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首页 » 经典英文小说 » A Strange World » CHAPTER XVIII. 'WHAT GREAT ONES DO, THE LESS WILL PRATTLE OF.'
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CHAPTER XVIII. 'WHAT GREAT ONES DO, THE LESS WILL PRATTLE OF.'
A year had gone by since James Penwyn met his death by the lonely river at Eborsham, and again Maurice Clissold spent his summer holiday in a walking tour. This time he was quite alone. Pleasant and social though he was, he did not make friendships lightly or quickly. In the year that was gone he had found no friend to replace James Penwyn. He had plenty of agreeable acquaintances, knew plenty of men who were glad to dine with him or to give him a dinner. He was famous already, in a small way, at the literary club where he spent many of his evenings when he was in London, and men liked to hear him talk, and prophesied fair things for his future as a man of letters, all the more surely because he was not called upon to write for bread, but could follow the272 impulse that moved him, and wait, were it ever so long, for the moment of inspiration; never forced to spur the jaded steed, or work the too willing horse to death.

Not one among the comrades he liked well enough for a jovial evening, or a cosy dinner, had crept into his heart like the lad he had sworn to cherish in the ears of a dying woman five years ago. So when the roses were in bloom, and London began to look warm and dusty, and the parks had faded a little from their vernal green, Maurice Clissold set forth alone upon a voyage of adventure, with a pocket Shakespeare and a quire or so of paper in his battered, old leathern knapsack, and just so much clothing and linen as might serve him for his travels.

Needless to say that he avoided that northern city of Eborsham, where such sudden grief had come upon him, and all that route which he had trodden only a year ago with the light-hearted, hopeful lad who now slept his sweetest sleep in one of the vaults at Kensal Green, beside the mother he had loved and mourned.

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Instead of northward, to the land of lakes and mountains, Maurice went due west. Many a time had he and James Penwyn talked of the days they were to spend together down at the old place in Cornwall, and behold! that visit to Penwyn Manor, deferred in order that James should see the Lake country, was destined never to be paid. Never were those two to walk together by the Atlantic, never to scale Tintagel's rugged height, or ramble among the rocks of Bude.

Maurice had a curious fancy for seeing the old home from which death had ousted James Penwyn. He might have gone as a visitor to the Manor House had he pleased, for Churchill had been extremely civil to him when they last met at the funeral, and had promised him a hearty welcome to Penwyn whenever he liked to come there; but Mr. Clissold infinitely preferred to go as an unknown pedestrian—knapsack on shoulder—having first taken the trouble to ascertain that Churchill Penwyn and his beautiful young wife were in London, where they had, for this season, a furnished house in Upper Brook Street. He saw their names in the list of274 guests at a fashionable reception, and knew that the coast would be clear, and that he could roam about the neighbourhood of his dead friend's ancestral home without let or hindrance. He went straight to Plymouth by an express train, crossed the Tamar, and pursued his journey on foot, at a leisurely pace, lingering at all the prettiest spots—now spending a day or two at some rustic wayside inn—sketching a little, reading a little, writing a little, thinking and dreaming a great deal.

It was an idle fancy that had brought him here, and he gave a free rein to all other idle fancies that seized him by the way. It was a morbid fancy, perhaps, for it must needs be but a melancholy pleasure, at best, to visit the domain which his friend had never enjoyed, to remember so many boyish schemes unfulfilled, so many bright hopes snapped short off by the shears of Atropos.

The long blue line of sea, and the wide moorland were steeped in the golden light of a midsummer afternoon when Maurice drew near Penwyn Manor. The scene was far more lonely than he had imagined it. Measureless ocean stretched before him, melting275 into the hazy summer sky—sea and heaven so near of a colour that it was hard to tell where the water ended and the sky began—measureless hills around him—and, except the white sheep yonder, making fleecy dots upon the side of the topmost hill, no sign of life. He had left the village of Penwyn behind him by a good two miles, but had not yet come in sight of the Manor House, though he had religiously followed the track pointed out to him by the hostess of the little inn—a mere cottage—where he left his knapsack, and where he had been respectfully informed that he could not have a bed.

'At the worst I can sleep on the lee side of one of these hills,' he said to himself. 'It can hardly be very cold, even at night, in this western climate.'

He walked a little further on, upon a narrow footpath high above the sea level. On his right hand there were wide corn-fields, with here and there an open tract of turnip or mangold; on his left only the wild moorland pastures, undulating like a sea of verdure. The ground had dipped a276 little while ago, and as it rose again, with a gentle ascent, Maurice Clissold saw the chimney-stacks of the Manor House between him and the sea.

It was a substantial-looking house, built of greyish stone, a long low building, with grounds that stretched to the edge of the cliff, sheltered by a belt of fir and evergreen oak. The blue sea showed in little patches of gleaming colour through the dark foliage, and the spicy odour of the pines perfumed the warm, still air. In its utter loneliness the house had a gloomy look, despite the grandeur of its situation, on this bold height above the sea. The grounds were extensive, but to Maurice Clissold they seemed somewhat barren; orderly, beyond doubt, and well timbered, but lacking the smiling fertility, the richness of ornament, which a student of Horace and Pliny desired in his ideal garden.

But Mr. Clissold did not make acquaintance with the inside of the shrubbery or gardens without some little difficulty. His footpath led him ultimately into a villanous high road, just in front of the gates of Penwyn, so the landlady of the village inn had not sent him astray. There was a lodge beside the277 gate, a square stone cottage, covered with myrtle, honeysuckle, and roses, from which emerged an elderly female, swarthy of aspect, her strongly marked countenance framed in a frill cap, which gave an almost grotesque look to that tawny visage.

'Can I see the house and grounds, ma'am?' asked Maurice, approaching this somewhat grim-looking personage with infinite civility.

He had a vague idea that he must have seen that face before, or imagined it in a dream, so curiously did it remind him of some past occasion in his life—what, he knew not.

'The house is never shown to strangers,' answered the woman.

'I know Mr. Penwyn, and will leave my card for him.'

'You'd better apply to the housekeeper. As to the grounds, my granddaughter will take you round, if you like.—Elspeth,' called the woman, and a black-eyed girl of twelve appeared at the cottage door, like a sprite at a witch's summons.

'Take this gentleman round the gardens,' said278 the old woman, and vanished, before Maurice could quite make up his mind as to whether he had seen a face like that in actual flesh and blood or only on a painter's canvas.

The girl, who had an impish look, he thought, with her loose black locks, scarlet petticoat, and scanty scarlet shawl pinned tightly across her bony shoulders, led the way through a wild-looking shrubbery, where huge blocks of granite lay among the ferns, which grew with rank luxuriance between the straight pine-stems. A sandy path wound in and out among trees and shrubs, till Maurice and his guide emerged upon a spacious lawn at the back of the house, whose many windows blinked at them, shining in the western sun. There were no flower-beds on the lawn, but there was a small square garden, in the Dutch style, on one side of the house, and a bowling-green on the other. A terraced walk stretched in front of the windows, raised three or four feet above the level of the lawn, and guarded by a stone balustrade somewhat defaced by time. A fine old sun-dial marked the centre of the Dutch garden, where the geometrical flower-beds were neatly279 kept, and where Maurice found a couple of gardeners, elderly men both, at work, weeding and watering in a comfortable, leisurely manner.

'What a paradise for the aged!' thought Maurice; 'the woman at the lodge was old, the gardeners are old, everything about the place is old, except this impish girl, who looks the oldest of all, with her evil black eyes and vinegar voice.'

Mr. Clissold had not come so far without entering into conversation with the damsel. He had asked her a good many questions about the place, and the people to whom it belonged. But her answers were of the briefest, and she affected the profoundest ignorance about everything and everybody.

'You've not been here very long, I suppose, my girl,' he said at last, with some slight sense of irritation, 'or you'd know a little more about the place.'

'I haven't been here much above six months.'

'Oh! But your grandmother has lived here all her life, I dare say?'

'No, she hasn't. Grandmother came when I did.'

'And where did you both come from?'

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'Foreign parts,' answered the girl.

'Indeed! you both speak very good English for people who come from abroad.'

'I didn't say we were foreigners, did I?' asked the girl, pertly. 'If you want to ask any more questions about the place or the people, you'd better ask 'em of the housekeeper, Mrs. Darvis; and if you want to see the house you must ask lief of her; and this is the door you'd better ring at, if you want to see her.'

They were at one end of the terrace, and opposite a half-glass door which opened into a small and darksome lobby, where the effigies of a couple of ill-used ancestors frowned from the dusky walls, as if indignant at being placed in so obscure a corner. Maurice rang the bell, and after repeating that operation more than once, and waiting with consummate patience for the result, he was rewarded by the appearance of an elderly female, homely, fresh-coloured, comfortable-looking, affording altogether an agreeable contrast to the tawny visage of the lodge-keeper, whose countenance had given the traveller an unpleasant feeling about Penwyn Manor.

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Mr. Clissold stated his business, and after spelling over his card and deliberating a little, Mrs. Darvis consented to admit him, and to show him the house.

'We used to show it to strangers pretty freely till the new Squire came into possession,' she said, 'but he's rather particular. However, if you're a friend of his——'

'I know him very well; and poor James Penwyn was my most intimate friend.'

'Poor Mr. James! I never saw him but once, when he came down to see the place soon after the old Squire's death. Such a frank, open-hearted young gentleman, and so free-spoken. It was a terrible blow to all of us down here when we read about the murder. Not but what the present Mr. Penwyn is a liberal master and a kind landlord, and a good friend to the poor. There couldn't be a better gentleman for Penwyn.'

'I am glad to hear you give him so good a character,' said Maurice.

The girl Elspeth had followed him into the house, uninvited, and stood in the background, open-eyed,282 with her thin lips drawn tightly together, listening intently.

'As for Mrs. Penwyn,' said the housekeeper, 'why, she's a lady in a thousand! She might be a queen, there's something so grand about her. Yet she's so affable that she couldn't pass one of the little children at the poor school without saying a kind word; and so thoughtful for the poor that they've no need to tell her their wants, she provides for them beforehand.'

'A model Lady Bountiful,' exclaimed Maurice.

'You may run home to your grandmother, Elspeth,' said Mrs. Darvis.

'I was to show the gentleman the grounds,' answered the damsel, 'he hasn't half seen 'em yet.'

In her devotion to the service she had undertaken, the girl followed at their heels through the house, absorbing every word that was said by Mrs. Darvis or the stranger.

The house was old, and somewhat gloomy, belonging to the Tudor school of architecture. The heavy stonework of the window-frames, the lozenge-shaped283 mullions, the massive cross-bars, were eminently adapted to exclude light. Even what light the windows did admit was in many places tempered by stained glass emblazoned with the arms and mottoes of the Penwyn family, in all its ramifications, showing how it had become entangled with other families, and bore the arms of heiresses on its shield, until that original badge, which Sir Thomas Penwyn, the crusader, had first carried atop of his helmet, was almost lost among the various devices in a barry of eight.

The rooms were spacious, but far from lofty, the chimney-pieces of carved oak and elaborate workmanship, the paneling between mantel-board and ceiling richly embellished, and over all the principal chimney-pieces appeared the Penwyn arms and motto, 'J'attends.'

There was much old tapestry, considerably the worse for wear, for the house had been sorely neglected during that dreary interval between the revolution and the days of George the Third, when the Penwyn family had fallen into comparative poverty, and the fine old mansion had been little284 better than a farmhouse. Indeed, brawny agricultural labourers had eaten their bacon and beans and potato pasty in the banqueting hall, now the state dining-room, handsomely furnished with plain and massive oaken furniture by the old Squire, Churchill's grandfather.

This room was one of the largest in the house, and looked towards the sea. Drawing-room, music-room, library, and boudoir were on the garden side, with windows opening on the terrace. The drawing-room and boudoir had been refurnished by Churchill, since his marriage.

'The old Squire kept very little company, and hardly ever went inside any of those rooms,' said Mrs. Darvis. 'In summer he used to sit in the yew-tree bower, on the bowling-green, after dinner; and in winter he used to smoke his pipe in the steward's room, mostly, and talk to his bailiff. The dining-room was the only large room he ever used, so when Mr. Churchill Penwyn came he found the drawing-room very bare of furniture, and what there was was too shabby for his taste, so he had that and the boudoir furnished, after the old style, by a London285 upholsterer, and put a grand piano and a harmonium in the music-room; and the drawing-room tapestry is all new, made by the Goblins, Mrs. Penwyn told me, which, I suppose, was only her fanciful way of putting it.'

The dame opened the door as she spoke, and admitted Maurice into this sacred apartment, where the chairs and sofas were shrouded with holland.

The tapestry was an exquisite specimen of that patient art. Its subject was the story of Arion. The friendly dolphin, and the blue summer sea, the Greek sailors, Periander's white-walled palace, lived upon the work. Triangular cabinets of carved ebony adorned the corners of the room, and were richly furnished with the Bellingham bric-a-brac, the only dower Sir Nugent had been able to give his daughter. The chairs and sofas, from which Mrs. Darvis lifted a corner of the holland covering for the visitor's gratification, were of the same dark wood, upholstered with richest olive-green damask, of medi?val diaper pattern. Window-curtains of the same sombre hue harmonized admirably with the brighter colours of the tapestry. The floor was darkest oak, only covered286 in the centre with a Persian carpet. The boudoir, which opened out of the drawing-room, was furnished in exactly the same style, only here the tapestried walls told the story of Hero and Leander.

'I believe it was all Mrs. Penwyn's taste,' said the housekeeper, when Maurice had admired everything. '"Her rooms upstairs are a picture—nothing of character with the house," the head upholsterer said. "There's so few ladies have got any notion of character," he says. "They'll furnish an old manor-house with flimsy white and gold of the Lewis Quince style, only fit for a drawing-room in the Shamps Eliza; and if you ask them why, they'll say because it's fashionable, and they like it. Mrs. Penwyn is an artist," says the upholsterer's foreman.'

Maurice did not hurry his inspection, finding the housekeeper communicative, and the place full of interest. He heard a great deal about the old Squire, Nicholas Penwyn, who had reigned for forty years, and for whom his dependants had evidently felt a curious mixture of fear, respect, and affection.

'He was a just man,' said Mrs. Darvis, 'but stern;287 and it was but rarely he forgave any one that once offended him. It took a good deal to offend him, you know, sir; but when he did take offence, the wound rankled deep. I've heard our old doctor say the Squire had bad flesh for healing. He never got on very well with his eldest son, Mr. George, though he was the handsomest of the three brothers, and the best of them too, to my mind.'

'What made them disagree?' asked Maurice. They had made the round of the house by this time, and the traveller had seated himself comfortably on a broad window-seat in the entrance hall, a window through which the setting sun shone bright and warm. Mrs. Darvis sat on a carved oak bench by the fireplace, resting after her unwonted exertions. Elspeth stood at a respectful distance, her arms folded demurely in her little red shawl, listening to the housekeeper's discourse.

'Well, you see, sir,' returned Mrs. Darvis, in her slow, methodical way, 'the old Squire would have liked Mr. George to stop at home, and take an interest in the estate, for he was always adding something to the property, and his heart and mind288 were wrapped up in it, as you may say. Folks might call him a miser, but it was not money he cared for; it was land, and to add to the importance of the family, and to bring the estate back to what it had been when this house was built. Now Mr. George didn't care about staying at home. It was a lazy, sleepy kind of life, he said, and he had set his heart upon going into the army. The Squire gave way at last, and bought Mr. George a commission, but it was in a foot regiment, and that went rather against the grain with the young gentleman, for he wanted to go into the cavalry. So they didn't part quite so cordial like as they might have done when Mr. George joined his regiment and went out to India.'

'You were here at the time, I suppose?'

'Lord love you, sir, I was almost born here. My mother was housekeeper before me. She was the widow of a tradesman in Truro, very respectably connected. Mrs. Penwyn, the Squire's lady, took me for her own maid when I was only sixteen years of age, and I nursed her all through her last illness twelve years afterwards, and when my poor mother289 died I succeeded her as housekeeper, and I look forward to dying in the same room where she died, and where I've slept for the last twenty years, when my own time comes, please God.'

'So the Squire and his eldest son parted bad friends?'

'Not exactly bad friends, sir; but there was a coolness between them; anybody could see that. Mr. George—or the Captain, as we used generally to call him after he went into the army—hadn't been gone a twelvemonth before there was a quarrel between the Squire and his second son, Mr. Balfour, on account of the young gentleman marrying beneath him, according to his father's ideas. The lady was a brewer's daughter, and the Squire said Mr. Balfour was the first Penwyn who had ever degraded himself by marrying trade. Mr. Balfour was not much above twenty at the time, but he took a high hand about the matter, and never came to Penwyn Manor after his marriage.'

'How was it that the eldest son never married?' asked Maurice.

'Ah, sir, "thereby hangs a tale," as the saying290 is. Mr. George came home from India after he'd been away above ten years, and had distinguished himself by his good conduct and his courage, people told me who had read his name in the papers during the war. He looked handsomer than ever, I thought, when he came home, though he was browned by the sun; and he was just as kind and pleasant in his manner as he had been when he was only a lad. Well, sir, the Squire seemed delighted to have him back again, and made a great deal of him. They were always together about the place, and the Squire would lean on his son's arm sometimes, when he had walked a long way and was a trifle tired. It was the first time any one had ever seen him accept anybody's support. They used to sit over their wine together of an evening, talking and laughing, and as happy as father and son could be together. All of us—we were all old servants—felt pleased to see it; for we were all fond of Mr. George, and looked to him as our master in days to come.'

'And pray how long did this pleasant state of things endure?'

'Two or three months, sir; and then all at once291 we saw a cloud. Mr. George began to go out shooting early in the morning—it was the autumn season just then—and seldom came home till dark; and the Squire seemed silent and grumpy of an evening. None of us could guess what it all meant, for we had heard no high words between the two gentlemen, till all at once, by some roundabout way, which I can't call to mind now, the mystery came out. There was an elderly gentleman living at Morgrave Park, a fine old place on the other side of Penwyn village, with an only daughter, an heiress, and very much thought of. Mr. Morgrave and his daughter had been over to luncheon two or three times since Mr. George came home, and he and the Squire had dined at Morgrave Park more than once; and I suppose Miss Morgrave and our Mr. George had met at other places, for they seemed quite friendly and intimate. She was a fine-looking young lady, but rather masculine in her ways—very fond of dogs and horses, and such like, and riding to hounds all the season through. But whatever she did was right, according to people's notions, on account of her being an heiress.'

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'And George Penwyn had fallen in love with this dashing young lady?'

'Not a bit of it, sir. It came to our knowledge, somehow, that the Squire wanted Mr. George to marry her, and had some reason to believe that the young lady would say "yes," if he asked her. But Mr. George didn't like her. She wasn't his style, he said; at which the Squire was desperately angry. "Join Penwyn and Morgrave, and you'll have the finest estate in the county," he said, "an estate fit for a nobleman. A finer property than the Penwyns owned in the days of James the First." Mr. George wouldn't listen. "I see what it is," the Squire cried, in a rage, "you want to disgrace me by some low marriage, to marry a shopkeeper's daughter, like your brother Balfour. But, by heavens! if you do, I'll alter my will, and leave the estate away from my race! It didn't matter so much in Balfour's case, neither he nor his are ever likely to be masters here, but I won't stand rebellion from you! I won't have a pack of kennel-born mongrels rioting here when I'm mouldering in my grave!"'

'What a sweet old gentleman!'

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'Mr. George swore that he had no thought of making a low marriage, no thought of marrying at all yet awhile. He was happy enough as he was, he said, but he wouldn't marry a woman he didn't like, even to please his father. So they went on pretty quietly together for a little while after this, the Squire grumpy, but not saying much. And then Mr. George went up to London, and from there he went to join his regiment in Ireland, where they were stationed after they came from India, and he was about at different places for two or three years, during which time Miss Morgrave got married to a nobleman, much to the Squire's vexation. But I'm afraid I'm tiring you, sir, with such a long story.'

'Not at all. I like to hear it.'

'Well, Mr. George came back one summer. He was home on leave for a little while before he went on foreign service, and he and the Squire were pretty friendly again. It was a very hot summer, and Mr. George used to spend most of his time out of doors, fishing or idling away the days somehow. The Squire had a bad attack of gout that year, and was kept pretty close in his room. You couldn't expect294 a young man to sit indoors all day, of course, but I've often wondered what Master George could find to amuse him among these solitary hills of ours, or down among the rocks by the sea. He stayed all through the summer, however, and seemed happy enough, and at the beginning of the winter he went away to join his regiment, which was ordered off to Canada. I was thankful to remember afterwards that he and the Squire parted good friends.'

'Why?' asked Maurice.

'Because they were never to meet again. Mr. George was killed in a fight with the savages six months after he went away. I remember the letter coming that brought the news one fine summer evening. The Squire was standing in this hall, just by that window, when Miles, the old butler, gave him the letter. He just read the beginning of it, and fell down as if he had been struck dead. It was his first stroke of apoplexy, and he was never quite the same afterwards, though he was a wonderful old gentleman to the last.'

END OF VOL. I.


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