Page:010 Once a week Volume X Dec 1863 to Jun 64.pdf/10

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[Dec. 26, 1863.
ONCE A WEEK.

good property, and, as it must come to me by the entail when the worthy baronet is gone, he makes a great point of my spending certain months down there, and acquiring a knowledge of my future duties as a landed proprietor. He is one of the best old fellows going, and, to please him, I strive hard to appear interested in the rotation of crops and the fattening of cattle, and to bestow something more than an uninstructed approval on the improvements he is making in the property. At any rate, I flatter myself I succeed in listening with an air of intelligent interest when he discourses on matters agricultural and bucolic, and perhaps that answers the purpose equally well.

It isn't a very lively place, Guestford, and Sir Ralph, who in his time had tasted the "delight of battle with his peers," and by no means overrated the local attractions, had always given me carte blanche to bring down any friend I could lay hands on to enliven my stay. I had known Norman well—few men better—nearly all my life, from the time when I was his fag at Harrow, but as yet he had never been with me to Guestford. It was much too quiet a place to suit him, I thought; he was not at all the man for ruralising, and only found the country endurable when it came in the shape of an admirably appointed great house full of pleasant people: but at last he really was my companion to stay as long as he found it suit him, and it fell out thus:—

The season had been unusually pleasant. Our advance in civilisation was markedly shown in the increased facilities presented for getting rid of money, and of most of these I, like a true "heir of all the ages," had freely availed myself. A month or so at Ems and Wiesbaden had completed the business, and, towards the end of September, I found myself under the necessity of seeking the bowers of Guestford several weeks sooner than I had intended. I had to stay a few days in town on my way, and the evening of my arrival, the first man I saw in the dining-room of the almost deserted club was Norman.

"My dear fellow," said he, "we don't know the true value of a friend till we are in adversity, or in London in September. I am unfeignedly glad to see you."

I thought he was at that moment off the coast of Algeria in Lord Stillbrook's yacht, and told him so.

"Stillbrook isn't going," said he. "Stillbrook is in love, or thinks so, which comes to the same thing. He has been trying every means to get up a consuming passion any time these three years, but never came across any woman who encouraged him enough to give him a decent pretext, so now his delight is childish. But, for all that, he had no right to throw us over at the last minute."

"Why did he not send you all off, and stay behind?"

"Of course, that arrangement would have suited everybody, and so Dick Scarsdale pointed out to him; but it seems the lady is staying somewhere in North Wales, on the coast, and Stillbrook thinks the possession of a yacht will add to his attractions. I suggested he should marry her at once, and bring her with us for the honeymoon; but he didn't seem to see that at all: in fact, he got quite angry at last, and said he didn't know why he hadn't as good a right to his own way as we had. Of course we demolished such a manifestly untenable proposition in no time."

"No doubt," laughed I; "but such amazing energy of self-assertion is something quite new for Stillbrook."

"Isn't it odd?" said Norman, musingly; "it seems so obviously the final cause of Stillbrook to provide yachts and such things for men like Scarsdale and me, who can't keep. them ourselves, that it quite shocks one to see a man flying in the face of Providence in that way. I believe Scarsdale urged this very forcibly after I had gone, but failed to make any impression. His heart was hardened."

"It is very sad," said I; "but, meanwhile, what do you mean to do with yourself?"

"Can't say, I'm sure. I've refused several invitations already, because I had made up my mind to go with Stillbrook, and now, as the Fates seem to have pronounced against my enjoying myself, I almost think I shall accept their bidding. I can't stay longer up here; that is too much; but I shall go down to some quiet seaside place, and read and write for awhile. I have plenty to do in that way, and can easily occupy myself till better times return."

"You can do better than that," said I; "I am going down to Guestford the day after to-morrow. Come with me; it will be a personal favour to me. Sir Ralph will be charmed to make your acquaintance, and you can indulge in scholastic retirement to your heart's content." And so it was finally settled.

And here a few words on John Norman. He was a little my senior, and at the time I am writing of must have been about thirty. He had been called to the bar some years previously, but, as far as I know, had never done anything in his profession; but he wrote a good deal in an uncertain way, and by this means eked out a slender private fortune.