremptory order to return in a week;—all illustrating one another. Poor Silas! old as he is, I don't think his religion fits him.' I really rather liked his letter. I was struggling hard to think well of him, and Cousin Monica knew it; and I really think if I had not been by, she would often have been less severe on him. As we were all sitting pleasantly about the breakfast table a day or two after, the sun shining on the pleasant wintry landscape, Cousin Monica suddenly exclaimed— 'I quite forgot to tell you that Charles Oakley has written to say he is coming on Wednesday. I really don't want him. Poor Charlie! I wonder how they manage those doctors' certificates. I know nothing ails him, and he'd be much better with his regiment.' Wednesday!—how odd. Exactly the day after my departure. I tried to look perfectly unconcerned. Lady Knollys had addressed herself more to Lady Mary and Milly than to me, and nobody in particular was looking at me. Notwithstanding, with my usual perversity, I felt myself blushing with a brilliancy that may have been very becoming, but which was so intolerably provoking that I would have risen and left the room but that matters would have been so infinitely worse. I could have boxed my odious ears. I could almost have jumped from the window. I felt that Lord Ilbury saw it. I saw Lady Mary's eyes for a moment resting gravely on my tell-tale—my lying cheeks—for I really had begun to think much less celestially of Captain Oakley. I was angry with Cousin Monica, who, knowing my blushing infirmity, had mentioned her nephew so suddenly while I was strapped by etiquette in my chair, with my face to the window, and two pair of most disconcerting eyes, at least, opposite. I was angry with myself—generally angry—refused more tea rather dryly, and was laconic to Lord Ilbury, all which, of course, was very cross and foolish; and afterwards, from my bed-room window, I saw Cousin Monica and Lady Mary among the flowers, under the drawing-room window, talking, as I instinctively knew, of that little incident. I was standing at the glass. 'My odious, stupid, perjured face' I whispered, furiously, at the same time stamping on the floor, and giving myself quite a smart slap on the cheek. 'I can't go down—I'm ready to cry—I've a mind to return to Bartram to-day; I am always blushing; and I wish that impudent Captain Oakley was at the bottom of the sea.' I was, perhaps, thinking more of Lord Ilbury than I was aware; and I am sure if Captain Oakley had arrived that day, I should have treated him with most unjustifiable rudeness. Notwithstanding this unfortunate blush, the remainder of our visit passed very happily for me. No one who has not experienced it can have an idea how intimate a small party, such as ours, will grow in a short time in a country house. Of course, a young lady of a well-regulated mind cannot possibly care a pin about any one of the opposite sex until she is well assured that he is beginning, at least, to like her better than all the world beside; but I could not deny to myself that I was rather anxious to know more about Lord Ilbury than I actually did know. There was a 'Peerage,' in its bright scarlet and gold uniform, corpulent and tempting, upon the little marble table in the drawing-room. I had many opportunities of consulting it, but I never could find courage to do so. For an inexperienced person it would have been a matter of several minutes, and during those minutes what awful risk of surprise and detection. One day, all being quiet, I did venture, and actually, with a beating heart, got so far as to find out the letter 'Il,' when I heard a step outside the door, which opened a little bit, and I heard Lady Knollys, luckily arrested at the entrance, talk some sentences outside, her hand still upon the door-handle. I shut the book, as Mrs. Bluebeard might the door of the chamber of horrors at the sound of her husband's step, and skipped to a remote part of the room, where Cousin Knollys found me in a mysterious state of agitation. On any other subject I would have questioned Cousin Monica unhesitatingly; upon this, somehow, I was dumb. I distrusted myself, and dreaded my odious habit of blushing, and knew that I should look so horribly guilty, and become so agitated and odd, that she would have reasonably concluded that I had quite lost my heart to him. After the lesson I had received, and my narrow escape of detection in the very act, you may be sure I never trusted myself in the vicinity of that fat and cruel 'Peerage,' which possessed the secret, but would not disclose without compromising me. In this state of tantalizing darkness and conjecture I should have departed, had not Cousin Monica quite spontaneously relieved me. The night before our departure she sat with us in our room, chatting a little farewell gossip. 'And what do you think of Ilbury?' she asked. 'I think him clever and accomplished, and amusing; but he sometimes appears to me very melancholy—that is, for a few minutes together—and then, I fancy, with an effort, re-engages in our conversation.' 'Yes, poor Ilbury! He lost his brother only about five months since, and is only beginning to recover his spirits a little. They were very much attached, and people thought that he would have succeeded to the title, had he lived, because Ilbury is difficile—or a philosopher—or a Saint Kevin; and, in fact, has begun to be treated as a premature old bachelor.' 'What a charming person his sister, Lady Mary, is. She has made me promise to write to her,' I said, I suppose—such hypocrites are we—to prove to Cousin Knollys that I did not care particularly to hear anything more about him. 'Yes, and so devoted to him. He came down here, and took The Grange, for change of scene and solitude—of all things the worst for a man in grief—a morbid whim, as he is beginning to find out; for he is very glad to stay here, and confesses that he is much better since he came. His letters are still addressed to him as Mr. Carysbroke; for he fancied if his rank were known, that the county people would have been calling upon him, and so he would have found himself soon involved in a tiresome round of dinners, and must have gone somewhere else. You saw him, Milly, at Bartram, before Maud came?' Yes, she had, when he called there to see her father. 'He thought, as he had accepted the trusteeship, that he could hardly, residing so near, omit to visit Silas. He was very much struck and interested by him, and he has a better opinion of him—you are not angry, Milly—than some ill-natured people I could name; and he says that the cutting down of the trees will turn out to have been a mere slip. But these slips don't occur with clever men in other things; and some persons have a way of always making them in their own favour. And, to talk of other things, I suspect that you and Milly will probably see Ilbury at Bartram; for I think he likes you very much.' You; did she mean both, or only me? So our pleasant visit was over. Milly's good little curate had been much thrown in her way by our deep and dangerous cousin Monica. He was most laudably steady; and his flirtation advanced upon the field of theology, where, happily, Milly's little reading had been concentrated. A mild and earnest interest in poor, pretty Milly's orthodoxy was the leading feature of his case; and I was highly amused at her references to me, when we had retired at night, upon the points which she had disputed with him, and her anxious reports of their low-toned conferences, carried on upon a sequestered ottoman, where he patted and stroked his crossed leg, as he smiled tenderly and shook his head at her questionable doctrine. Milly's reverence for her instructor, and his admiration, grew daily; and he was known among us as Milly's confessor. He took luncheon with us on the day of our departure, and with an adroit privacy, which in a layman would have been sly, presented her, in right of his holy calling, with a little book, the binding of which was mediaeval and costly, and whose letter-press dealt in a way which he commended, with some points on which she was not satisfactory; and she found on the fly-leaf this little inscription:—'Presented to Miss Millicent Ruthyn by an earnest well-wisher, 1st December 1844.' A text, very neatly penned, followed this; and the 'presentation' was made unctiously indeed, but with a blush, as well as the accustomed smile, and with eyes that were lowered. The early crimson sun of December had gone down behind the hills before we took our seats in the carriage. Lord Ilbury leaned with his elbow on the carriage window, looking in, and he said to me— 'I really don't know what we shall do, Miss Ruthyn; we shall all feel so lonely. For myself, I think I shall run away to Grange.' This appeared to me as nearly perfect eloquence as human lips could utter. His hand still rested on the window, and the Rev. Sprigge Biddlepen was standing with a saddened smirk on the door steps, when the whip smacked, the horses scrambled into motion, and away we rolled down the avenue, leaving behind us the pleasantest house and hostess in the world, and trotting fleetly into darkness towards Bartram-Haugh. We were both rather silent. Milly had her book in her lap, and I saw her every now and then try to read her 'earnest well-wisher's' little inscription, but there was not light to read by. When we reached the great gate of Bartram-Haugh it was dark. Old Crowl, who kept the gate, I heard enjoining the postilion to make no avoidable noise at the hall-door, for the odd but startling reason that he believed my uncle 'would be dead by this time.' Very much shocked and frightened, we stopped the carriage, and questioned the tremulous old porter. Uncle Silas, it seemed, had been 'silly-ish' all yesterday, and 'could not be woke this morning,' and 'the doctor had been here twice, being now in the house.' 'Is he better?' I asked, tremblingly. 'Not as I'm aweer on, Miss; he lay at God's mercy two hours agone; 'appen he's in heaven be this time.' 'Drive on—drive fast,' I said to the driver. 'Don't be frightened, Milly; please Heaven we shall find all going well.' After some delay, during which my heart sank, and I quite gave up Uncle Silas, the aged little servant-man opened the door, and trotted shakily down the steps to the carriage side. Uncle Silas had been at death's door for hours; the question of life had trembled in the scale; but now the doctor said 'he might do.' 'Where was the doctor?' 'In master's room; he blooded him three hours agone.' I don't think that Milly was so frightened as I. My heart beat, and I was trembling so that I could hardly get up-stairs.