MOUNT TRAVERS, which was the name of the place which Elizabeth’s uncle had built when he became a rich man, was of a very different description from the older houses of the district. It stood out barely on the top of a hill, surmounting everything within range of half a dozen miles, with a few half-grown plantations round it. It was constructed in the style of what was supposed to be in those dark days an English manor-house ; that is, in red brick, to which dignity, it had been fondly hoped, was given by the introduction of large bays and great windows in hewn stone. No redder or whiter house ever existed outside of a nursery book. At the foot of the height on which it stood the natural foliage of the leafy country rose in waves of varying green, but near the house itself, to give it shelter or shade, were nothing but shrubs and neatly planted trees, which were not tall enough to hide a single corner of the brilliant walls. Mr. Travers had thought all this very fine, and a proof of the superiority of the nineteenth century; for there was no other plate-glass in all the parish, and the conveniences in every way were innumerable. His horses and even his cows were better lodged by far than the servants at Melcombe, who were all huddled together in old attics at the top of the house, whereas Mr. Travers’s butler had a large and airy room, lighted with plate-glass, like his master’s. It had been the great pleasure of the last year of old Travers’s life to make a striking thing of that new and resplendent dwelling. You stepped into the hall upon tiles of the most elaborate and costly description, and found yourself surrounded with inlaid panels and carvings in oak, which did not pretend to look old, as most things of the kind do, but boldly showed in every leaf and twig an art manufacture fresh from the workshop. The staircases were all ornamented in the same way; the rooms were gorgeous from the hands of the upholsterer ; everything was the newest, brightest, and most highly improved of its kind.
Mrs. Travers sat in the great window of the drawing-room, a huge, broad, and lofty bay, where the plate-glass extended from the roof to the floor, and all was as light and naked as the noonday, indeed much more so ; for Nature at her most unadorned never takes that air of nakedness which a great, open, unabashed window, making everything more distinct with its vast film of clear glass, throws upon the landscape. Mrs. Travers in her black gown, a speck in that broad stream of light, appeared like a small black image in the intense but doleful whiteness of the prospect beyond. It was a rainy day, the clouds all careering about the skies, throwing occasionally a spiteful dash of rain straight at the window, and the country looking dull yet shrewish, like one who would fain scold, but dared not under the circumstances. The successive waves of the trees, here old, there more recent, the faint tinge of green upon some, the half-opened leaves of others ; the undulating country, here a common, there a park, here a piece of rich upland, there a ridge of trees, with villages here and there, and the roof or turrets of a rural mansion appearing out of a thick cluster of wood, — everything was visible from that big window. It seemed like an inquisitive watcher, and in the midst of its staring whiteness sat Mrs. Travers, all black save for the widow’s cap and cuffs and collar, which were everything that is suggested by the dictates of unmitigated woe.
She was a little, spare woman, with a small, worn face, very gentle to outward semblance, yet with certain lines in it that denoted a querulous soul. She had her work in her hand, a large piece of white knitting, upon which she generally kept her eyes fixed, talking softly on with her face thus rendered opaque, save when she would suddenly and quietly drop her hands in her lap and lift the said eyes, which were of a somewhat muddy blue. This happened at periodical intervals, and was apt to rouse in the interlocutor, if at all sensitive, a certain nervous expectation which was not comfortable. Elizabeth had been used to her aunt’s “ ways ” all her life, and she did not so much mind.
“ I hear you were at Melcombe yesterday, Elizabeth.”
“Yes, aunt. I went to see Pax.”
“ You have grown very fond of Pax, as you call her. It was not much of an object for such a long ride.”
“ Perhaps the ride itself was the chief object,” said Elizabeth with a smile. “I have always been fond of Pax, but I did want a ride, a good long ride, after being shut up so long.”
“You call it long? Your poor uncle would have been surprised if he had known that, after making you his heiress and everything, you should think six months’ mourning too long.”
“ Dear aunt! ” said Elizabeth, with a little sigh of impatience ; then she added, “ My uncle would understand ; he would know that one might long for a little fresh air, and yet mourn him as truly — as truly as ” —
She paused. She was a very honest young woman, above all treachery. She began to feel with self-reproach that there was little mourning in her thoughts. Some natural tears she had dropped; nay, she had dropped many. But it cannot be denied that she had begun to wipe them soon. It is the course of nature; because an old man dies, it is impossible that a young woman should shut herself forever out of the world.
Mrs. Travers put down her knitting, and looked at her niece with those little pale blue eyes. Elizabeth thought they looked through her, but this was not the case. Mrs. Travers had not yielded to any violence of grief, and Elizabeth’s mourning was quite respectfully “deep,” which was almost all that she felt to be required.
“ Many people would have thought it necessary, for an uncle who had done so much for them, not to be seen at all for the first year,” remarked Mrs. Travers.
“ If that were all. I am not in the least anxious to be seen.”
“ Then, what were you doing at Melcombe You know as well as I do that now you are known to be your uncle’s heiress all the young men from far and near will be after you, like flies round a pot of honey.”
“ Indeed, aunt” —
“ Oh, don’t tell me you don’t know. That is one of the reasons that ought to have made your poor dear uncle leave things more in my hands ; for if it had been understood that you were to have the money only at my pleasure, it would have been a refuge for you from fortune-hunters. What he has done, though he meant it well, is really a very bad thing for you,” Mrs. Travers said, ending off a row abruptly, with a little tug to bring it straight. “ I know what fortune-hunters are. ”
To this Elizabeth made no reply, and after a while her aunt continued. “ You saw some of the Mitfords, of course ; and of course the old man, whom I never liked, has marked you down for one of his sons. Oh, don’t tell me ; I know it well enough. The eldest, perhaps, because Mount Travers would be such a nice addition to the property ; or the second, because he has not very much of his own, and it would be nice to have him so near home; or the youngest. Now, if it had to be one of them,” said Mrs. Travers, suddenly lifting her dull but very observant eyes, “the youngest would be my choice.”
“ I wish you would understand,” replied Elizabeth with some vexation, “ that there is no question of anything of the kind. I saw the Mitfords pass, all three together, on their way to the station. That was the nearest communication I had with them. I saw young Randolph Tredgold and his father, if you feel interested about them.”
“ Oh, yes, fortune-hunting too. Of course I am interested about them all, but I will tell you this, Lizzy, if you make any ridiculous marriage like that, taking up with a boy ever so many years younger than yourself, I can’t take anything from you in the end, but you sha’n’t bring a baby - husband to live in my house.”
Elizabeth had gone to the window, and stood close to that great expanse of light, leaning her head against one of the divisions. Had she been, as Mrs. Travers supposed, dependent, no doubt all this would have wounded her deeply. But as there was not the slightest vestige of right in the matter, and the poor lady was as homeless, though she did not know it, as the chair on which she was seated, the poor little ineffectual injury was easier to bear. Elizabeth stood looking out, a little vexed but more sorry, with nothing but compassion slightly tinctured with shame in her face. She was a little mortified that her aunt, her nearest relative, who had known her for so long, should speak to her so.
“ I don’t think you will be tried,” she remarked, with a faint sigh of impatience. And then she added, “ Mr. Gavelkind is coming to luncheon to-day. I hope you won’t mind. I heard from him this morning that there was something he wanted to speak to — about.”
She stopped short at the pronoun, in spite of herself. She would not say “ to you,” and would not say “ to me.” Her path was very thorny. The lawyer had to be received somehow, and must have the way prepared for him. Poor Elizabeth, in her impulse of generosity, had found a thousand reasons to answer all arguments, when she was told that her uncle’s widow ought to be informed exactly what was the state of affairs. But she had not foreseen such a very ordinary little practical dilemma as this.
“ Mr. Gavelkind ! ” cried Mrs. Travers. “ I must say I think it is very strange that he should write to you about coming, and not to me, Elizabeth. I don’t like to say so, but I can’t hide it from myself. You take a great deal too much upon you, my dear. Though my husband did leave you his heiress, I don’t suppose he ever intended to make you mistress of my house.”
“ Dear aunt! ” cried Elizabeth in despair. “ You know you never did take any interest in business. He wrote to me, thinking — that he ought not to trouble you about such matters ; thinking it would worry you, and that you would not like it, and that I — In short,” added Elizabeth, with a sudden inspiration, “ it is something about my own little bit of money, after all, and nothing of yours.”
“ Why did not you say so at once ? ” asked her aunt. “ I shall not wish ever to interfere with your own money. I have always regretted that I was not allowed to manage mine from the beginning. I am sure there would have been more of it now; and as that is all I have to dispose of, to give any little keepsakes to my own relatives — Well, we need n’t talk of that any more. If you want any advice I shall be pleased to give you my opinion, Lizzy, but you young people think you know everything better than we do.”
“ No, indeed, aunt, but I shall not exercise any judgment of my own; I shall do just what Mr. Gavelkind advises. What do I know about stocks and investments ? ”
“ You ought to know about them, if you don’t. You ought to look at the city article every morning, and improve your mind. My father was a stockbroker, and that is what he said. 4 Read the city article, and then you ‘ll know as much as any of us do,”— that is what he always said. Of course it does not matter just now with your own thousand or two. But when you have all the Travers money to manage ” —
“ I hope,” said Elizabeth, faltering, turning her head still more away, oppressed by the weight of the untruth which she had meant to be only a tacit one, 44 that it may be long before.”
44 Well, my dear,” said Mrs. Travers, in a subdued and softened tone, “ I believe you do. I am sure that you don’t want to get rid of me for the sake of the money. I may be a little nasty about the will sometimes. It is n’t that I ever would have alienated his money, — you should have had it all the same, Lizzy, every penny, — only it would have seemed more trustful-like. But any way, my dear, I am certain you never would grudge me a day’s enjoyment of it, — of that I am quite sure.”
Elizabeth stole like a culprit behind her aunt’s chair and gave her a kiss, at the risk of receiving a stab in return from the knitting-pins. She felt guilty but glad this time, her own heart melting too. ‘‘We don’t need to say these things between you and me, do we ? ” she whispered, feeling very tenderly towards the guardian of her youth.
“ But, my dear,” remarked Mrs. Travers, going on with her knitting after a little emphatic nod of assent, 44 by that time you will have a husband, who will rule the money and you too.”
“I am not so sure of that. At all events, there is no appearance of him as yet upon the horizon,” replied Elizabeth returning to her seat, this little episode being over. The worst of it was that such little episodes occurred almost every day.
44 And you nearly five and twenty ! ” said Mrs. Travers. 44 To a woman who was married at nineteen, as I was, that seems quite old for a girl.”
44 I don’t consider myself a girl,” returned Elizabeth, with a smile. “ I am like Pax. I have outgrown those vanities.”
“ Nonsense, my dear. Pax is five and forty if she is a day, and a clergyman’s daughter without a penny. Oh, yes, I know all the Melcombe young men were in love with her — once — except the youngest. The youngest is the one I would choose. He is a fine-looking sort of fellow; he is not one of the calculating sort. Roger is as proud as Lucifer, and would snuff and sniff at good honest money, and think a great deal more of his mouldy old lands, and Edmund is a sentimental dawdle ; but the third one, Lizzy, he would be the man for me. He has always something to say to a woman. He ’d run off with you, whether you would or not: he’d give you no peace; he would n’t take no for an answer. That is the sort of young fellow I like to see.”
44 Why, you are like Lydia Languish aunt! I did not know you were so romantic.”
44 I never was for myself,” said the little woman, who had sparkled up out of her widow’s weeds for a moment with a flash of spirit and fire which tempted the listener to laugh, 44 married at nineteen to a stock-broker in the city! I never had any time to be romantic, but I confess I have always been so for you, Lizzy. You are a handsome woman, and you were a very pretty girl. I used always to expect some one to come riding up out of the distance for you. When we first came here I always thought some carriage would break down at the gates, or a gentleman be thrown off his horse, or something. But it never happened. I was dreadfully disappointed when you got to twenty-one, and nobody had ever come for you. Some girls have these things happen by the dozen. I never could understand why they did n’t happen to you.”
“ Poor auntie, how I must have disappointed you! ” cried Elizabeth, laughing. “ I feel quite sorry that Prince Charming has never appeared, for your sake.”
“ But you have him under your hand now, or I am much mistaken. Next time he comes home on leave, you will just see if he is n’t over here on some pretext or other before he has been two days at home, Lizzy ” —
“Because he has heard that — I am my uncle’s heiress, aunt ? ”
“ Well,” observed Mrs. Travers, “ you can never leave money out of account in affairs of this sort. A man like that would n’t dare to propose to you unless you had money, for he has none: and how could the pair of you live ? I don’t call that fortune-hunting. He has a very good position, he belongs to an old family, he’s a soldier, which always counts for something, and I am quite sure that he admires you very much. The money’s not his object; it only makes his object possible.”
“ What a clever woman you are, auntie ! You are a casuist as well as a romancer. I never should have seen it in that light.”
“ Would n’t you, now ? ” said Mrs. Travers, with gratification. “ Oh, I am not such a fool as I look. My father always said so. And, my dear, in such a case as that, I need scarcely say — a man whom I liked, and who would cheer us all up, and throw a little éclat upon the place — there would be no need of thinking of another establishment, Elizabeth. You would be welcome, and more than welcome, like my son and daughter in my house.”
The tears trembled in Elizabeth’s eyes, a hot color came over her face. She felt guilty and ashamed, and yet she could hardly restrain the laugh in which alone sometimes a perplexed soul can express itself. “ You are always the kindest of the kind, dear aunt,” she said.
“You should have your own set of rooms,” the old lady went on, quite pleased with her plan, — “ sitting-rooms and everything. You should choose them yourselves, and have them furnished to your own taste. I should do everything I could to make you feel — I mean to make him feel quite at his ease, and of course you would succeed to everything at my death. Now, Lizzy, if this does happen, as I hope it will, and I am almost sure it will, don’t you take any notion into your head that he should have spoken before ; for how could he speak before, having no money of his own, and not knowing whether there might be anything more than that thousand or two of your mother’s, on your side ? ”
“ My dear aunt, Stephen Mitford has never spoken a dozen words to me in my life,” cried Elizabeth, a little vexed. “ He has not the remotest idea of anything of the kind, nor of me, at all, I am sure.”
“ Well,” returned Mrs. Travers, “ we shall see, we shall see ; and certainly he is the one that would be my choice.”
Elizabeth received the lawyer, when he arrived, in the room which had been her uncle’s business-room, a plain, darkcomplexioned little place, with a large writing-table and a few comfortable chairs, but no paraphernalia in the way of books to distract the attention. The charms of business by itself were sufficiently great to make other pleasantnesses unnecessary, Mr. Travers had thought, and accordingly, though the window was quite Large and of plateglass, it looked out upon no panorama of varied landscape, but upon a close little corner of shrubbery which rose to a climax in a large larch, very feathery and fine in its way, but which certainly did not add to the light or even cheerfulness of the small, square, brown, uncompromising room. The spring sunshine did not get near this place, nor even the blue of the sky. It was all larch and laurel, and a very modified dull light. And it cannot be said that Elizabeth’s companion was an entertaining one. He was a spare man, with a lock of hair growing upon his forehead as if it had somehow strayed there, leaving the crown of his head ungarnished, of a sallow gray color, not unlike parchment, and features that seemed too small for his face ; his nose appeared to have remained the size it was in childhood, and the mouth to have grown into a little round aperture by some spell or freak of nature, but the extraordinarily bright little twinkling eyes which completed the countenance seemed to promise that Mr. Gavelkind’s intellect had not been arrested in its growth. They dwelt upon Elizabeth with a very kind, paternal look as he shoveled away into a bag the papers he had been placing before her. She had not much more knowledge than she had professed to have, and did in reality prove her confidence very completely in the adviser who had managed all her uncle’s affairs ; but Elizabeth’s ignorance was very intelligent, and he had been explaining a great many things to her, which gave her a certain interest in the large transactions which were now carried on in her name.
“And now,” he said, shutting his bag with a snap, “ tell me, Miss Elizabeth, what face am I to put on before the poor lady, whom you are deceiving for her good ? ”
“ Oh, don’t say deceiving, Mr. Gavelkind.”
“ What shall I call it, then ? Give me your name for the business, and I shall use it. I know no other, according to my own lights.”
“Then you must not use your own lights. Fancy not allowing her to believe that she is mistress in her own house. I would rather lose it altogether, and be dependent upon her bounty, as she thinks would have been more just.”
“You would not have liked that.”
“No, perhaps I should n’t, but that is not the question. I have told her — I hope it is not too dreadful a fib, but what can I do ? — that it is my own little bit of money you have come to me about.”
“ Well, it is your own money, so far as that is concerned, but you will have to tell a great fib before you are done, which is what I warned you ; and if she should once get a clue, and begin to suspect, you will be very easily found out.”
“ Oh, please don’t say so, Mr. Gavelkind. I admit it is n’t so easy as I thought. Little things occur which I had not foreseen, and I am quite frightened when I see how clever I get in explaining. Do you think it will give me the habit of telling fibs ? ”
“ Very likely indeed. But I hope you can trust your memory, for that is the worst of it that when we step beyond the truth we are so apt to forget what the last l— fib, I mean, was.”
“ You are dreadfully severe,” said Elizabeth, half laughing, not without a little inclination to cry. “ That is exactly what I feel; and sometimes I contradict myself, and can’t remember what I said last.”
“ Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive,” quoted the lawyer. “ The thing I fear is that you will not be able to keep it up.”
“ Oh, yes, I shall be able to keep it up,” she cried hurriedly, and led the way out of the room. At times this deception, at which everybody who knew of it shook their heads, got too much for poor Elizabeth. She took Mr. Gavelkind to the cold lightness of the drawing-room, and ran up to her own room, to bathe her forehead and refresh herself. The situation occasionally got upon her nerves, as people say. She felt disposed to laugh and cry, with a sobbing mixture of sounds, and could not stop herself for a minute ; but Elizabeth was not at all a hysterical subject, and good sense and cold water soon got the better of this.
“ Well, Mr. Gavelkind,” observed Mrs. Travers, “ I hear you have come to see my niece about her investments. Have you got some new chance for that little money of hers ? I expect to hear it has quite doubled its value, since you take so much interest in it.”
“ I take an interest in the money of all my clients, ” said the lawyer, ” and I am glad to see that Miss Travers begins to understand business, which is what a great many ladies can never be taught to do.”
“Yes, indeed,” assented the old lady. “ I was of that kind myself, so long as I had my husband to think for me. But now if you were to give me the benefit of your instructions, as you do Elizabeth, — you know I am a stock - broker’s daughter, I ought to have a little aptitude, — I think I might begin to understand too.”
“ There is no occasion, my dear lady, no occasion,” said the lawyer hastily; “ everything is as comfortable as possible. If there is any need, then it will be time enough. Your niece is getting back her color, Mrs. Travers, I am glad to see. For some time after your great loss, whether it was altogether distress or something to do with the deep mourning, I quite feared that Miss Elizabeth ” —
“ She is always very well, thank you,” interrupted the widow rather sharply. “ Elizabeth’s health need give nobody any trouble. What should be the matter with her, at her age ? At mine these great shocks are a very different matter.” It was indeed a little hard upon Mrs. Travers to have her attention called to the depth of her niece’s sorrow, when no notice was taken of any paleness or changed looks of her own.
Elizabeth came in at this moment with something of a flush upon her face, owing to the large application of fresh cold water with which she had been driving away the momentary hysterical sensation produced by all the contrarieties of feeling in which she was involved.
“ She is red enough just now, certainly.” her aunt remarked, choosing, as elderly relatives not unfrequently do, the least complimentary expressions possible. “ Is luncheon ready, Elizabeth ? Mr. Gavelkind has begun to think already about catching his train.”
This anxiety, though, perhaps, it really existed in the lawyer’s mind, had not been expressed, but he only smiled, and owned that he was anxious to get back to town as soon as possible; and Mrs. Travers, taking his arm, led him into the dining-room, which was on the opposite side of the hall, and commanded the same extended prospect through the clear sheets of plate-glass.
“ What a view, to be sure ! ” Mr. Gavelkind exclaimed. “ I suppose you are higher up than anybody in the county. Why, some of the trees are quite green already: and I like that sort of purply down over them that shows spring’s coming. Why, you have the air quite fresh from the sea.”
“ Nine hundred feet above the sea level,” observed Mrs. Travers, with a touch of pride ; “ and nothing so high between us and the Channel. You can smell the air quite salt sometimes, and even see it, they say, on fine days; but I can’t say that I put very much faith in that.”
“ And that’s Whitelocks common just underneath. Such a sweep of land as that is quite good enough without any sea. And that’s Whitelocks itself among the trees. I used to know it very well in the late lord’s time. I knew all the country about pretty well. What’s that brown house to the west, with the little square tower ? Oh, it ’s Melbury, I remember. Are the Mitfords still there ? I suppose you know everybody as far as you can see.”
“We know the Mitfords, at all events,” replied Mrs. Travers, significantly, with a glance at Elizabeth. “ There are three young men in the house; and that is a fact which can’t be without interest where there is a girl and an heiress.”
“ It amuses you, at any rate, to think so, auntie.”
“ Amuses me ! Oh, no; on the contrary, it makes me very anxious. Three young men, all marriageable, planted at my very door! And I think a young woman in Elizabeth’s position, or, rather, in what her position will be, ought to have a husband. It is all very well for her to understand her investments under your instructions, Mr. Gavelkind ; but a woman never is very bright on such matters, you may say what you like, and her husband would understand them much better.”
“ That is sometimes the case, I must allow,” said Mr. Gavelkind, but Miss Elizabeth ” —
“ I hope you don’t want to turn Elizabeth’s head with your compliments. She is just a girl like other girls. She will take up that sort of thing if she has nothing else in her head, and she will make you think she understands it. You will imagine that she takes quite an interest, and cares more for it than anything else. But the moment other things come in which are more congenial, you will find it is like the seed sown on thin soil, where there is, as the Bible says, no deepness of earth, and that it has all withered away.”
“ That’s very natural, I believe,” returned the lawyer.
“ You talk over me very much at your ease,” remarked Elizabeth, with a laugh; but she was a little nervous, and slightly excited still. “ I am quite capable of taking care of myself and of everything I may have, without asking other assistance than Mr. Gavelkind’s, I assure you, aunt.”
“ You need not assure me anything of the kind, for I will not believe it,” Mrs. Travers answered, and then turning to the lawyer she said, “ What I am afraid of is that Elizabeth will choose the least suitable, if she is left to herself, which is what girls generally do. But, fortunately, she has not very much to think of in the way of money as yet.”
“ Fortunately ! ” assented the lawyer. He had shot one glance out of his keen eyes at Elizabeth, who had not replied with any sign or look from hers. Then he directed the conversation into another channel by commending the dish from which Mrs. Travers had helped him. She was very ambitious on the point of cookery, and delighted to hear that Mr. Gavelkind’s cook had never been able to reach the perfection of these chicken cutlets. “ And she came to me from Lord Youngham’s,” the lawyer said, “ where a great deal of attention was paid to the kitchen. There was a French man cook, and this woman of mine was the first kitchen-maid, but we never have anything on our table that can come up to this.”
“ Perhaps Mrs. Gavelkind does not take great interest in it herself,” said Mrs. Travers, well pleased. “ They all know I do, not for the sake of eating, — though I think that even in the way of eating we should all know what we are about, — but I love to see a nice dish, looking well and tasting well. I take a great deal of trouble about it altogether. I’m fond of seeing a nice luncheon and a nice dinner on the table. And my cook knows that. Has Mrs. Gavelkind ever tried ” — And here the old lady entered into domestic particulars such as her listener did not disdain. Elizabeth sat and listened vaguely, hearing the voices run on, though without any very clear perception of what they said. She was not interested in all the ingredients of the sauce, and the elaboration of the process by which that perfection was reached, but she knew it interested her aunt, and that there was no such good way of withdrawing her attention from much more important matters. Elizabeth sat at the foot of the smaller square table, drawn near the window now that the weather was milder, and commanding the whole wide landscape, miles upon miles, in all the softness of the spring tints, stretching away into the horizon. In the midst of this wide scene her eyes instinctively caught the low square tower of Melbury amid its trees. When the foliage was out the house was almost hid, but at the present moment the range of those windows along the south front, which made every one a little chamber of its own, projecting from the long line of the sitting-rooms, showed all the way, and reminded Elizabeth, in spite of herself, of various little scenes. She had sat there on summer evenings, last year, with Nina and her chatter, with “ the boys,” as Pax called them, one after another. Her aunt’s remarks brought those recollections back. Last summer had been the only one in which the Travers household had been fully received into the life of the county. There had been a certain amount of curiosity about them and their reported wealth, and their great new blazing house, and then there had been a certain hesitation before the neighbors “ took them up; ” but that period of doubt had ended in a general advance, and during the last summer before her uncle died they had “ gone everywhere,” as people say. It was a good thing he had tasted such sweetness as there was in that, Elizabeth thought to herself, as her aunt discoursed and enlightened her appreciative listener. Poor old uncle! he had got as much good as the circumstances allowed out of the situation. It had been a great pleasure to him to build that wonderful house, with all the latest improvements in it, and to overtop everybody, looking down upon the lower-lying houses of the gentry, and upon the villages that peeped at various corners. And at the last he had been very well received in the country; he had been asked to all the best houses, he had felt himself to be acknowledged by all the constituted authorities: no doubt that had given him pleasure. But now that he was dead, and had left so many complications and perplexities behind him, Elizabeth could not but ask herself whether it was an unmingled good to be thus uplifted, like a city on a hill, to be stared at, perhaps laughed at. The situation of the house and her own situation seemed to run into each other, so that she could scarcely keep them apart. She was the heiress, known far and wide, held out to public competition, as it were, just as her house was held out in a blaze of color and reflection, so that all the country would see it. If they had stayed in town, Elizabeth would have been but one of many, and she would have lived in the unobtrusive level of a street, in the midst of other houses like her own. What a pity that it had ever occurred to him to plunge into this new way of living, to begin afresh for so short a time in this new world !
Presently, however, the conversation in which she took no part came to an end, and Mr. Gavelkind began to fidget and to talk of his train. He had time to walk, but no more than time, and the walk would be more pleasant, he declared, than the dog-cart which was at his service. “ Perhaps Miss Elizabeth will walk down the hill with me,” he said. And Elizabeth took him through the new plantations, still so straggling and unfinished in their youthfulness, by the short cut to the railway, which was another thing Mr. Travers had prided himself upon. 11 Poor uncle liked to think he had so short a way to the station. He used to say that though we were so much higher up than anybody, we had still the nearest access to the world.”
“ Poor old gentleman,” remarked Mr. Gavelkind. “ What a pity, what a pity! Just when he had got everything ready for his own enjoyment, to go and leave it all! He must have regretted it so ; and who can tell whether there will be all the modern improvements where he has gone ? ”
“ You must not laugh,” said Elizabeth. “ He was very good to me. I can’t bear laughing on such a subject.”
“ My dear young lady! Laugh! No, you need not fear, there was no laughing in my mind. It is a curious question, though, and one I often think of: What will happen to us, with all our artificial wants, in what I may call Another Place ? Don’t you know what I mean ? It should be primitive there, if it’s anything; like Eden, don’t you know ? — quite pastoral or agricultural at the most; and an old gentleman accustomed to a town life and all sorts of conveniences — If you think I am laughing you are very much mistaken. I often think of it, and how much at a loss we shall probably be,” Mr. Gavelkind said, with a sigh.
Elizabeth felt, with a humorous suggestion at which she was shocked, the ruefulness in her companion’s tone, — an old city man, full of his little habits, in the garden of Eden ! It was not possible to exclude a sense of the ludicrous from that image.
“ I should think,” she said, with a little trembling of her lip, which, to tell the truth, was caused more by a struggle to preserve her gravity than to repress her feelings, “ that all good people would be at home there.”
“ Yes, yes, oh, yes ! ” cried Mr. Gavelkind ; and then he changed the subject abruptly, pausing upon a knoll to take breath, and pointing with a wave of his hand toward Melbury. “ My dear Miss Elizabeth, I’ve known you all your life, and I am one of your trustees : tell me, is there any truth in what Mrs. Travers said ? ”
Elizabeth came quickly up the slope, having parted with the lawyer at the gate. Perhaps the color on her face was partly from the climb, but it was no doubt a little from the cross-examination to which she had been subjected. Something in it! She had answered quickly, “ Nothing whatever ! ” with a little start almost of offense. Then she had laughed, and said it was silly of her to feel annoyed. “ My aunt is not a match-maker,” she said, “but she likes to speculate on possibilities, which are possibilities only in her own mind.”
“ Many ladies do,” assented Mr. Gavelkind. “ It is like making up a novel. It seems to give them a great deal of amusement.”
“ To be sure,” said Elizabeth. “ It is too silly to object to what amuses her, only she ought not to speak of it as if it were, or might be, true.”
The lawyer gave a sidelong glance at the young lady by his side, whose color had risen though she laughed. “No, that’s imprudent,” he said. “It sometimes spoils sport.”
They had reached the gate as he said this, and Elizabeth had not time to object or protest. But she was red with indignation as well as other sentiments, as she hastened up the ascending path. The air was very fresh in her face, coming from the west, the rainy quarter, and charged with moisture. The gravel glistened, and so did the polished leaves of the evergreens, with the occasional showers. It was not a cheerful day, on the whole, for the ordinary pedestrian, but Elizabeth, in the revulsion of feeling after six months of partial seclusion, and with the consciousness of the spring in her veins, found a certain excitement, if not exhilaration, even in the hostile weather, the dash of rain in her face, and the capricious puffs of the changeable wind. After that quiet period her mind had sprung up afresh. She felt a tumult of life in it, pushing forward to new efforts. She walked briskly up and down the broad walk in front of the house. Mrs. Travers had left her usual place in the great window of the drawing-room, and retired to her bedroom for her equally usual doze, so that there was no one to disturb or to be disturbed by Elizabeth as she paced up and down, keeping the confusion of her thoughts in restraint rather than actively producing them. There was too much rain in the sky to justify a long walk, even in the close-fitting dark-gray ulster and cloth hat, which were things which could take no harm, and nowhere could she have got more air or a more extended prospect. There is little doubt that Mr. Gavelkind had given a fresh start and impetus to her thoughts with his questions. They hurried on far more quickly than her steps, which scattered the gravel; they went as quick as the clouds careering over the sky. Now and then when she came to the end of her promenade, as she turned quickly, the immense landscape below suddenly attracted her, and made her stand still for a moment. What a breadth of undulating country, what ridges of trees, what soft down of the new corn upon the fields! Everything was full of promise and new life; the very sap showing as it coursed in the veins of every tree.
But there was one spot which above all others attracted Elizabeth’s look. Her eyes turned there instinctively, she did not know why. Seriously she did not know why, unless because the recent talk had directed her that way in spite of herself. For, she said to herself, she had no connection with Melcombe to turn her face that way, — none whatever ! There was nothing in it; neither in her aunt’s foolish talk, nor in the questions which Mr. Gavelkind had put, and to which Elizabeth believed she had been very decisive and even peremptory in her reply.
Nothing in it ? After all, was that quite seriously and sincerely true ? Or if so, why, in all that landscape, did her eyes light continually upon the little square tower of Melbury among the trees?
Elizabeth was disturbed by the interposition of the question put against her will by herself to herself. One can answer a lawyer, though he may put his question very cleverly, much better than one can answer one’s self. When one’s self chooses to be inquisitive, there is nothing for it but sophistry and a wrapping up of the question in evasions, which, however, do not conceal the truth from that all-scrutinizing judge. Was there nothing in it ? There was this in it: that there were two young men at Melbury (Elizabeth characteristically replied to her aunt’s imaginations on the subject by forgetting that there was a third), about her own age, in her own position, likely enough either of them. She turned abruptly round and gave her head a shake, to throw off any irrelevant thoughts. Well, what about those two young men ? They were nothing to Elizabeth. They were well looking enough, well mannered, well educated, on the whole nice enough. You could not better them in a summer’s day. A woman could not complain if either of them fell to her lot. At Whitelocks the eldest son was a shambling boy, but the Mitfords were excellent representations of manhood. That was all that there was to say, and the reader will perceive that it was nothing. There was nothing in it; and Elizabeth Travers, so far as these young men were concerned, was fancy-free.
She laughed softly to herself, after she had got over the little shock with which she had been conscious that herself to herself was putting that question. There is safety in numbers, she thought; one does not fall in love with two. But both were interesting to her, she could not venture to deny. Nay, she would admit it, proclaim it, holding her head high. In all the county she had not become acquainted with any other two human creatures so interesting. They had both been in love with Pax, in their day, — dear Pax, who called them “the boys,” and was so fond of them, and their most faithful friend. There was something in all this which pleased Elizabeth’s imagination. It was quite a beautiful point in the moral landscape, as in the scene before her it was pretty to see the tower of Melbury rising homely and brown among the trees. If there were anything in it, that was all, and what was that ? Nothing whatever, as she had said.
At this point Elizabeth became aware of a figure on the road below, walking briskly in the direction of the lodge, which lay almost at her feet. There was something in his air which made it apparent to her that he was coming to call. How it is that this is always so unmistakable it would be hard to say, and yet it is so. You can tell even by the pace of the horses when a carriage is aiming for your own door ; how much more by the attitude of a man ! He was coming to call. Who was he ? A large, imposing presence of a man; holding his head high, walking as if the place belonged to him. That was how the lodgekeeper’s wife described him afterwards. “ Mr. Mitford’s a fine man.” she said ; “ he’s like a nobleman. He walks as if the ground was n’t good enough to set his whole foot upon, kind of starting off from it, like he scorned it.”
Elizabeth looked at him for some time, with his springy step, not making out who he was. When it suddenly dawned upon her that it was Mr. Mitford of Melbury, not the son but the father, the blood flashed again with double power to her face, and she hurried in-doors, feeling as though she were escaping; and yet she had no wish to avoid the visitor. She ran up-stairs to her aunt’s room, and tapped at the door. “ Dear aunt, I don’t want to disturb you, but here is Mr. Mitford coming to call,” she said. Then she went to her own room, and threw off her ulster and her cloth hat, in which she looked very pretty, though she was horrified at the idea of being found in them, and smoothed her ruffled locks. Her hair, thus blown about by the wind and sprinkled with diamond drops by the rain, was extremely becoming in its untidy condition. Perhaps Elizabeth, as she glanced into the glass, was not unconscious of this, but she brushed it all flat and smooth with a remorseless hand.
Then slowly, decorously, she went down-stairs and took up her place in the drawing-room, in front of the great window, to prepare for the visit, —which after all was no more than any other visit, if there were nothing whatever in what her aunt had said to the lawyer. Elizabeth’s heart beat a little, all the same, she could not have told why, and she had more color than usual and a brighter reflection in her eyes.
“ I understood that Mrs. Travers was seeing her friends at last,” Mr. Mitford said. “ I am glad of it, heartily glad of it. It is not good to shut one’s self up with one’s grief, if you will let me say so.”
“ It was scarcely that. My aunt has not been well. She is always delicate, and it was a great shock.”
Elizabeth did not like to take the sacred name of grief in vain. She felt with a moment of shame that even in the case of Mrs. Travers the sorrow which had followed her uncle’s death had not been of that sublime and majestic kind, devoid of consolation, in which youth hopes and believes.
“No doubt, no doubt,” assented the Squire, “but we must not let our emotions swallow us up. Something is due, my dear Miss Travers, to our friends and to society. Because one is absent, however dear, we must not shut out all the world.”
Elizabeth was silent, not knowing how to reply to such a broad statement, and Mr. Mitford went on to make various inquiries about her own tastes and habits. He had heard that she had been at the Rectory, with that noble mare of hers. It would have been very pleasant to him if she had come as far as Melbury ; but he was aware that his little Nina was too much of a child to be any attraction, and that he and a parcel of sons could scarcely expect such a visitor, “though we should all have felt it a great honor,” he added. He had always been civil to Elizabeth, being the kind of man who is never unaffected by the presence of a woman with any pretensions to good looks ; but he had never before paid his court in this deferential way. The effort was somewhat bewildering, slightly amusing, half oppressive; and Elizabeth was glad when Mrs. Travers appeared, to whom he made some of these pretty speeches over again.
“ I have no one to pay visits for me,” he said ; “ my little daughter’s too young. You must accept me as the representative of my family, Mrs. Travers, and let me express my pleasure in the thought that we shall have you in the midst of us again.”
“ You are very obliging, Mr. Mitford,” returned Mrs. Travers. The little lady was much surprised and slightly excited by this unexpected empressement. It looked as if he must mean something, but what to a six months’ widow of her respectable standing could the man mean ?
“ My sons have just left me,” said the Squire. “ One can’t easily keep young men out of London at this time of the year. Roger, indeed, is not at all a man for town ; but it takes some time to get out of the engagements which a young fellow plunges into without thought. He ’ll make a good family man one of these days.”
“ He ought to marry,” declared Mrs. Travers. “ That is the best thing to steady a young man.”
“ The very best my dear lady, — the foundation of all real happiness, as you and I, alas, have good reason to know.”
Mrs. Travers eyed her visitor with some curiosity. “ I don’t see why you should say ‘ alas.’ It has been the very best thing for me that ever happened in my life, and I am sure my poor dear would have said so too. He has left me only a life interest in the property,” she added abruptly, fixing her eyes coldly upon the visitor, in whom, with all directness and a good deal of the pleasure of being acute enough to see through and through him, she saw a possible candidate for the reversion of Mr. Travers’s possessions. The widow felt that there should be no deception practiced upon him in that respect.
“ A life interest,” Mr. Mitford said. He knew all about the will, much better than she herself did. “ I thought that Miss Travers — I thought that ” —
Elizabeth looked quickly up at him with a keen glance of meaning, which he did not understand, though it startled him. “ I am sure, aunt, that Mr. Mitford does not care to examine into our private affairs,” she said.
“ I have no secrets, Elizabeth ; everything has always been quite clear and above-board with me. So near a neighbor might easily be interested. Yes, the property is all locked up hard and fast. It was his own, to do what he liked with it, and I never should have gone against him. The only thing that I feel a little is that he might have known me better, and had move confidence ; but no doubt everything is for the best.”
“ That is always a satisfaction,” remarked the Squire piously, “whatever our circumstances may be.”
“ So it is,” said Mrs. Travers, “ but no doubt you have noticed that people seldom say so when they are pleased with their circumstances. I care nothing about the property, for in any case of course Elizabeth should have had it after me, all the same. It is only the want of confidence that is a little vexing. But you great proprietors, I have always heard say, have just as little freedom with your entails.”
“ Not I,” replied Mr. Mitford briskly. “ There is no entail to speak of in my property. I can leave it to whom I like, the youngest as easily as the eldest, — or away from them altogether, if I please. ”
“ Dear me,” exclaimed Mrs. Travers ; then, after a pause, “ It must give you a great deal of hold on them to have that in your power.”
“ It does,” he said, with a satisfied expression, shutting his mouth after the words were said, as if he had closed and locked the door of his treasures. Elizabeth sat and looked on with a curious terror and repugnance growing upon her. These two old people (as she thought them, though neither was very old), comparing notes with a certain eagerness of fellow-feeling over their power to influence the generations after them, sent a chill into her blood. One of them, at least, might be impotent to do anything, but there was a gleam in Mrs. Travers’s eyes which told how much she also would like to have the power of posthumous revenge or injury in her hands.
“ Well, it is a great thing to be able to do what one pleases,” Mrs. Travers observed, with a long-drawn breath. “ It must make you feel that what you have is really your own. But that can never be in a woman’s case unless she is an heiress in her own right, as Elizabeth will be when I am gone. She will be like you, quite free to leave it to whom she likes.”
“We must tie her down in her marriage settlements,” said the Squire, with a laugh.
“If I were she, I should not let myself be tied down. I should keep it in my own hands. Money is power, don’t you know ? I never was in that position. My husband’s money was almost all of his own making, and I never questioned his right to dispose of it. Lizzy is his natural heir, as we never had any children of our own, his natural-born heir, being his brother’s daughter, while I,” she continued with an irony which gave her a certain enjoyment, “ was only his wife.”
Mr. Mitford was completely puzzled. He could not but ask himself whether there was not some codicil, some rider to the will which he had seen, which made her a more important person than he had thought. If it were only after her death that Elizabeth inherited! — and she was not an old woman from his point of view. He continued the conversation with unabated cordiality, and took his leave with many pretty speeches, but he carried with him subject for thought. If after all there should be nothing to be got by it till after her death !
“ Dear aunt,” Elizabeth said when he was gone, “ since you care so much for it, I wish the money had been yours, and yours only; but may we not keep that grievance to ourselves ? ”
“ I don’t see why I should n’t speak of it, Lizzy. It is no grievance. I should have done the same whatever had happened ; but these circumstances in which everybody, and a gentleman particularly, ought to know the exact truth ” —
“A gentleman particularly ! ” Elizabeth repeated in consternation ; but the meaning of the phrase entirely escaped her, though it seemed to mean more than reached the ear.
MR. MITFORD’S INVESTIGATIONS.
Mr. Mitford, it is needless to say, had no such ideas in his mind as those which had been suggested by his remarks to his widowed neighbor. As a general rule he disliked women, having found them in his way all his life. His daughters had happily gone off, and had not troubled him, — all but Nina, who was not a disagreeable plaything in her way, and for whom one of her married sisters would probably provide before long. He did not contemplate with any pleasure the introduction into his house of even a Mrs. Roger, though he was aware that a certain additional respectability, a greater claim upon the regard of your neighbors, follows the presence of a mistress in the house. He scorned, indeed, the notion that a house could be better ordered, or its expenses regulated better, under feminine supervision than under his own. Nay, he knew that he was a better housekeeper than any woman, as a man when he gives his mind to it is sure to be, the Squire believed. But he was a little disturbed in his mind by Mrs. Travers’s statements. He had looked up the will in Doctors’ Commons without making any fuss about it, and he was aware exactly how things stood. The idea of a codicil was impossible, since that must have been registered and in evidence also. But nobody could say what a romantic young woman might do. Elizabeth might personally have executed some deed to put herself in subjection. She might have signed some instrument which she could not annul, to please her aunt, or in accordance with some whim of her own. Women are full of whims. There is nothing they are so fond of doing as rushing into all sorts of muddles with lawyers; it gives them importance, it gives them occupation, and an adroit man, probably an old ally of Mrs. Travers, could persuade the girl into anything. These were the troublesome thoughts with which Mr. Mitford went down the hill, not any idea of proposing himself to the widow to fill the old stock-broker’s place.
He had a great many things to disturb him, it must be allowed. Roger had gone away, refusing or postponing the execution of his father’s wishes, and Mr. Mitford, who was not without sense, began to see that it was a mistaken policy to urge upon a young man a marriage which there was any hope of bringing about in a more natural way. He felt that he had taken a wrong step, and that the probable effect would be to drive his son further off from Elizabeth, not to make her seem more desirable. This consciousness of wrong on his own side neither made his reflections more pleasant, nor softened his anger. When, indeed, should a man be angry, if it is not when he has made a mistake ? Roger’s abrupt departure, though he was aware that in itself it was no bad thing, had left him in that impotence of displeasure which is one of the greatest burdens of the choleric man. For there was nobody to find fault with, nobody to express his wrath to or pour out its vials upon. The servants had all felt it, — but there is comparatively little satisfaction in wasting your rage upon servants, — and Nina had fled in tears from the breakfast-table, which, instead of affording relief, had only made the Squire ashamed of himself. The two fellows had gone away together, mutually siding with and abetting each other, forming a sort of conspiracy against their father’s lawful power. Words could not express the indignation of the father thus driven to silence. He had taken a walk to Mount Travers, partly to get the better of his wrath, partly to make up for the shortcomings of those “ cubs,” as he called them to himself, and keep the way open in case of after-ameliorations of the situation. But he came away much sobered, wondering if, after all, it was so much worth the while. Perhaps he had been a little hasty; perhaps it might be just as well to wait and see how things would turn out. After slowly revolving this in his mind, Mr. Mitford returned to his original way of thinking. If any silly thing had been done by Elizabeth, she must be made to alter it; or if she had been so much more silly as to commit herself by a deed-poll, or any of those confounded legal instruments which are popularly considered irrevocable, why then — at the worst the old woman could not live forever. Mr. Mitford thought remarks upon his own age were in the very worst taste, and Mrs. Travers was not by several years so old as he was; but he did not hesitate to characterize her as the “ old woman,” and to conclude that she could not live very long, even had her niece been silly enough to make any effort to put back the “ life interest,” as she called it, into her hands. No, there could not surely be any great harm done, then; if that confounded boy had not run away just at the least desirable moment. Mr. Mitford had a consciousness that it was he who had driven Roger away, which made him more angry still at the “ confounded boy.”
The nearest way from Mount Travers was by the West Lodge, which, as it was out of the way for most ordinary purposes, seldom attracted the Squire’s attention. When he perceived it in the distance, however, there came back to his mind something that he had heard of Roger’s visits there. Mr. Mitford was not strait-laced ; he thought the presence of a pretty daughter in the keeper’s lodge was a likely enough explanation of a young man’s visits ; and though he considered it right to put a stop to such things, which always eventually do a man harm, yet he was at the same time of the opinion that among such people, as in other classes, it was their own business to take care of their girls. He might have launched a thunderbolt at his son for mixing himself up in any discreditable story, but at the same time he would have felt that if Blowsabella thrust herself into the way she must take the consequences. It occurred to him at the moment that he would look in, as he passed, and see what Blowsabella was like, and perhaps give her mother a word; for the last thing that was to be desired was any scandal, so long as there was even a chance of Elizabeth Travers and her wealth.
He marched into the little house with the ease of a man to whom it belonged, and took Mrs. Ford’s frightened welcome without paying much attention to it. “ Ford out ? ” he inquired. “ I dare say you ’ll do as well. All right about the house, eh ? No leakages ? drains in order? I like these things to be seen to in the spring, if anything ’s wrong. It used to be thought rather marshy about here.”
“ Oh, no, sir,” replied Mrs. Ford, with another curtsy, “ it’s as dry as a bone, sir. We ’ve never had no floods here.”
“ Well, that’s a good thing,” said the Squire, glancing round. He was looking for the girl, but he could not say so “ You have made the little place look very comfortable,” he added, approvingly, “ and I hear you’ve got a nice little garden. What, another sitting room, too! I never knew these lodges were so large.”
Mrs. Ford’s mind was sadly divided between pride and alarm. When a poor woman has a daughter like Lily, it is hard not to want to show her, especially when there is a parlor like Lily’s parlor in addition to be shown off. But she had an instinctive feeling that the Squire meant no good by his visit, and that it might be wise to keep these glories of her life to herself. She had no time, however, to think ; for while Mr. Mitford directed his keen eyes to the little dark passage evidently leading to that best room which is the ideal of such homely housekeepers, there suddenly appeared in the doorway before him, floating in with all the ease of one at home, such a radiant apparition as took away the Squire’s breath. Her mother said afterward, in awe-stricken tones, that never before had Lily looked so beautiful. The western sun came in at the cottage window, and just reached her, touching her hair till it glittered as if it were all mixed with threads of gold. In color, in bloom, in everything that goes toward that first dazzle of physical perfection which the French call the beauté de diable, Lily was at her best. She did not know there was any one there, therefore she was free of any of the little affectations of selfconsciousness ; and when she did perceive that there was some one, and who it was, Lily’s first thoughts were not of her own appearance, nor of the impression she would like to make. She had a sense of fright, a sort of suspended animation till she should know what the object of this visit was. The Squire stood before her, astounded, not knowing what to think. He plucked off his hat, which he had (naturally, according to his ideas) kept on his head when he went into the keeper’s cottage, a remarkable evidence not only of the effect produced upon him, but of the bewilderment of his mind under this sudden impression. He thought for the first moment that it was some young lady of the district, who had come to give Mrs. Ford orders about needlework, or to visit her in a benign and angelic way, as ladies are in the habit of visiting poor women ; but when he had taken a rapid note of the circumstances, of the young lady’s uncovered head and in-door dress, and her evident air of being at home, Mr. Mitford could not but gasp with astonishment and consternation. “I — don’t think I have met this — young lady before,” he said.
“ Oh, sir, it’s no young lady,” cried Mrs. Ford, tremulously enveloping her arms in her apron, and making an unnecessary curtsy, which brought shame to Lily’s face ; “ it’s my little girl, as madam was so kind to. You ’ve not seen her, sir, for years and years, and she’s grown up, and had a fine eddication ; but bless you, sir, it ’s only Lily, it’s my little girl.”
“Lily!” exclaimed the Squire, with a sort of roar. He did not put his hat on again, as might have been expected, but held it behind him, ashamed of the politeness to which he had been driven.
“ Make your curtsy to the Squire, child,” said her mother, in a loud whisper ; and then she added, once more trembling, and smiling with deprecating civility, “ Will you step into the parlor, sir ? This ain’t a place for the likes of you.”
“ Oh, there’s a parlor, too! ” muttered the Squire, stupefied. He felt that he must at least follow the adventure to the end, though some confused association with the words “ walk into my parlor ” came across him, bewildering and confusing his mind still more. The bright vision melted away, leaving the entrance free, and the Squire stamped through it, making a great noise with his heavy boots and blundering tread ; for the little angle of a passage was dark, and he not adroit enough to find his way, as young eyes can do. Mrs. Ford followed humbly, scarcely knowing, between fright and pride, what she was doing. She felt that the sight of Lily’s bower would complete the evident effect made upon the master by the sudden appearance of that unexpected figure ; but whether he might look with favor upon these strange adjuncts to a keeper’s cottage, or whether he might roar out an order to somebody to cast all such unsuitable accessories away, she could not tell. He might condemn the furniture, but he could not pronounce any decree of separation from Lily, the mother in her panic thought.
“ Hallo ! ” Mr. Mitford cried. He was not much impressed by the room. He considered it rather a poor thing in the way of a flytrap. “ Will you walk into my parlor ? ” By the time he got there the Squire had recovered himself, and felt like pulling all the delicate cobwebs to pieces, and tearing to the ground the machinery of conquest. Lily had gone before him ; she had made no curtsy. She turned round with a little gesture of welcome, putting a chair for the visitor as a young lady might have done, not like the keeper’s little girl. Mr. Mitford drew the offered chair out into the middle of the room, and sat down upon it facing the two women, without the least suggestion that they also should seat themselves. Had Mrs. Ford the keeper’s wife sat down in his presence without a special invitation, he would have thought the world was coming to an end.
“ So this is your little girl,” he said. He cast a careless glance at Lily, scanning her over from her beautiful head to the neat little shoes which she was so careful about, noting all her little ladylike pretensions, and the faint astonishment at himself which began to show in her eyes. “She is a well-grown girl,” he said calmly, “ and I see you keep her very nicely. What do you mean to do with her, Mrs. Ford ? ”
“ To do with her, sir ? ” The keeper’s wife was choking with mortification and humbled pride. A well-grown girl! — was that all the praise that was to be awarded to her Lily ? In her outraged devotion she could have struck the man before whom she trembled, the master upon whom everything depended, whom she dared not offend. Her voice died away in her throat.
“ What kind of a place do you want for her, — a lady’s maid, or in the nursery ? I suppose of course at that age she’s been out. You can’t afford to keep great girls like that idle at home, Mrs. Ford.”
“ Oh, sir ! ” the mother began. It was difficult to form any words. And Lily, who had stood first in consternation, then in wrath, hearing herself so discussed, here felt that she could bear no more.
“ Mother,” said the girl, “ if you want me, you will find me in my room. I am going up-stairs.”
“ Oh, Lily ! ” exclaimed Mrs. Ford. It was a double trouble. She did not know which was the more difficult to deal with, the terrible master sitting there in the middle of her beautiful room, discussing her beautiful daughter as if she had been a mere village girl, or Lily, who could not bear to be so looked at, who dared the Squire and all that he could do. The mother’s heart was torn in two ; she did not know to which she should make her appeal.
“ Does n’t like to be interfered with, I suppose; prefers to set up for a lady at home. Mrs. Ford, I fear that you are preparing trouble for yourself, and that you have given her a great deal too much of her own way.”
“ Oh, no, sir,” protested the keeper’s wife, almost sobbing. “ You are in a mistake, sir, — indeed, you are in a mistake.”
“Ah, that’s possible enough,” said the merciless Squire. “ I am sure I hope it is a mistake. I have been taking some dressed-up milliner’s girl for your daughter ? I am quite glad to hear it. I could not think how anything like that should belong to my honest Ford and you.”
“ Sir,” cried Mrs. Ford, in a tone which indignation and horror made steady, but which came out with a rush like the sound of a trumpet, “ Ford and me we have served you honest for many a year, but our Lily, sir, as madam was so good to, she’s more to us nor master and service and all. It’s not her fault if she’s more like the quality than she is like her father and me.”
“ Do you call that being like the quality, you silly woman ? ” asked the Squire with a laugh. “ Take my advice, Mrs. Ford, send her to service. I dare say Mrs. Simmons will help you to hear of something; but don’t spoil your girl, if that is your girl, by keeping her at home. She will only get into mischief. There’s a number of young fellows about, and this parlor of yours is deucedly like the spider’s parlor, when she invited the fly, don’t you remember ? ‘ Will you walk into my parlor ? said the spider to the fly.’ By Jove ! I ’d send her off before the week was out, if I were you.”
With this he rose abruptly, shook himself, put on his hat, and with a slight wave of his hand by way of good-by strode again through the narrow passage, and emerged into the open air with a “ Pouff ! ” of restrained breath. He had made himself as disagreeable and offensive as it was in his power to be, and he had a certain satisfaction in the certainty of having done so. But even this did not neutralize the shock which he had himself received. This was the house which Roger had been in the habit of visiting, and this the keeper’s daughter who was said to be the attraction. Mr. Mitford was not brutal by nature, though he had done his best to appear so. He knew his son well enough to know that Roger was no libertine, but yet he had felt that if Blowsabella put herself in the young man’s way the consequences must be on her own silly head. He had no exaggerated sympathy for the rustic flirt, however tragical might be the circumstances into which her folly might betray her. But all his ideas about Blowsabella had died out when that radiant young figure suddenly walked into the doorway of Mrs. Ford’s kitchen. He had plucked off his hat in his surprise, and all the courage had gone out of him. This was no Blowsabella, this was no buxom, forward, romping girl, to meet with a reward for her folly. The consequences, if any followed, so far as Roger was concerned, would be disastrous for the young man and the family, not for the young woman. This was what had given a sting to his tongue and brutality to his look. If it had only been Blowsabella, he would have been kind and sorry for her. But this was something that must be crushed in the bud.
Curious to think that from Elizabeth he should have walked direct into this adverse camp, into the heart of the other influence which made Roger insensible to Elizabeth ! These two images withdrew themselves from the rest, and came and walked with him as he hurried across his own park, striking with his cane at any taller growth, angry and anxious, turning over in his mind the strange combinations of which he had been unconscious before. The Squire knew, the conviction flashing across his mind like an arrow, that in Roger’s place it would not have been the high-toned and serious Elizabeth, in the maturity of twenty-five, that he would have chosen, but the other, in that dazzling early bloom of hers, that apparition of light in the dimness of the cottage. Good heavens ! Ford the keeper’s daughter ! To see her seated at the head of the table at Melbury would be a revolution indeed.
M. O. W. Oliphant.
T. B. Aldrich.