All the time that Dudley chose to persecute me with his odious society, I continued to walk at a brisk pace toward home, so that I had nearly reached the house when Milly met me, with a note which had arrived for me by the post, in her hand.
'Here, Milly, are more verses. He is a very persevering poet, whoever he is.' So I broke the seal; but this time it was prose. And the first words were 'Captain Oakley!'
I confess to an odd sensation as these remarkable words met my eye. It might possibly be a proposal. I did not wait to speculate, however, but read these sentences traced in the identical handwriting which had copied the lines with which I had been twice favoured.
'Captain Oakley presents his compliments to Miss Ruthyn, and trusts she will excuse his venturing to ask whether, during his short stay in Feltram, he might be permitted to pay his respects at Bartram-Haugh. He has been making a short visit to his aunt, and could not find himself so near without at least attempting to renew an acquaintance which he has never ceased to cherish in memory. If Miss Ruthyn would be so very good as to favour him with ever so short a reply to the question he ventures most respectfully to ask, her decision would reach him at the Hall Hotel, Feltram.'
'Well, he's a roundabout fellah, anyhow. Couldn't he come up and see you if he wanted to? They poeters, they do love writing long yarns—don't they?' And with this reflection, Milly took the note and read it through again.
'It's jolly polite anyhow, isn't it Maud?' said Milly, who had conned it over, and accepted it as a model composition.
I must have been, I think, naturally a rather shrewd girl; and considering how very little I had seen of the world—nothing in fact—I often wonder now at the sage conclusions at which I arrived.
Were I to answer this handsome and cunning fool according to his folly, in what position should I find myself? No doubt my reply would induce a rejoinder, and that compel another note from me, and that invite yet another from him; and however his might improve in warmth, they were sure not to abate. Was it his impertinent plan, with this show of respect and ceremony, to drag me into a clandestine correspondence? Inexperienced girl as I was, I fired at the idea of becoming his dupe, and fancying, perhaps, that there was more in merely answering his note than it would have amounted to, I said—
'That kind of thing may answer very well with button-makers, but ladies don't like it. What would your papa think of it if he found that I had been writing to him, and seeing him without his permission? If he wanted to see me he could have'—(I really did not know exactly what he could have done)—'he could have timed his visit to Lady Knollys differently; at all events, he has no right to place me in an embarrassing situation, and I am certain Cousin Knollys would say so; and I think his note both shabby and impertinent.'
Decision was not with me an intellectual process. When quite cool I was the most undecided of mortals, but once my feelings were excited I was prompt and bold.
'I'll give the note to Uncle Silas,' I said, quickening my pace toward home; 'he'll know what to do.'
But Milly, who, I fancy, had no objection to the little romance which the young officer proposed, told me that she could not see her father, that he was ill, and not speaking to anyone.
'And arn't ye making a plaguy row about nothin'? I lay a guinea if ye had never set eyes on Lord Ilbury you'd a told him to come, and see ye, an' welcome.'
'Don't talk like a fool, Milly. You never knew me do anything deceitful. Lord Ilbury has no more to do with it, you know very well, than the man in the moon.'
I was altogether very indignant. I did not speak another word to Milly. The proportions of the house are so great, that it is a much longer walk than you would suppose from the hall-door to Uncle Silas's room. But I did not cool all that way; and it was not till I had just reached the lobby, and saw the sour, jealous face, and high caul of old Wyat, and felt the influence of that neighbourhood, that I paused to reconsider. I fancied there was a cool consciousness of success behind all the deferential phraseology of Captain Oakley, which nettled me extremely. No; there could be no doubt. I tapped softly at the door.
'What is it now, Miss?' snarled the querulous old woman, with her shrivelled fingers on the door-handle.
'Can I see my uncle for a moment?'
'He's tired, and not a word from him all day long.'
'Not ill, though?'
'Awful bad in the night,' said the old crone, with a sudden savage glare in my face, as if I had brought it about.
'Oh! I'm very sorry. I had not heard a word of it.'
'No one does but old Wyat. There's Milly there never asks neither—his own child!'
'Weakness, or what?'
'One o' them fits. He'll slide awa' in one o' them some day, and no one but old Wyat to know nor ask word about it; that's how 'twill be.'
'Will you please hand him this note, if he is well enough to look at it, and say I am at the door?'
She took it with a peevish nod and a grunt, closing the door in my face, and in a few minutes returned—
'Come in wi' ye,' said Dame Wyat, and I appeared.
Uncle Silas, who, after his nightly horror or vision, lay extended on a sofa, with his faded yellow silk dressing-gown about him, his long white hair hanging toward the ground, and that wild and feeble smile lighting his face—a glimmer I feared to look upon—his long thin arms lay by his sides, with hands and fingers that stirred not, except when now and then, with a feeble motion, he wet his temples and forehead with eau de Cologne from a glass saucer placed beside him.
'Excellent girl! dutiful ward and niece!' murmured the oracle; 'heaven reward you—your frank dealing is your own safety and my peace. Sit you down, and say who is this Captain Oakley, when you made his acquaintance, what his age, fortune, and expectations, and who the aunt he mentions.'
Upon all these points I satisfied him as fully as I was able.
'Wyat—the white drops,' he called, in a thin, stern tone. 'I'll write a line presently. I can't see visitors, and, of course, you can't receive young captains before you've come out. Farewell! God bless you, dear.'
Wyat was dropping the 'white' restorative into a wine-glass and the room was redolent of ether. I was glad to escape. The figures and whole mise en scène were unearthly.
'Well, Milly,' I said, as I met her in the hall, 'your papa is going to write to him.'
I sometimes wonder whether Milly was right, and how I should have acted a few months earlier.
Next day whom should we meet in the Windmill Wood but Captain Oakley. The spot where this interesting rencontre occurred was near that ruinous bridge on my sketch of which I had received so many compliments. It was so great a surprise that I had not time to recollect my indignation, and, having received him very affably, I found it impossible, during our brief interview, to recover my lost altitude.
After our greetings were over, and some compliments neatly made, he said—
'I had such a curious note from Mr. Silas Ruthyn. I am sure he thinks me a very impertinent fellow, for it was really anything but inviting—extremely rude, in fact. But I could not quite see that because he does not want me to invade his bed-room—an incursion I never dreamed of—I was not to present myself to you, who had already honoured me with your acquaintance, with the sanction of those who were most interested in your welfare, and who were just as well qualified as he, I fancy, to say who were qualified for such an honour.'
'My uncle, Mr. Silas Ruthyn, you are aware, is my guardian; and this is my cousin, his daughter.'
This was an opportunity of becoming a little lofty, and I improved it. He raised his hat and bowed to Milly.
'I'm afraid I've been very rude and stupid. Mr. Ruthyn, of course, has a perfect right to—to—in fact, I was not the least aware that I had the honour of so near a relation's—a—a—and what exquisite scenery you have! I think this country round Feltram particularly fine; and this Bartram-Haugh is, I venture to say, about the very most beautiful spot in this beautiful region. I do assure you I am tempted beyond measure to make Feltram and the Hall Hotel my head-quarters for at least a week. I only regret the foliage; but your trees show wonderfully, even in winter, so many of them have got that ivy about them. They say it spoils trees, but it certainly beautifies them. I have just ten days' leave unexpired; I wish I could induce you to advise me how to apply them. What shall I do, Miss Ruthyn?'
'I am the worst person in the world to make plans, even for myself, I find it so troublesome. What do you say? Suppose you try Wales or Scotland, and climb up some of those fine mountains that look so well in winter?'
'I should much prefer Feltram. I so wish you would recommend it. What is this pretty plant?'
'We call that Maud's myrtle. She planted it, and it's very pretty when it's full in blow,' said Milly.
Our visit to Elverston had been of immense use to us both.
'Oh! planted by you?' he said, very softly, with a momentary corresponding glance. 'May I—ever so little—just a leaf?'
And without waiting for permission, he held a sprig of it next his waistcoat.
'Yes, it goes very prettily with those buttons. They are very pretty buttons; are not they, Milly? A present, a souvenir, I dare say?'
This was a terrible hit at the button-maker, and I thought he looked a little oddly at me, but my countenance was so 'bewitchingly simple' that I suppose his suspicions were allayed.
Now, it was very odd of me, I must confess, to talk in this way, and to receive all those tender allusions from a gentleman about whom I had spoken and felt so sharply only the evening before. But Bartram was abominably lonely. A civilised person was a valuable waif or stray in that region of the picturesque and the brutal; and to my lady reader especially, because she will probably be hardest upon me, I put it—can you not recollect any such folly in your own past life? Can you not in as many minutes call to mind at least six similar inconsistencies of your own practising? For my part, I really can't see the advantage of being the weaker sex if we are always to be as strong as our masculine neighbours.
There was, indeed, no revival of the little sentiment which I had once experienced. When these things once expire, I do believe they are as hard to revive as our dead lap-dogs, guinea-pigs, and parrots. It was my perfect coolness which enabled me to chat, I flatter myself, so agreeably with the refined Captain, who plainly thought me his captive, and was probably now and then thinking what was to be done to utilise that little bit of Bartram, or to beautify some other, when he should see fit to become its master, as we rambled over these wild but beautiful grounds.
It was just about then that Milly nudged me rather vehemently, and whispered 'Look there!'
I followed with mine the direction of her eyes, and saw my odious cousin, Dudley, in a flagrant pair of cross-barred peg-tops, and what Milly before her reformation used to call other 'slops' of corresponding atrocity, approaching our refined little party with great strides. I really think that Milly was very nearly ashamed of him. I certainly was. I had no apprehension, however, of the scene which was imminent.
The charming Captain mistook him probably for some rustic servant of the place, for he continued his agreeable remarks up to the very moment when Dudley, whose face was pale with anger, and whose rapid advance had not served to cool him, without recollecting to salute either Milly or me, accosted our elegant companion as follows:—
'By your leave, master, baint you summat in the wrong box here, don't you think?'
He had planted himself directly in his front, and looked unmistakably menacing.
'May I speak to him? Will you excuse me?' said the Captain blandly.
'Ow—ay, they'll excuse ye ready enough, I dessay; you're to deal wi' me though. Baint ye in the wrong box now?'
'I'm not conscious, sir, of being in a box at all,' replied the Captain, with severe disdain. 'It strikes me you are disposed to get up a row. Let us, if you please, get a little apart from the ladies if that is your purpose.'
'I mean to turn you out o' this the way ye came. If you make a row, so much the wuss for you, for I'll lick ye to fits.'
'Tell him not to fight,' whispered Milly; 'he'll a no chance wi' Dudley.'
I saw Dickon Hawkes grinning over the paling on which he leaned.
'Mr. Hawkes,' I said, drawing Milly with me toward that unpromising mediator, 'pray prevent unpleasantness and go between them.'
'An' git licked o' both sides? Rather not, Miss, thank ye,' grinned Dickon, tranquilly.
'Who are you, sir?' demanded our romantic acquaintance, with military sternness.
'I'll tell you who you are—you're Oakley, as stops at the Hall, that Governor wrote, over-night, not to dare show your nose inside the grounds. You're a half-starved cappen, come down here to look for a wife, and——'
Before Dudley could finish his sentence, Captain Oakley, than whose face no regimentals could possibly have been more scarlet, at that moment, struck with his switch at Dudley's handsome features.
I don't know how it was done—by some 'devilish cantrip slight.' A smack was heard, and the Captain lay on his back on the ground, with his mouth full of blood.
'How do ye like the taste o' that?' roared Dickon, from his post of observation.
In an instant Captain Oakley was on his feet again, hatless, looking quite frantic, and striking out at Dudley, who was ducking and dipping quite coolly, and again the same horrid sound, only this time it was double, like a quick postman's knock, and Captain Oakley was on the grass again.
'Tapped his smeller, by—!' thundered Dickon, with a roar of laughter.
'Come away, Milly—I'm growing ill,' said I.
'Drop it, Dudley, I tell ye; you'll kill him,' screamed Milly.
But the devoted Captain, whose nose, and mouth, and shirt-front formed now but one great patch of blood, and who was bleeding beside over one eye, dashed at him again.
I turned away. I felt quite faint, and on the point of crying, with mere horror.
'Hammer away at his knocker,' bellowed Dickon, in a frenzy of delight.
'He'll break it now, if it ain't already,' cried Milly, alluding, as I afterwards understood, to the Captain's Grecian nose.
'Brayvo, little un!' The Captain was considerably the taller.
Another smack, and, I suppose, Captain Oakley fell once more.
'Hooray! the dinner-service again, by ——,' roared Dickon. 'Stick to that. Over the same ground—subsoil, I say. He han't enough yet.'
In a perfect tremor of disgust, I was making as quick a retreat as I could, and as I did, I heard Captain Oakley shriek hoarsely—
'You're a d—— prizefighter; I can't box you.'
'I told ye I'd lick ye to fits,' hooted Dudley.
'But you're the son of a gentleman, and by —— you shall fight me as a gentleman.'
A yell of hooting laughter from Dudley and Dickon followed this sally.
'Gi'e my love to the Colonel, and think o' me when ye look in the glass—won't ye? An' so you're goin' arter all; well, follow what's left o' yer nose. Ye forgot some o' yer ivories, didn't ye, on th' grass?'
These and many similar jibes followed the mangled Captain in his retreat.