Littell's Living Age/Volume 128/Issue 1659/The Dilemma - Part XXII

From Blackwood's Magazine.

THE DILEMMA.


CHAPTER XLVIII.

Next morning there was an unwonted excitement manifest throughout the household. Even the fat butler was up when Yorke came down-stairs; Mr. Peevor was going about in a fidget from room to room, although the expected hero was not due for another hour, giving repeated injunctions to the housekeeper to be sure and keep up a good fire in Mr. Frederic's room — he might want to take some rest after his long journey; while numerous apologies were made to Yorke for breakfast's being put off on Fred's account. When, however, Fred did arrive, himself in the brougham and his luggage in the tax-cart, it was pleasant to witness the unfeigned pleasure caused by his arrival; but in fact there was no doubt about the general amiability of the whole family. Every one went pretty much his or her own way, but no one ever seemed out of temper; and there were none of those little bickerings sometimes observable in even the most affectionate circles — sparks of snappishness elicited by domestic friction. Fred was very like his sister Cathy, rather under middle height, with a slight figure, pale complexion, light hair and small moustache, and bearing the unmistakable appearance of the British light dragoon. He accepted the welcome lavished upon him with easy composure, was civil to his step-mother, affectionate to his sisters, and properly deferential to the guest, as became Yorke's reputation and position in the service.

"Well, Frederic," said his father, as they sat over the breakfast-table, "how is your colonel? quite well, I hope, and all the rest of the officers? Is there any chance of the colonel's coming to England this winter? if so, we shall be very pleased if he will do us the honour to pay us a short visit."

The colonel was coming over, Fred believed, for a few weeks' hunting, but that would be with friends in Leicestershire.

"I suppose so," replied his father; "the colonel's company is very much sought after, naturally; the —th is one of the most fashionable regiments in the service," he added by way of explanation to Yorke; "but wouldn't you like to invite Lord Albert Custance, or Sir Charles Allingham, or any of your other brother officers, to come over for a few days hunting with the Southbywestershire? I should be extremely pleased to see them. There is plenty of room for as many as you like to bring, and plenty of stabling, and corn too for all, and we would try our best to make them comfortable. This house is as much yours as mine, you I know, Frederic, so I hope you won't hesitate to do just as you like."

"Very kind of you, sir, I'm sure," replied his son; "but I don't think any of our fellows are likely to be coming this way just now."

"Well then, at any other time, Fred, you must bring some of them, you know — Lord Albert Custance, or Sir Charles Allingham, or any others. I daresay we shall be able to put them up pretty comfortably. We will give them the best of what we have, at any rate."

"Very good of you, sir, I'm sure," again answered the son, and then turned the conversation in a way which implied that Lord Albert Custance and Sir Charles Allingham and the rest of his brother officers would certainly not receive the invitation.

"Do you know the —th, colonel?" said Mr. Peevor, turning to Yorke. "I am sure they would be very pleased to make your acquaintance."

Yorke replied that he knew them very well when the regiment was in India, a few years ago, but that the old set had almost all sold out or exchanged since they came home.

"It is one of the most fashionable regiments in the service," observed Mr. Peevor — "expensive, of course, but I am able to give my son a comfortable allowance."

"Rather too expensive for some of us, sir, I am afraid," said the young man, laughing; "we haven't all of us got such good-natured governors as some one who could be named; but it keeps promotion going."

Great was the consternation in the household when it became known that Fred's visit was to last only three days, and that he was going to spend the remainder of his leave with some friends at Leamington. This only came out by degrees, for the young man was reserved in manner — in this, as in many other respects, a contrast to his father. It was towards the end of his short visit, when he had come to know Yorke better, that he made a partial confidant of the house guest. "I like coming home, and all that, of course," said the young man, as the two were lounging about the stables together smoking their cigars, "but I can't stand the way in which the governor goes on about his money. He is very generous, and all that — in fact he allows me twice as much as I want to spend, and would give me twice as much more if I asked for it. I believe he would like me to keep a dozen chargers and a couple of drags of my own, and a hunter for each day in the month; but what's the good of being different from the fellows about you? Besides, our colonel, who got the regiment last year, don't like his officers to spend too much money. Our fellows are well connected enough, but they are not a rich lot; and we have lost some very good fellows, who had to go — that was in our late colonel's time — because the pace was too good. Then the governor is always being at me to bring some of them over to stay here. Well, they would behave like gentlemen, I know: but what is the good of having fellows here to be laughing in their sleeve all the time at the bad form in which things are done — the waste and show, and the lot of useless servants who do nothing but overeat themselves, and overdrink themselves too, very often? I declare my grooms would do more work than the whole lot in the stable here put together. Then my father is vexed because I'm going to hunt at Leamington instead of bringing my horses down here. Well, colonel, you've been out with my sister Cathy, and I dare-say you have noticed things, and the insolent way in which some of the people behave. I never go out without wanting to pick a quarrel with somebody. It is no good making a secret of it, and I don't mind telling you in confidence that I would rather not go through any more of it. How the girls stand it I'm sure I don't know; but I think women have more brass than men."

Perhaps the young man thought, by making a confidant of Colonel Yorke in this fashion, to disarm his criticism. At any rate, the latter, if he laughed at all, had no need after this revelation to laugh in his sleeve. And it will be seen that Mr. Peevor had acted the part of a Spartan father by his son, only making himself the example, instead of using the slave. Certainly, if he had deliberately tried to prevent the son from turning out a spendthrift he could not have succeeded better. Lieutenant Peevor was somewhat silent and cold in manner before the assembled family, although lively and unreserved when alone with his sisters, and having a practically unlimited command of money, he was scrupulously economical and methodical in habit. It was evident that Mr. Peevor's substance stood in no danger of being wasted by his son's riotous living.

That afternoon Yorke had to go to London on business. Indeed he had intended to bring his visit to an end on this day, but Mr. Peevor protested so strongly against his putting them off with such a short one, that, nothing loath to see something more of a family which interested him in more ways than one, he promised to return next morning in time for hunting; and the short day, which proved too wet for out-of-door amusements, was passed pleasantly enough, chiefly in the billiard-room with Fred and the girls, who were in high spirits at having their brother's company. And observing how much more lively they had become, the truth dawned upon him that possibly both the young ladies might heretofore have been a little in awe of their military guest. Indeed it was some time before young Peevor himself managed to cross the gulf which separated the subaltern and the colonel.

Fred appeared to more advantage when with his sisters in this way than when his father was present, and he was very gracious to the children, giving them rides on his back up and down the lobby — a thing which it had never occurred to Yorke to do. Nor should it be omitted that their brother had brought each of the little ones a magnificent doll. "They have got about half a hundred apiece of these articles already," he observed to Yorke, in giving them their presents, "but this sort of thing pleases Mrs. Peevor. I've got nothing for you," he said to his elder sisters: "it's no good bringing you anything; you've got everything already that girls can want."

"Everything?" said Lucy, in an undertone, looking archly at her brother.

"Well, everything you are likely to get," he returned, half in fun, half vexed.

The Hamwell railway station, the nearest to "The Beeches," was on a branch line not far from the Shoalbrook Junction, where it joins the main line from London to Castleroyal. Several passengers got into Yorke's compartment at the junction, but in the twilight of a November evening he did not notice their features, but occupied himself in trying to read his evening paper by the dim glare of the ill-fed lamp. The train came to a stop and Yorke came to the end of his paper at the ticket platform about a mile from the London terminus; and as Yorke, who sat at the farther end of the carriage, handed his ticket to the occupant of the other corner to deliver to the collector, he looked at him for the first time, and suddenly recognized his old friend Dr. Mackenzie Maxwell, formerly surgeon of the Mustaphabad residency, and afterwards of Kirke's Horse. The old gentleman was somewhat greyer than when, he retired from the service four years before, but was otherwise little altered. Hearty greetings were of course exchanged between the two friends, and yet Yorke could not help noticing a certain constraint and confusion in the other's manner. He had been down to the neighbourhood of Castleroyal, Maxwell said, on some private business. He lived on his own little place in Fifeshire, and was staying for a short time in London. So much was explained during the short passage from the ticket platform to the terminus; and then Maxwell, shaking hands suddenly with his old friend, said he was in a great hurry to keep an appointment, jumped into a cab, and drove off without giving his town address.

Yorke felt surprised and hurt. Notwithstanding their difference of age. Maxwell and he had been on the footing of confidential friends; they had served together in the eventful defence of the Mustaphabad residency, and afterwards as close comrades throughout the rest of the sepoy war, and to Yorke alone had Maxwell confided his distress at Olivia's second marriage; and although he had left the regiment before ruin fell upon her and her husband, Maxwell had predicted some misfortune of the kind, and had himself told Yorke that he had left the regiment in order that he might not be present to witness it. Could it be that he resented the share Yorke himself had unwittingly had in that downfall? But no; nothing in Maxwell's manner implied resentment or reproach. His embarrassment obviously arose from something connected with himself, especially since, as it occurred to Yorke, Maxwell must surely have recognized him when he entered the carriage. For some reason, however, he had avoided recognition himself; and as Yorke thought over this strange and unsatisfactory meeting, the recollection of past days came up with unwonted force and freshness; and again indulging in the luxury of giving loose to the useless regrets over his wasted passion, in which he had allowed himself to indulge for so many years, the schemes for the future, which during the last few days he had amused himself in planning more or less vaguely, seemed to have lost all interest; and when, on returning next morning to "The Beeches," Lucy greeted him with a little blush, quite justified by certain passages which had passed between them, his manner was so cold and constrained that the poor girl could not conceal her distress. "What a brute I am, to be sure!" said Yorke to himself when alone later in the day, thinking over the episode. "Yet how am I to know that it is not all a pretence, the easy device of a practised flirt? No doubt the little jade has been taught to make eyes at every man she meets. Who am I to interpret a woman's looks? Whenever I meet one it seems my destiny to blunder."


CHAPTER XLIX.

Yorke, who had breakfasted before leaving town, expected to find Miss Cathy on his arrival ready to start for the meet, but when he drove up to the house she was still in walking-dress. Fred would not go hunting, she explained, and she did not like to leave him on his last day. That young gentleman could not go, she said, because he had no horse; but it appeared that he had declined to adopt his sister's suggestion to send to Castleroyal for one, and as of course he would not accept Yorke's offer of a mount on Jumping Joseph, the latter was fain to drive off alone in the dog-cart which awaited him under the portico, to the meet, whither that worthy animal had already been sent on.

The gathering, as usual in those parts, was a large one; but although Yorke noticed a detachment of evidently military men, probably from Castleroyal, he did not recognize any acquaintances among them, and found himself an entire stranger among the crowd. This made it rather dull work, more especially as the day was not destined to afford honest Joseph much opportunity for displaying his quality. One cover after another was drawn without success; and when at last a fox was found, the scent was bad and the checks frequent. Still the sport then became enjoyable enough to a man who had never hunted before; while there was a certain amount of opportunity offered for finding out what it was possible for a horse and rider to do.

It so happened that during one of these intermittent runs, a horseman just in front of Yorke came to grief. His horse blundered in taking a hedge with ditch beyond, but recovered itself cleverly without falling. Not so the rider, a stout young man, who having lost his seat remained poised for an instant on his horse's neck in a position of unstable equilibrium, and then rolled ungracefully off on his back, while the honest beast galloped off in all the enjoyment of the chase. To stop in the middle of a run to catch a loose horse is the perfection of unselfishness, but Yorke was equal to the sacrifice, possibly because he anticipated another check in a few minutes; and galloping after the loose horse he brought it back to where the owner was striding in his boots over the heavy furrows.

"Thank ye, sir," said the dismounted cavalier, wiping the mud off his coat as he spoke; "it's awfully kind of you, I'm sure: these fences are infernally blind, or my horse would never have fallen. Why, I'm blessed," he continued, "if it's not Yorke! Well, this is a start; fancy meeting you here!" and Yorke recognized in the speaker an old friend, Teddy Round of the Artillery, whom he had last met at Peshawur, an eager sportsman, but in whom a certain rotundity of figure caused an ineradicable tendency to part company from his saddle on the smallest provocation. There was no time, however, to exchange inquiries if the field was to be overtaken; but later in the day the two came together again, and finding that their roads were in the same direction, jogged home together. Captain Round, whose battery had lately returned to England, was on leave and staying with his family who lived in the neighbourhood, and so taking the opportunity to enjoy a turn of fox-hunting. "Not bad fun in its way," said the captain, "but not to be named in the same breath with pig-sticking." "One falls softer, however," observed Yorke; whereupon Round inquired if his people too belonged to these parts; and the other replied that he had come down on a visit to the sister of his old friend Braddon, of Kirke's Horse — Round must have known him — who was killed in the Mutiny. Round said he knew him by name of course, although he had never met him, and a very fine fellow he must have been. Was Miss Braddon living at Castleroyal? and Yorke explained that the lady was married to Mr. Peevor, who lived at a place called "The Beeches," about five miles ahead.

"Oh! that's where you are!" cried Teddy, with a long whistle; "Peevor and Hanckes, heh! and a very snug billet too you find it, I'll be bound."

"What do you mean?" asked Yorke, feeling that he was on the brink of a revelation.

"Why, do you mean to say you don't know that you are in the land of balsam? — Peevor and Hanckes, the Clarified Balsam people; that's your Mr. Peevor, of course: fancy your not knowing it!" and while Yorke was silently wondering how such an obvious connection should not have occurred to him, his companion carried on a running commentary on the wealth accruing to the fortunate proprietors of that celebrated patent medicine. "Something like a billet, as I said; wines A 1 and cook first-rate. I dined there once or twice when I was at home the year before last — old Peevor always asks a fellow to dinner if he meets him, you know; but I haven't called this time: my people don't visit at 'The Beeches,' so there is an awkwardness about the thing, you see. It is all dashed nonsense, of course; but women are such sticklers about these matters, and Peevor's being in trade does the mischief."

"I thought everybody was in trade nowadays."

"So they are," retorted Round, "and small blame to them; I ain't a bit proud myself, although I am so extremely well connected; and if you were to strike everything that smacked of the counter out of your visiting-list, you'd have to keep yourself pretty much to yourself down in these parts; but you must draw the line somewhere, and my people draw it at clarified balsam."

"You seem to forget. Master Ted, that Mr. Peevor is a friend of mine."

"All right, my dear fellow," continued the irrepressible captain: "considering that you didn't know who your friend was a minute ago, surely there needn't be any ceremony on the point between old chums like you and me. Not that Peevor isn't a very good sort of fellow, if he wasn't such a walking price-current; but Hanckes the partner is something too awful. You haven't seen Hanckes yet, I suppose — 'Anks, as he calls himself. An uncommon clever fellow is 'Anks, though; it's he who does the clarifying part of the business. Peevor found the money for starting the concern: he began with fifty thousand pounds, which they say he spent in advertising, and now he doesn't know which way to turn, he's so crowded up with money. Balsam has proved a highly remunerative investment, as clarified by the patent process of Peevor and Hanckes, I can tell you. And it's not at all bad stuff, either, especially for horses with sore backs; we used it by the gallon in my battery. The girls are awfully nice too; when ——"

"Now, Teddy, be careful what you are saying — don't presume too far on old acquaintance."

"All right, my dear fellow; you can't have fallen in love with all three of them already, and there can be no harm in telling you that they are good for a plum each, down; that's the figure, I believe, that old Peevor gives out over his wine — and then, of course, he'll cut up for ever so much more. I have often thought of making the running in that quarter myself, for they are really as nice little girls as you would meet anywhere; but somehow I'm not a good hand at that sort of thing — not a lady's man, in fact."

"It is not you, I hope, Edward Round, who have been trifling with Miss Peevor's affections?"

"No, no, my dear fellow; Miss Peevor is a little in the sere and yellow, you know; but Miss Catherine would just do for a soldier's wife, she rides so uncommon well — every bit as well as I do myself. But I see you have heard that story, although you have been only two days in the house. Yes, young Dashwood behaved like a thorough snob, as he is. Mr. Peevor offered to pay off all his debts and to settle fifty thousand on his daughter, but the young scamp broke the thing off at the last moment because the money wasn't to be made over to himself. That was rather too much of a good thing, for he would have been sure to gamble it all away in a year or two. No, he was a thorough bad lot, and the lady was well out of the bargain, for all that he is to come into the title. But I believe the poor girl has taken it very much to heart; she was really fond of the young scapegrace. Dashwood is somewhere abroad now, you know, and will have to stay there as long as his uncle lives. The old lord gives him an allowance, I believe, but won't pay his debts any more. But it was a dreadful blow to poor old Peevor too; he had set his heart on his daughter becoming a peeress.

"Yes, I know the brother a little. He is not a bit like his governor. I fancy he had rather a hard time of it in the —th at first. He used to come in for a lot of chaff about the balsam; but he is a sensible fellow, and the best rider in the regiment, I believe — does all their steeple-chase work for them, in fact, and gets on very well now. But our roads part here. Ta, ta, colonel; I shall come and look you up the first bye-day, and pay my respects to the family;" and so saying, the irrepressible Teddy turned off at the crossroad which led to Castleroyal, while Yorke pursued his course to 'The Beeches" along the road to Hamwell, half ashamed of himself for not having stopped the conversation, and yet pondering with heightened interest over the revelations poured out by his gossiping companion. So this, then, was the mystery: this the cause of the social banishment of his host and family. "And yet," he thought to himself, "how abominably unfair! One meets people every day whose antecedents are not a whit more exalted than those of my worthy friend, and manners not half so good, and yet against whom this absurd bar is not drawn. A man may make money by gambling in shares or on the turf, forsooth, and be received everywhere; yet he is to be cut because he earns his bread by honest balsam. And, after all, Peevor is a gentleman, although he is so much of a walking price-current about his property, and certainly his wife and daughters are ladies. Ladies indeed! I wonder if Master Teddy's sisters deserve the name as well? probably not, from their snobbishness on this very point. And I will be bound they are not half as pretty as little Lucy, or as sweet-tempered. How fond the children are of Lucy! there can be no deception about that part of the business, at any rate. Children are such artless things, the imposition would have been exposed at once if these little endearments had been put on for the occasion. What a loving mother Lucy would make, and loving wife too, if she cared for her husband! True, she doesn't care a bit for me yet; but what right have I to look for love at first sight when I have none to give in return? No; we had better let it be a matter of business on both sides, if it is to be, and let the love come afterwards. And yet it certainly does take the edge off courtship to have the lady offered to you in such an obvious way. The prize would seem better worth winning if there were a little more difficulty and romance in the wooing. But then, what have I to do with romance? I was romantic enough in my young days, and a pretty fool I made of myself. No; romance for me is dead and buried; the most I can look for is to make a home for myself before middle age overtakes me, a hard old bachelor."

Some such ideas as these pursued their course through the rider's mind, Lucy assuming a deeper interest in them as he dwelt on the unjust persecution, as he deemed it, suffered by her and her family, and began to be possessed with an eagerness to constitute himself her champion, when the train of thought was presently interrupted by his overtaking young Peevor and his sisters in the avenue, returning from a row on the river, the young ladies looking bright and flushed with the exercise, and walking along with graceful carriage and light elastic step. The drilling-master, at any rate, if there had been one, was successful with his pupils.

When the rider came up with them there were of course inquiries from Miss Cathy and her brother about the run, while Lucy, shy and nervous, looked straight before her. But on Yorke's dismounting and walking by her side leading his horse, a few slight glances and gentle words sufficed to dispel the clouds which his manner of the morning had left behind; and soon the party, after partaking of the refreshments which Fred ordered to be served in the children's room, were engaged with Minnie and Lottie in a game of ninepins along the lobby outside, till Mr. Peevor, aroused from his nap, came up to see what all the noise and laughter was about, and stood watching the scene — Yorke still in his muddy boots, and the young ladies with their hats on, while Fred with his coat off was giving Lottie a ride on his shoulders — his pleasure at the spectacle only abated by a doubt lest the visitor should think the family deficient in knowledge of the usages of polite society.

When Yorke mentioned at dinner that he had met Captain Round out hunting, Mr. Peevor at once said that he hoped to see him to dinner soon. "Any friend of yours, colonel, will be welcome here, and Captain Round is a very agreeable person. We did not know he was in the neighbourhood, or we should have made a point of inviting him to meet you. Be sure, Charlotte, my love, that you write and ask the captain to dinner for an early day."

The evening of this day was the most lively that Yorke had yet spent at "The Beeches," for Fred had stipulated that no visitors should be asked to dinner, and cutting short his father's usual recommendations of the wine by observing that they were none of them drinking any, proposed an immediate adjournment to the drawing-room. Here Mr. Peevor asked for music as usual; and Miss Cathy, nothing loath, sat down and played her little piece: but Lucy, when her turn came, excused herself with a little blush and conscious glance at Yorke. And then Mrs. and Miss Peevor retiring early as usual, and Mr. Peevor declaring he was tired and would go to bed too — as he probably was, since he had been doing nothing all day — the rest adjourned to the billiard-room. An even match could now be arranged, for Fred played as well as Yorke, and the two young ladies equally badly, and to Yorke it fell to teach his partner Lucy how to hold her cue properly. Eight years had passed since such a duty had fallen to him, and how great the contrast between the two cases! Then — how well he remembered the day! — his hand trembled with awe and emotion as he ventured to touch that of Olivia, while she was unmoved and apparently all unconscious of the sensations which affected him so deeply. Now it was his turn to be calm and collected, while the lady was nervous and embarrassed. And, tickled as was his vanity while he noticed his evident power over Lucy, he wondered whether Olivia had in the same way enjoyed her power over him. And if so, was he going to play Lucy false in turn? This question must be seriously answered soon, before matters went much further. And yet was this confusion reality or pretence? Where was his power of fascination that a girl should fall in love with him at three days' sight? This was the sort of food for reflection furnished to Yorke by what passed during that evening, a long one as it turned out; for on their tiring of billiards, Fred declared it was absurd to think of going to bed at eleven o'clock. "There are no stables in the morning to make a fellow get up, and no chance of getting breakfast before ten; what say you, colonel, to teaching the girls whist, and then, Lucy, you will have at least one accomplishment to fall back upon when you are an old maid? "Her brother spoke in joke, but Lucy blushed as she laughed, for she felt that Yorke was looking at her.